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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The sweetest thing

During a much-needed mom’s night out with wine, food, and good conversation I learned that the A word and my Girl from the East came up with one of the families from our school.

Adoption arose as part of a much larger context, one encircling the areas of family resemblance, dominant traits, and individual uniqueness. It seems too complex for the preschool set, but now is the time when our children’s eyes open even wider to notice such things as tallness, blondeness, bigness, and differentness.

Specifically, the question of what makes boys different from girls, and how African-American kids in the class look different from the Caucasian kids led to how some families are tall and thin and some are short and wide and how some kids have two daddies or two mommies or some other defining trait.

“Like your friend, (Girl from the East),” the mother explained to my daughter’s playmate. “You’ve noticed she looks different from her mother. That’s because she’s adopted.”

“She doesn’t look different from her mom,” my daughter’s friend insisted.

“Well, yes, she was born in China. She is Chinese,” the mom continued.

“Noooo,” the young friend asserted, shaking her head. “She looks just like her mom.”

My heart warmed as I listened to this story.

That is the sweetest thing.

It never occurred to me that we could be regarded in that way, even if it is through the rose-colored lens of youth.

This is, of course, the portrait of our love for each other; we are blind to our differences. I think Girl from the East has my husband’s eyes and disposition. I know she has my penchant for perfection.  I don’t know where she ends and I begin.

When I look at my girl’s smooth cheeks, inky black eyes, and cupid’s bow mouth, I see our history reaching all the way back to that smoky, crowded government office in Nanchang, China, when I first accepted her slight form into my arms. Her long limbs, elegant fingers,  and thick, silky hair remind me of her birth family as none of us possess those traits.

It occurred to me that it has been years — years! — since anyone has asked any of us if we belong together. In the beginning, it was a constant affront.

And now, the court of opinion has grown to include  one very astute five-year-old.

That is the sweetest thing.

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A mother's day

Photo by PedroSimoes7 via Creative Commons

I know a young woman who’s about to give birth.

She is not married.

She made the decision early on to keep the baby and raise it with or without the father.

Some of her family members are not in support of her decision.

They have called her silly, misguided and disillusioned. Not to her face, but to one another. Why? She is not married. According to the family’s faith, babies should not be reared outside of wedlock. Period. In fact, the sin began before the point of conception. She should have remained chaste until her wedding night. That’s the order of things. Their words, not mine.

While I agree that entering motherhood as a single woman cannot be the easy route, I admire her decision to take responsibility.

When her family does things like call her foolhardy,when they do things like boycott her baby shower because “the whole thing is inappropriate,” I ask two questions:

1. Why punish an innocent baby because you hold the mother in judgment?

2. Would you approve of the alternatives: adoption or abortion?

There is no choice once an egg is fertilized and implanted in the uterus but to make a choice. You either go forward and commit, go to an adoption agency, or go to an abortion clinic. Well, I guess there is a fourth option, but I won’t go there in this post.

I know that I would not have been ready to be a mother at 20. I was barely able to wrap my mind around the idea at 29. Once I knew I had a beating heart inside my body, I knew I had to make a choice. I chose to keep my baby and raise it.

Was I married at the time? I was. Does it sound odd that I considered alternatives? Being within the bounds of marriage did not guarantee anything to me. I was not concerned about sinning. Maybe the sin, if you want to entertain that idea, was being careless in a marriage that was on unstable ground. What good to a baby  is a bad marriage? What good to a baby is a father who’s more interested in continuing his college-student lifestyle? What good to a baby is a mother in a low-paying job who has no choice but to relinquish her child to strangers for 8 hours a day? What good to a baby is a marriage where the mother and father fight rather than show love?  The way some people think, a bad marriage with a lazy father and an unprepared mother is far superior to a single mother who is ready, willing and able.

Would this young woman’s family be happier if she’d placed the baby for adoption or elected to abort? These choices keep things tidy for the extended family for sure, but not for the baby or the mother.

Adoption is not a closed door. I have my beautiful baby No. 2 thanks to her birth mother and father. Their pain is my gain. Not a day goes by that I don’t acknowledge that my joy has an emotional price tag. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder when my Girl from the East will ask where her Chinese mother is. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her Chinese mother gazing at the horizon outside her rural village, or at the hazy skyline outside her high-rise apartment,  wondering where in the world her baby girl is now.

Abortion ends a pregnancy but it does not negate its existence. While I have not made the choice to end a pregnancy  – nature did that for me — every January 21st I wonder about the baby that got away, the one that would be 9 years old today, the one I am convinced would have been a boy.  I remain pro-choice, but that experience changed my view on the procedure. One day you are pregnant. The next you are not. You do not go back to who you were before that.  A clean uterus is not a clean slate.

They say she has no idea what’s in store for her. I say even the most prepared woman with an amazing partner, financial security and the means to deal with any contingency can be sucker-punched by the arrival of a baby.

All I see is this young woman filled with optimism and joy over the impending birth of her baby. She has, thankfully, some family members and friends committed to helping her in this transitional period.

Happy Mother’s Day to this young woman and to mothers everywhere, no matter what choice you made in this life.

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Back on the other side again — sort of

fence

By evelynishere via creative commons

This week I had a revelatory moment. It struck me as I was walking into a building and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the plate glass. I saw a smartly dressed woman with a laptop bag slung over her shoulder.

“Where have you been the last three years?” I asked the mirror image as I pushed the intercom button to announce my arrival.

As the door buzzes open, I consider how it feels to wear a black dress with flowing red scarf tied loosely around my neck, stockings, heels and all-business glasses. Even if I feel a little shaky on the inside, I have all the right props. No one here will have any idea that I haven’t done this full-time in three years.

I was glad to leave my current persona at home for a while. I liked wearing my old self even if just for a day.

I love my children. I love my husband. But they cannot define me and be enough for me. I need a little more. It feels good to be working again.

Several weeks ago I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Chicago. Mostly I did it to get away. Partly I did it to witness the presentation I’ve been hearing about, and helping him with in small ways, for more than a year. Afterward the organizers invited us to dinner at a popular restaurant in the downtown business loop.

While I’d secretly hoped for a quiet dinner for two, so I didn’t have to worry about how many glasses of wine I’d ordered, and I could kick off my uncomfortable shoes under the table, it wasn’t to be. Instead I felt “on” since it was more of a business dinner. I had to watch my words and not get all, well, the way I can get sometimes.

After a few exchanges of pleasantries I was asked: “So, what do you do?”

I mentioned my  part-time freelance business that is temporarily full-time.

“Oh, so mostly you are just a mommy then.”

Why the instant leap? Why the dead-end of conversation once the leap is made? I felt crushed.

Mommy — not even mom or mother — mommy! was said the way someone might spit out the word pedophile.

And I had thought the guy was pretty nice at first.

Just this week I logged on to Facebook to find a so-called friend had sent me some application quiz that determined my dream job was to be a wife and mother. Huh? First of all, this person knows I’m trying to return to the workplace. Where  this whole you-are-better-off-at-home sublimation comes from I’ll never know. Rather than fire back some snarky remark, I just deleted the whole post.

But back to this week: I check in at the front desk, hand over my business card and announce who I am. Then, I’m led down a long, polished corridor that winds its way to the CEO’s office to conduct a joint interview with two high-ranking members of this organization.

I was taken seriously. I engaged in adult conversation, discussed plans, strategies and  deadlines. I had a schedule to juggle, appointments to confirm and my planner was bleeding ink to the margins. It all felt so natural. People were paying attention to me. I wasn’t so-and-so’s mother or somebody’s wife. Not that those things are bad but I do have a name and my own identity. Motherhood and marriage can shove those things to the back of the closet.

That’s the upside.

The downside: My poor, poor house is a wreck. Tasks both inside and outside sit uncompleted. There are three family birthdays fast approaching, not to mention the whole holiday stress-fest.  I have a mother who feels ignored, a visiting brother who feels slighted and probably a husband and two daughters who feel they’re not getting the service they’ve grown to enjoy.

Sorry, folks.

This is my first big paid gig and I feel the need to do a good job, to be viewed as dependable, reliable and able to deliver on time, as promised when we set our terms in September.

It feels good to have a task, a deadline, responsiblity. I’m hoping these seeds planted will nurture a larger garden of opportunity down the road. If nothing else, I learned what I needed to do to be successful working from a home office.

I’m on the other side  – even though it’s a short visit.

And I like it.

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