Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Praise of Step Moms, on Mother's Day

Stepmothers get bad press, even from those of us in a collective rush to pat ourselves on the back for our modern family outlook.  Yesterday at Target, I looked for a stepmom card in the Mother's Day section, and had to revert to the blank card section.  Hard to believe Hallmark hasn't caught up.

The stepmom in my life is not my own, but that of my children. We're not friends, as she is married to a man I once was. That would be, I think we'd both agree, weird. We don't even know each other that well. Yet I am grateful every single day for her presence in my kids' lives.

My own mom had a stepmother who didn't do much to disabuse the stereotype.  Their uneasy relationship marked her own with me and with that of my former husband and the children we had together.  A couple of Christmases ago, we ran into my former husband and his wife in the parking lot at the local grocery store.  I was buying last-minute items and when I came out all the hellos had been said and we headed off.  Later, my mother told me, tears in her eyes, that stepmom had jumped out of the car and embraced the children, to their mutual delight.  "If She had ever done that with me, my life would have been so different," my mother said, shaking her head with simultaneous disbelief and happiness.

This past October I went to China for a work trip.  As luck would have it, two days before I was to leave my son had an asthma flareup for the first time in three years. Back when the kids were small and I travelled rarely, I used to say that someone always started throwing up when I drove through the gates of DFW airport.  It seemed their dad spent all of my few trips away at the pediatrician's office.  With that burden of guilt as I headed into this voyage, I ran through the San Francisco airport towards the international terminal and called to see how The Boy was doing.  He was with stepmom at the office of that same pediatrician.  They'd gotten some steroids and when I talked to him, he had that cough that instantly makes me feel I'd bargain with devil to take it away.

This wasn't an optional trip.  I said it sounded silly but if I'd been somewhere in the US, I wouldn't feel so helpless.  But I was going to be half a world away.  "I know it's hard, but I'll take good care of him," she said. "I know." I did. I hung up before she heard me burst into tears. I was heartbroken to leave but recognized how extraordinarily blessed I am for this kind, loving woman who had voluntarily taken my children into her life and her heart.

I am an only child and don't share with ease.  In the early days of co-parenting, we would hand off on Sundays, which meant I could wrap up my weekend and get off to a fresh start to work.  After a legal wrangle a couple of years ago, we switched against my wishes to Monday mornings.  I wake at the start of every other week with a wooden heart; after I drive away from the carpool line, I inevitably shed tears at leaving the two dearest souls on earth to me.

Last Mother's Day, the kids arrived with a beautifully wrapped package for me.  It was a flower vase  I would have picked out on my own.  It came from a store I know we don't have in Fort Worth, so it was clear that stepmom had to spend some time ahead picking it out.  I sent her a text to thank her, and she wrote back, "I'm glad you like it.  The kids thought you would. Happy Mother's Day."  Yesterday, my daughter and I went to pick out a little something for her.  The kids love her and I hope she is reminded of that.

Stepmothers (and stepfathers, lest I forget) often haul a good share of the water in child-rearing, but get little credit in our society. So to all the people with the stickers on their cars with the Perfect Family--the Dad, the Mom, the three kids, all holding hands--I have a message.  Not all of us get the life we had planned. We can sit around pointing fingers at society or each other or blaming ourselves.  Or we can open heart our hearts to what grace we receive and take every opportunity to raise our children with consistent love.  And that's pretty good. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Alone?

To relieve, they might tell you, the bleak depths of mid-February, the Hallmark card company chose to manufacture a holiday. This sadistic ritual is designed to make all but the newly-besotted want to retreat under the bedcovers and forget about it. 

Men in relationships navigate it the best they can and envy those who aren't paired up and who can go out to sports bars and ramp up for March madness, beer in hand. Women, even cerebral, sensible types, feel slighted when the event is mismanaged or ignored altogether. A friend of mine whose teenaged son told her a few years ago that his new girlfriend had said she thought V-Day was silly and she didn't need him to get her anything, grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him in the eyes and said, "She's lying. Let's go to the store. Now."  Anyone who thinks being a man is easy in this age knows not of what she speaks.

Females who are, God forbid, unpaired, feel the full brunt of our couple-oriented culture.  Mercifully, I am a couple of decades past the remorseless June wedding seasons of the early post-college years.  Of course I was a smug married at 23 and no doubt made more than a few thoughtless comments to my-then single friends, who later made good marriages. Divorced at forty, I've got proof on this count that karma really is a bitch. 

I really do think the whole thing is silly.  Until I read articles like the one in yesterday's Washington Post. It's titled, "Some people never find the love of their lives. And live to tell about it." and so billed as a thoughtful take on the whole romantic myth.  But it ends up being a sad story about a woman who, despite her many qualities, hasn't found love and is in her fifties.  Reading it put me in a foul temper that lasted until cocktail hour, when a bunch of friends came over for wine and spirited discussion before we all went off to a school fundraiser.

Not finding love, as far as mainstream American culture goes, means not being married, or living alone.  For my own part, I have found living alone is much less lonely than living in an unhappy union.  In Eric Klinenberg's book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, the sociologist looks at what 31 million real adult Americans are doing: living alone because they can afford it and they want to. They are not, by and large, recluses or misfits but people who have good jobs and are engaged in their communities, with wide circles of friends.

Last month, Dominique Browning wrote a piece (click here to read) about her independent existence. She noted that women don't worry much about living solo and in fact enjoy its freedom: "Single women love not having to get permission to spend our own money on a 10th pair of black boots or a painting or a wood stove."  I'll cop to loving that.  Once, not long after my divorce was final, I heard a smartly-dressed young woman, sporting a large diamond, in a store looking at a dress she clearly wanted. "Oh, I can't," she sighed to her friend. "I'd get in trouble."  I was thrilled at the sudden thought that my money was now mine alone to save or squander.

The subtitle of Browning's article was "Why Men Can't Live Alone," which no doubt garnered the Times many readers but also sent her plenty of criticism.  Although I know many men, including my former husband, who could simply not stand to be without continuous company, I've had the pleasure of knowing a number who are happily building their own independent lives. I happen to be dating one of them.

We live nearly 1,500 miles apart.  Every day we talk or text or write to one another, and in the past four months we've seen one another every few weeks.  It's fun because we carve out time from both of our admittedly crazy schedules and find time to just be together.  So it's not what traditionally-married people would call "real." So far, though, we've been through me being sick, forgetting where we parked the car, and a pretty significant disagreement.  All okay.  A month ago I went to work for a few days at my firm's San Francisco office, and he dropped me off in the mornings and called to see when I was wrapping up work in the evening. I'd walk out of the office building and he'd be there. We'd go back to his loft, where he poured us a glass of wine and we talked of our respective days, then went out for dinner.  He spent a weekend at my house recently, and we did pretty much what I always do: sleep in, walk the dog, go to my favorite market, cook a good dinner, and read.  It was a couple of days of deep, quiet contentment for both of us.

That alone made me very, very happy.  We both are veterans of long marriages, his much longer than mine, so we know how to do this.  And yet I wonder if I could do it every day.  Of course I live with the kids at least half the time, and we work it out.  And SF man is, like me, a person who likes order and is very tidy. No wet towels to pick up with him, no beer cans lying about that I must put in the bin with gritted teeth.  We are kind to one another and content in conversation and comfortable silence.

We'll see where it goes, but we've talked about it and neither of us is in a hurry to head back to marriage or even cohabitation.  We're still getting to know each, and are both happy that each has an independent life. 

This evening I sit in my house where I've chosen and placed the furniture and hung the the pictures myself, where I damn well wanted them. The dinner I hankered for earlier in the day to is simmering.  Tonight the television stays off  and I will get back into the novel I was reading this afternoon, before I took an impromptu nap. I'll enjoy the next twelve hours before the dog must be walked and work beckons and the children land home with all that demands.  And just because, I've just sent SF man an Amazon order of my favorite memoir, and he says there is something coming to my house via FedEx.  Not that we believe in manufactured holidays.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Proust Smackdown--Questions to Ponder

This month's Vanity Fair is a particularly good issue, with articles about an artist who fathered 14 children, died at the age of 88, is the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and whose last lover entered his life near the end and was a half-century his junior. It also publishes, with both pride and sadness, the last of Christopher Hitchens' columns for the magazine.

The three men on the cover--George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Daniel Craig--were, I won't lie, what made me pick it up. And the interview to which each submits seemed like a good idea for me, and maybe for you. So here are my answers to what is evidently a standard set of questions from Marcel Proust, whose work I've never read so apologies to those who have:

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Warmth, fine conversation, good food and wine. All after a day of pleasant exertions. What is your greatest fear? Wasting my time on earth.
Who is the living person you admire most? My daughter.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? I interrupt people while they are still speaking.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? The certainty they have everyone else's life figured out on the basis of their own experience.
What is the most overrated virtue? Modesty.
Which words and phrases do you most overuse? "Apparently." "Really?" "Shit."
Which talent would you most like to have? I'd be an actress. A good one.
What is your greatest extravagance? Skincare.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd stop worrying I don't measure up and just get on with it.
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? We'd understand one another better.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? My ability to adapt in foreign circumstances. If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? An heiress with disinterested parents.
What is your most treasured possession? A photograph of my children when my youngest was four days old.
What is your favorite journey? The flight west across America at sunset.  The daylight is perpetually fading but never disappears.
When/where were you happiest? The first time I heard my children laugh together.
What quality do you admire most in a man? Curiousity.
What quality do you admire most in a woman? A complete disregard for the opinions of others.
What do you most value in your friends? The things they teach me.
Where would you most like to live? A place where I finally don't feel like an outsider. Though that might take a lot of fun out of my day.
Who are your favorite writers? Joan Didion, Julia Reed, Amy Bloom. Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Inez Victor, from Didion's Democracy.
Who are your heroes in real life? Anyone who deals with the stuff the rest of us wish to avoid.  Cops, nurses, hospice workers, funeral directors, people who dive in searches for bodies.
What is it that you most dislike? People who are angry but haven't considered their real reasons for being so. How would you like to die? In a way that causes the people I love the least amount of pain.
What is your motto? To quote the Dixie Chicks, "I'm takin' the long way around."

If you are game, post your own answers in the comments section.