The politics of divorce and death

English: Still shot from 1914 silent film, Sho...

Still shot from 1914 silent film, “Should A Woman Divorce? ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mom, you should talk to dad.”

This is Girl from the West — a young woman made tall by high heels, and made to look in charge with hair pulled into a tight knot atop her head — greeting me as I arrived. After a few minutes of small talk, she nudges me toward a man I barely see or speak to since our parting nearly 15 years ago.

So I inhale, exhale, square my shoulders and walk to the front of the room, wrapped in a little more insecurity than I would like. I feel a bit like a child summoned to the front of the class for tardiness.

In the hour I spend there, with my current spouse and Girl from the East nearby, I am not able to snare my ex-husband, because that is what it feels like, a hunting expedition. I try to part the sea of people between us. He keeps himself inside tight circles, enclosed in embraces and engaged in intimate conversation. It’s been our dance for years. Was he avoiding me? I don’t know.

While siblings, aunts, uncles and neighbors greet me, his longtime partner ignores me. I leave feeling a little confused.

It’s all so confusing. My ex-husband’s mother died this week. The woman who once was my other mother, who served as one of Girl from the West’s main caretakers through those precious and needy years, which also were in some part the divorce and single parenting years, the remarriage and second child years, and the polite wave and small talk at school concert years.  She did more for all of us than we probably deserved. I don’t think I ever thanked her.

What are the rules in a situation like this anyway? What are the boundaries?

Only twice in the last decade have I had this much contact. Six months ago we gathered under a park pavilion on a sticky summer afternoon to celebrate Girl from the West’s high school graduation. It seemed on that bright day that all had been forgiven. Six months before the party, I’d had coffee with her, when we came as close as we ever would to closure.

In the black hours before dawn when Girl from the West received the call, when she could not process the sudden death of her grandmother, who’d been ill but recovering, and between fretting about her making the long drive across the cold, dark city, I wondered about my role in all this. It seemed like a selfish, but necessary, thought.

In the end, I let my daughter write the role for me.

At the funeral, I sat in the back with the other ex-spouses. We attended all the rites, but kept to the sidelines. Silently, I thanked my first mother-in-law for her selfless duty. I asked for forgiveness.  After all, she cared deeply for my child and did so much to give her a good life. My ex-husband, for whatever I think of him and how distant we are, is now a man without living parents.  I acknowledged the gravity and inevitability of that, too.

At the end,  I finally connected with my former spouse. I stopped trying and it came naturally. We had eye contact, we embraced. He wept. I felt his pain. I felt a compassion buried for almost two decades. I discovered my own grief.

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Sorry …

Sorry, I'm a bit of a flake.

“Can’t you just e-mail me with this stuff?”

Words coated in ice, slippery with sleet, sliding down my sensitive little back. They don’t roll off and shatter at my feet. They stick at the small of my back.

My ex-husband — father of my Girl from the West, a beautiful young woman now who reached legal age this week — chose these words in response to my phone call on our daughter’s birthday. This is what he had to say when I summoned the courage to call him to say, Hey! Our baby is all grown up. Imagine that?

I was being maudlin, thinking of that winter-storm level snow day in 1994, tethered to that hospital bed, hooked up to countless monitors and a pitocin drip, waiting for this unknown quantity to blast into our lives. And now, here she is, fully grown and ready to take on the world.

Of course, I know better than to just dial up without a good reason. He is not a chatterbox type. I called to discuss what to do about her medical insurance, college loan applications, and the like. I thought I’d lead in with the obvious, to rise above the politics of our divorce.

Sorry …

I retold the story to my mother a few days later, as a way to illustrate how people can be so disappointing and how we have to move on. She harbors her own disappointment with me, apparently, and grabbed my words mid-air and lobbed them back at me. She does not and never will support most of my choices. She’ll always think I could have done better. It’s useless to complain to her about a messy bed when I am the one who tangled the sheets. She is of the school that you take your licks or you rewrite the story in your head until you believe it.

Sorry …

And here is where I have a small epiphany. Maybe the one who was the physical abuser was the least of the matter. Emotional/verbal abuse slithers around me almost continuously and I am color blind to its stripes. I’m rewriting my story, too.

Sorry …

Last fall I had a long phone conversation with my brother, who lives thousands of miles away from all this. He was telling me why he decided not to come home for the holidays. He felt the message he was getting was one of disappointment. That his choices, his lifestyle, were unacceptable to my mother and that he was tired of justifying his life to her.

“I think, sometimes, that she’s upset because she can’t brag about us at the knitting circle,” I said. It was a bonding/healing moment for us.

I’m sorry — sometimes — that I returned from the estrangement arrangement.

I am sorry I didn’t accept your gift of baptism. I’m sorry you can’t understand my need to question the existence of a god or for doubting so-called sacred texts.

I am sorry you don’t notice I have a brain and that I use it to question everything.

I am sorry that no amount of perfection will ever be perfectly perfect enough for your level of perfectness.

I am sorry that I often model this behavior with the ones I love.

I am sorry that I don’t take more of my advice.

I am sorry that it takes me so long to recognize abuse.

I am sorry that I allow others to decide what makes me a good person.

I’m sorry I’m not warmer, more huggy and kissy, and loving and giving.  (I want so badly to be that person.)

I am sorry I am born of such cold people.

I am trying to thaw.

Sorry it’s taking so long.

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I am hooked on Edlenland’s weekly Fresh Horses Brigade. That woman challenges me every week. Cheaper than therapy, I tell you.

And they lived happily ever after — but not the way you think

Divorce is on my mind lately.

No, not the end of my current marriage, just the ends of other people’s marriages and possibly a little bit of the end of my first marriage.

There’s Molly and her Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce. Click over to her site. Go through the archives. This is the way for a couple with children to divorce if they must do so. Every chapter in this story is sweet, graceful, poignant. And every move seems to be made with the children’s feelings at the forefront. Molly has a way of making her ex-husband’s worst traits seem endearing. Molly makes me go back over my divorce and wonder if her arrangement could have worked for me. Sadly, we just weren’t that couple. We were volatile and disagreeable before and during our marriage. (I guess it takes a somewhat peaceful marriage to make a peaceful divorce.) Visions of my ex hurling my possessions onto the front lawn with neighbors watching and my ceremonious smashing of the wedding portraits in the condo complex Dumpster don’t add up to peace and poise.

Then there’s Bossy and her graceful undivorce. In a recent post she laid out the blueprint of their family life when she and her husband decided to end their marriage. “They made a commitment to each other and to all of the other components of their life together, and it goes like this: to have each other’s backs, to honor the past they’ve spent together, and to move forward as gracefully as possible, keeping the family house a continued hub where everyone can gather.

Wow. Where was all that beautifully logical thinking when my ex and I were hammering things out with our respective lawyers? No one ever suggested we see a counselor or a mediator or a divorce coach. These words sound like something a divorce coach would say. We didn’t have legal counsel, we had football coaches, forever charting the offensive and defensive moves that would give our team  the winning advantage. It was all about making the other guy look bad, dangling threats, and painting worst-case scenarios. These are not the ingredients for peace and harmony and well-being of children.

Maybe that’s the root of it, the legal system. Our losses are its gains.

Now comes this “positive swing bang hum dinger” hosted by Jack White and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Karen Elson. I don’t know what a positive swing bang hum dinger is, but it sounds like a divorce-a-palooza with banjos.  Six years ago they married on a canoe on the confluence of three rivers somewhere in South America. A shaman priest officiated. Sounds exotic and romantic. Now, they are throwing a bash for their closest friends and family to “celebrate this anniversary of the making and breaking of the sacred union of marriage.”

Seems like when folks realize the air is out of the love balloon, if they could recapture enough of that something that brought them together they  could engineer a plan outside the traditional system like Molly’s peaceful divorce or Bossy’s sensible undivorce or even, if your really, really lucky a positive swing bang hum dinger.

My personal jury is out on the joint divorce party concept. What I’ve heard of in the past is the husband or wife having their own separate celebration with friends. My models for divorce were “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The War of the Roses.” Divorce was synonymous with custody issues, child support payments, and Friend of the Court. Never did I hear party or peace or bonfire with the neighborhood kids.

Inside the oddness of this is something quite nice. People taking it upon themselves to do what’s best for them and their unique situations. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all-marriage and there certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all divorce.

If most marriages have a 50 percent chance of ending in divorce, why spend all those thousands of dollars on the nuptials? Save 50 percent of it for the divorce party. Soon, will we have divorce planners? Unhoneymoons? Maids of Dishonor? Worst men?

Jeez, Louise, things are getting complicated.

 

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Judgment

PROMPTuesday No. 99 from San Diego Momma:

Judge me for being an anonymous blogger.

Judge you for caring.

Judgment of Divorce: Many years ago I stood in court in my best suit and heels and swore before a judge that I’d follow the word and letter of my divorce decree. That meant taking care of my child, contributing 50 percent to her care and keeping, and splitting physical custody down the middle. For anyone who’s had to do this, there is no middle in a seven-day week. Someone ends up with the short straw. For seven years, that was me.

Judge me for it.

Many did.

I took the very great risk that forging a new life alone would be better in the end than staying in a toxic relationship. I was judged harshly. I lost friends. My ex-husband’s family shunned me for years and spread lies about me to anyone who would listen.

Judge me. Walk in my shoes. Then I’ll judge you.

As a single mother I walked a very narrow line. There were some things I just didn’t do for fear of losing my child.

I lived in fear of  judgments. I dreaded decrees.

I didn’t drink. I worked two jobs at times to have more than enough money to keep us comfortable. I was careful who I had over my apartment. Although I did date, I was discreet. My dates never occurred during my parenting time. Only once did I hire a babysitter when I was a single mother.

Even though I’ve been remarried for almost 10 years, I am still a divorced parent. I cannot shake that. I have an ex-husband who may or may not want to take me down.

Having this blog is a risk. The only way it works is to keep myself anonymous.

Judge me.

Judge you.

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Sticky situation resolved

This is not colonial America, but my older daughter’s school district made me feel like Hester Prynne when they handed me a modern-day Scarlet Letter.

Unlike Prynne, I refuse to wear this badge of shame, seeing as I did nothing wrong.

Instead, I chose to fix the situation.

You see, school employees, upon viewing my daughter’s file, decided that since I do not live in the district and her father does, that I must not have custody of her. They decided that this needed to be publicized by writing “noncustodial parent” on paperwork for me. Paperwork left on a table in plain view. 

This was the second time in the last two years that employees made this huge leap from fact to fiction. I couldn’t imagine what their motivations were or why any labels needed to be placed on anything addressed to me.

When it happened the first time, I addressed the matter on the spot and chalked it up to one person’s rudeness. When it happened again, in a new building with new employees, I knew there was a bigger problem at hand. I made it my mission to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. It took about a week of phone calls to various departments at the administrative level to get the wheels turning.

I learned two very interesting things:

1. This school district does not have on file distinct classifications for parents such as “custodial” and “noncustodial” as I was told my two employees last week. “Divorced” parents are listed as such, with no further information about custodial matters unless the court has issued an order. This tells me, as well as the apologetic administrator investigating this for me, that the employees at my daughter’s school took it upon themselves to make this distinction and publicize it for some ignorant and cruel reason.

2. I also learned that in my daughter’s vast suburban school district —  in an area growing so rapidly they can’t build schools fast enough — I am one of only FIVE families that have joint legal custody with one parent living outside the district. I’m not a statistician, but this seems like a small number by today’s standards.

The administrator I talked to said that in 99 percent of the cases, if a divorced parent lives outside the district, they are non-custodial. 

Which explains how people with no access to my personal information made such assumptions about me. They did it based on past experience. 

It sounds like the administrator did her job quickly and efficiently, even going so far as to talk to the employees’ supervisor concerning their insensitive and damaging behavior. She issued an apology to me on behalf of the district. 

Although I’m relieved this has been resolved, I’m not really happy. I feel the damage has been done. Eventually time will fade this memory. Hopefully I can replace it with a positive experience at her new school.

But I worry about this unbridled ignorance that permeates our  society. One in which people make such snap judgments without knowing the facts. One in which people barely hesitate before reacting to these judgments in damaging ways.

Sticky note from hell

Let me tell you how a little yellow piece of paper ruined my day.

 

 

This is what I found on Girl from the West’s progress report when I attended parent-teacher conferences last week. This was handed to me by school staff after I stood in a line with other parents. Well, why not just hand me a big, red letter A to attach to my shirt?

Not wanting to draw public attention to this gaffe, this bullshit, I took my papers and headed to the school office.

“Why is this here?” I asked the principal’s secretary, pointing to the offensive sticky note.

“Well, are you divorced?” she asked, looking over her bifocals and assuming a tone.

“Yes, I am. What does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

“Does your child live with you?” she prodded.

I gave her the Cliffs Notes version of our custody arrangement. Both my ex and I have equal rights. I just happen to live outside the school district boundaries. It is factually wrong to call me “non-custodial.”

“Well, this is just part of how our computer system works,” she explained. “We have to distinguish between the parents when we issue more than one copy of a document.”

So many questions and profanities erupted inside my head at this moment. A few spilled out.

“So, you’re telling me your computer issued a hand-written sticky note and used robotic arms to place it on this report?” I asked. 

“No. A person put this note on the envelope so we’d know why there were two of them in the pile,” she said.

“Who cares why there are two of them? Why does that matter?” I ask. ” I think seeing ‘To the parents of:’ and two separate addresses tells all that anyone needs to know, don’t you think?”

“Well, we need to know,” she said again, with an increasingly condescending tone.

I offered an idea: “How about ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ on the envelope? Wouldn’t that be nicer?”

She just wasn’t getting it.

Before each school year we fill out forms that spell out what administrators need to know about our child’s living arrangements. I understand this is for student safety and school security. What I don’t get is why any sort of label needs to be affixed to anything beyond that point. 

I try one more time to clarify. “Do you realize how insulting this is? How rude and insensitive? Do you have a copy of our divorce decree? How dare you assume to know what our custody arrangement is. Does my ex-husband have a big blue ribbon on his report declaring him “custodial parent.”

“M’am, there’s nothing we can do about it here,” she said, now clearly irritated with me. I could just hear her thinking: “Get your possibly drug-addicted, abusive, non-custodial ass out of this office.”

But this is not over. Not by a long shot. As I resisted slapping her holier-than-thou face, I asked for the name of the person who might be able to do something about this.

A phone call later that day to a district administrator helped clarify the matter about as much as adding mud to a pile of dirt. This is how our system operates is all they could come up with. You are either a custodial parent or a non-custodial parent. End of story. We can’t both be custodial parents? Nope. System doesn’t work that way.

The administrator tells me the system was put in place well before joint legal and physical custody became common. In a time, apparently, where one parent was issued a halo and the other got the horns and pitchfork. I was assured that a new system soon would be in place that would take “my situation” into consideration,.

By the mere fact that I am divorced from her father and do not live in my older daughter’s school district, I am declared a second-class citizen. Those with access to this information (and it could be parent volunteers) could draw very inaccurate conclusions about my fitness as a parent. I mean, what does “non-custodial” mean to you?

This particularly hurts because I drive almost 200 miles each week to get her to and from school, to attend her plays, award ceremonies, concerts and meet with her teachers. When she was younger, I volunteered in her classroom, chaperoned field trips and participated in organized activities such as Girl Scouts.

How many other divorced parents get these damned stickies from hell? 

I’m angry. I’m not buying their story. And I plan to be a big pain in their ass all school year until my Scarlet Letter is removed. Wish me luck.