Tag Archives: parenting

Easing Transitions Between Homes for Children of Divorce

Photo By: Detta Mellema

Photo By: Detta Mellema

I’m thrilled to introduce you all to my new guest columnist, Susan Rutherford, Psy.D. mother of my friend Molly Yarnell Skyar, who is the brainchild behind the blog: Conversations With My Mother. Dr. Rutherford is a wealth of information for parents with a masters degree in psychiatric nursing and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. I asked Molly and Dr. Rutherford to address the stressful period for divorced parents that I call the holiday hand-off—when one parent must send the kiddos off to celebrate the holidays with their ex. It’s never easy, but there is hope for smoother transitions and less stress for the children who are caught in the middle. And at the end of the day, the best gift for our kids is letting them feel joyous during the holidays. Here’s some expert advice to help us all get there:

NV Question: Holidays can be really hard on children of separated or divorced parents. Many friends comment on how anxious their children get before leaving home to spend the holidays with the other parent. How can parents help lower anxiety for kids during these transitional holiday periods? (Note: many newly separated parents are often still in the divorce process and not officially talking with one another… so direct communication among the separated parents may not be feasible). Even so, what can one parent do to make life easier for a nervous child?

MOM: This is a real big issue every year at holiday time. Partly it depends on how recent the separation or divorce is.  There are a couple of things you can do to help the kids adjust. One is to talk to the child or children ahead of time about what the plans are for them: how long they’re going to be at the other parent’s house, when they are going to come back… Share with them the details of what their lives will look like during this time period.

The other thing is that I think it’s important for the child is to have permission to call the absent parent whenever he or she wants to while at the other parent’s house. This is so that they can keep in contact if they feel they need to.  This may really help to reduce the anxiety for the child.

Another thing you can do is to tell your kid that you know they’re going to have a great time at the other parent’s house and why don’t they remember everything that goes on so that when they come home they can tell you all about it. This helps the child to feel more integrated.

The problem with kids and separated homes is that they feel fragmented. They have a life in the mother’s house and they have a life in the father’s house, but they don’t have a cohesive life. Each parent stays in their own house all the time, so they don’t quite have the same degree of anxieties when their children are absent as the children might about traveling from house to house.

It’s really important that the kids feel that they can talk about anything with each of the parents about what goes on at the other parent’s house. That means each parent has to take a deep breath and be open about it. The most important thing is that they listen and try not to be critical of the other parent.

MOLLY: That’s gotta be super tough especially if the other parent is behaving badly.

MOM: It is, but once you’re critical of your ex-, the child will shut down and stop talking about that parent because they will automatically feel they have to defend the other parent no matter what. The best policy is not to ever criticize your ex-spouse to your kids.

MOLLY: I guess that makes sense especially if you want your kid to talk openly about what’s going on, but I still think that’s gotta be pretty hard sometimes.

MOM: You want to be sure to be empathic to your kid about what goes on at both houses and about how hard it is to go back and forth from one house to the other, especially at holiday time.

Sometimes parents can’t talk to each other about this but they can email each other or text each other with logistics. Like… “This is my plan, this is what I think might work best for Johnny during this time, and I hope that you are on board.” Even if the other parent isn’t on board, if they’re still angry or refuse to cooperate, you can still do the same program for your kid when they are at your house.

MOLLY: Would you want to set up a time every day for the child to call the other parent?

MOM: That actually would be very helpful. It might not work out perfectly in the other person’s house and that’s why it’s good to email and ask the ex- if Johnny can call at 5’oclock, or 6’oclock, or whenever you set it up together. That way the kid can look forward to that time and make regular contact with the other parent.

MOLLY: Should you do that all the time? Not just on the holidays?

MOM: Absolutely you could do that. There might be less need for that when it’s not a holiday but they should do it anyway. Children should have access to both parents all the time. I don’t mean in the middle of the night, of course, but it’s good to work with the ex- to set up a regular time, because the ex- will be busy, too, and has other things to do.

Sometimes kids will get anxious when they go to school and will want to call their parents when they’re at school. The way to deal with that is a similar thing, that the parent should set up a time, (especially if the parent works) that the child can call the parent after school – lets say three-thirty in the afternoon – and then the child can save up everything that happened at school that they want to share with the other parent. The interesting thing about setting up a regular call like that is that it can significantly reduce anxiety levels because the child knows they will have contact with the missing parent at that time.

MOLLY: Would keeping a journal work? Or is that better for older kids?

MOM: I think that would be only for older children. Really, I don’t think the journal is the issue, I think the issue is the contact with the parent. Verbal contact.

This really works well when there’s a regular separation – not just during the holidays, but every week when there’s a change that occurs.

If the kid knows that there’s a time that they can talk to the other parent, their anxiety significantly decreases and over time, the need for it will also decrease.

MOLLY: What if the other parent says, “We’re busy over here, I don’t want our child calling you on my time.”

MOM: Well, then you’ve got a real problem. I’m not quite sure how you would deal with that. It would be very unfortunate although it could easily happen. I know that some separated parents are like that – they want the child to have no contact with the other parent because they themselves don’t want to have contact with the ex-. It is not a healthy thing to do. That is in the interest of the parent, and definitely not in the interest of the child.

MOLLY: Maybe that’s what they could say then: think of our child first.

MOM: Yes. And then it works both ways. That might help the other parent. When the kid is at the your house you make sure he or she can call the ex-, too. It goes both ways.

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Mom in the Picture

My sister Sarah and her son Elijah

I took a hard week off to visit my family in North Carolina. My mother, who is most likely in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, probably didn’t even know who I was. But, it felt important to see her, to hold her hand, to smile at her. Plus, I was able to visit my sisters and brother and their children who I haven’t seen in over a year. While I was gone, I read Lisa Belkin’s HuffPost column: Moms Explain Why They’re Getting Back In the Picture.  Take a moment to read this column. I was touched by it. The column inspires moms to get back in the picture with their families and children. I know that my own mom never liked to “be in the picture” and my two sisters, who are wonderful moms, also shy from the camera.

It’s clear that their sons adore them and could care less if stress and health issues have added pounds or grey hair. Our children adore us just the way we are. Single moms out there—I know so many of you can relate to this. Perhaps the financial stress, emotional stress and the exhaustion of working long hours makes you feel less attractive than you’d like. But your children love you and want photos with you in the picture to remember wonderful moments. If they love you unconditionally—it’s time to start loving yourself the same way.

With that in mind, I’m posting two pictures in this post. The first is of my sister Sarah and her 6-year-old son Elijah. Sarah is a wonderful mother who struggles with auto-immune disorders and migraines, while working full-time as a social worker. She has fought hard to find the right therapies and programs for her son who is thriving, although living with Autism. This past weekend, I loved watching Elijah build ingenious towers and rockets with angry bird dolls peaking out of windows. Both his creativity and love seem boundless—and much of that is because of her dedication.

The second picture is of my other big sister Elizabeth and her son CJ.

Elizabeth has always shied away from the camera since I’ve known her—but especially during the past 18 years that she’s been fighting Lupus and arthritis. An amazingly giving teacher who focusses 100% of her energy on her family—I know her son CJ could care less that steroids and painful, aching hips (which she’s having replaced soon) make her feel tired and less attractive. Yet she still works every day at her school and takes most of the family pictures. There aren’t two less beautiful mothers, than my two sisters. (So, if you two get mad at me after this post…bear with me!) After spending four days visiting my sweet mother whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s, I wish I had more pictures of she and I together, but it’s too late.

I strongly urge you to read Lisa Belkin’s column—one of my favorite parenting bloggers and columnists—as you’ll be surrounded by voices of other mothers who are bravely stepping in front of the camera for their children and families. It’s such a wonderful idea and a step in the right direction of easing up on ourselves and our frailties.

Why Can’t I Embrace Time Off?

In my own way, I really do know why the caged bird sings. And I know why the bird stays too—even when the cage door is open. It seems selfish to take more than a quick flight around the room. No, the bird comes back to where she’s comfortable and finds beauty in her surroundings and in how happy her singing makes those in the house. Even when those in the house barely notice her and come and go as they please—she knows her role and knows that, somehow, the beauty of her singing and her reliable presence is helpful to those she loves.

I read that in Vietnam (and probably elsewhere) Buddhist worshippers release caged birds to improve their karma. In theory, this sounds wonderful. But I doubt that it’s a wonderful feeling for the birds. A picture I saw of a Buddhist releasing three birds spoke louder than words. Instead of flying away, the three birds crashed into one another with their wings barely opening widely enough for flight. It’s not easy to just take flight away from all that you have known, is it?

Now that my cage door has been blown apart, I see how ridiculous living for others all the time truly is. It’s okay (and healthy) to do things for yourself. It’s okay to take flight once in a while just because it makes you happy. Taking flight is scary for some of us. Doing things for ourselves can seem selfish. Especially if we are the person who fixes things, who kisses booboos, who makes sandwiches, checks homework, listens to woes and gives advice, and who lives daily for the crazy schedules of playdates and homework and dinners, and sports events and mommy-and-me classes. That’s the good stuff, right? It seems to give most of us (I’m talking the co-dependent us) more pleasure than our work—if we work outside the house. And it’s tougher than most work too—at least the two- and three-year-old tantrums are. When you’re the person who supports others, it’s hard to support yourself. (You know who you are: you’re the one who remembers birthdays, writes thank you notes, sends presents, plans parties, playdates, activities, camps, Dr. visits—all between other work duties you master. You’re the one who feels guilty taking time for yourself to exercise or get a rare manicure—as your goal is to make others happy and pleased and not to think about yourself, right?) So where do you exist when all of that is cut off? Where are you when that fades to black? Sound familiar?

I wrestled with all of that after my husband left at the end of 2009. But since he lives in Europe and I care for the boys pretty much 24/7, they kept me insanely busy and not able to focus too much on this question. Back then, I was just making it day by day and trying for force myself to eat and keep going. That’s how it was in the beginning with a baby and an 7-year-old to take care of. Flash forward two years and you’d think that I’d have overcome this crazy guilt I have about taking time for myself. To be fair, I have really been taking strides that started with baby steps and I’m getting there. At first, I felt insanely guilty about putting the baby in daycare so I could write (I’m a freelance writer) and get a break. After a year of separation, with me weighing in at 90 lbs and getting little to no sleep due to my insanely sleepless toddler, a good friend urged me to put my little guy in a small, family-run daycare so I could pursue my work and get a break. I did and within a few months landed some great freelance writing gigs. I was able to grocery shop without drama. I wan’t driving for an hour to let the baby sleep since he doesn’t nap at home. I was able to take a run and eventually joined a gym. Taking a pilates or a yoga class felt crazily selfish—even though I went months without a day off to sleep in. Why I felt this way is such a long story including a family history of co-dependency and an upbringing in the South where ladies who do-it-all and support their man are still highly admired.

But all of this is part of why the rare, cherished time-off from the kiddos, can be extra-ordinarily and oddly, hard for me to adjust to. The summer holiday for my kids with their dad should be a time for joyous celebration, right?

I should be thinking: Hurray! I’m finally going to have some time to myself!

And I am excited about that. I’m so looking forward to being me, traveling, writing and reading and just being a woman and not always a mommy. But a large part of myself is also wondering if my kids will put on sunblock or whether they’ll remember to say their prayers/gratitude lists at night or whether they’ll have fights that I can’t help them with, or if a tantrum might push someone over the edge, etc. Seriously, it’s so sad. Even as I write this, I wonder about my sanity. I am the quintessential co-dependant woman. There, I said it. So now, I guess I’ve become the co-dependant single mom who is having a hard time adjusting to the fact that she’s going to be away from her boys for a full MONTH. I haven’t had a week off since last Christmas and I think the last two days off was three months ago. So, yeah, I guess I’m due.

Why, then, am I not jumping up and down with glee!? It’s scary to take flight. It’s frightening to venture out and try to reclaim life outside of motherhood. I’m grateful for the chance, but hesitate at the door.

Any advice out there, my soul-sister, single moms? Seriously, any words of wisdom will be greatly appreciated this week as I say goodbye to my little guys.

Lots of love,

L. x

Shut Your Mouth!

How many of you out there are still fighting daily or weekly with your exes? How many of you are insanely frustrated over late or missing child support payments, or looming court dates, or missed visitations—among the myriad of abusive scenarios that some divorced parents face when one parent puts ego and/or selfish agendas above children’s needs? I’m sure many of you may be nodding your heads about now. But, sadly, even if your ex is a convict or a sociopath who deserted you and your children and doesn’t visit with the kids or pay child support—YOU (yes, even you my devoted single mommy friends)—may be accidentally causing more emotional harm to your children, say experts.

What?? (Insert record rip sound now.)

As hard as it is to believe, single parents are guilty of consistently doing one thing wrong. There are plenty of things divorced parents stumble on and I interviewed a UCLA expert earlier this year who helped define “The Top 5 Mistakes Divorcing Parents Make”. Going through a divorce is insanely painful and no one is expected to handle it perfectly. But experts say if there is one thing you need to remember for your children’s sake, it’s this: SHUT  YOUR MOUTH.

Think about it. We are ALL guilty of saying disagreeable things about our exes at some point (even if it’s just reporting the truth). Some single parents have certainly lived through their share of horror stories. And even if you think you are vigilant about not talking about your ex in front of the children—be honest—it slips sometimes doesn’t it? And these slips usually happen during the most stressful times and can be reactions that we later regret. For example, imagine this scenario:

You are at home with your children waiting for the ex to pick them up for a scheduled weekend visit. You did laundry, you packed their bags, you got them hair cuts the day before and you even carefully picked out their favorite books and toys and DVDs for the visit. The kids are excited and you’re hiding your fears about the weekend—especially if your ex drinks too much or has a new girlfriend or if he takes them to inappropriate venues, like bars. You keep yourself busy in the kitchen while the clock ticks. One hour after he is supposed to arrive, the kids get anxious and keep asking, “Where IS he?” in exasperated tones. You text the ex. He doesn’t reply. Finally, two hours after he is supposed to pick them up, he calls.

“Sorry! I got held up at the office and my boss wants me to fly out tomorrow on business. Can’t get them this weekend.” You are infuriated and before you can stop yourself you scream in response: “What the hell? You’re doing this again?You haven’t seen them in three months! This is NOT OK!”

Your heart is thumping so loud in your chest you can barely hear anything else, until a sob, from the corner of the room stills you. You look up and your six-year-old has a tear sliding down her little face.

Yes, this is your ex’s fault. No, you shouldn’t cover for him. But you don’t want to have fights in front of the kids either, explains Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., an award-winning author and family and marriage therapist.

Coleman, who I interviewed this month, says parents need to remember that they are pouring salt on their children’s wounds when they fight in front of the children or talk poorly about the ex in front of them. The better way to handle the outlined scenario is to hold in your anger and respond calmly to your ex: ‘That’s too bad. The kids were really looking forward to it. I’m handing the phone to them so you can explain, ok?’ Allowing him to talk with the kids, and likely promise to make it up to them later, is a better solution than yelling and putting their father down in front of the kids.

If the children cry after they hang up, Coleman warns against adding more drama and hurt to the situation.

“You then don’t want to say something like, ‘Your father always does this kind of thing at the last minute! It’s unforgivable!’ Instead, you want to just give them comfort, by saying something like, ‘You’re really sad aren’t you? I’m so sorry that you’re hurt.’ This lets your children know that you are there for them without adding more pain,” Coleman explains.

If you’ve experienced a similar situation to this, than I don’t need to tell you about the flash of anger that sparks and the mixed feelings that emerge about wanting to protect your kids, but also being angry about your own inconvenience. It may have been months since you’ve had a proper break or a morning to sleep in. With that said, experts say it’s critical to try to hide your disappointment and anger as your children will be highly sensitive and bruised after their father stands them up. They don’t need to feel like a bourdon to you, as well. It’s so tempting to call a friend the minute the kids settle down after such an experience. How many of us are guilty of calling a girlfriend to vent after such a scenario? What if you made plans for that evening and now they are blown? You’re still better off texting your friend to cancel. The last thing you want to do is grab a glass of wine and call a girlfriend lamenting about how you now can’t go out, and what a jerk your ex is. Your children, even if planted in front of a TV show, have amazing listening abilities. They want to know what is going on and they likely will hear your conversation, or the tone of your conversation at the very least.

I know it isn’t fair. I know that if your ex repeatedly lets you and your children down, you need to vent. But this is our test in life. (I’m right there with you.) In times like this, try to take a deep breath, and dig deep for grace. Remember that you can email or call a friend once the children are asleep—or that you can go online and chat with other single moms in support groups, such as AloneTogether. It’s so important to have the support you need—but there is a time and a place for everything. I don’t know why we’re in the situation we are in. But I’ve decided that I no longer care about figuring out why. It’s hard to let go of that, but it serves very little purpose. If you can remember anything from this story, I hope it’s this:

“Children learn to love themselves by being able to love their parents,” Coleman says.

They can’t feel free to love their father (or mother) if either parent consistently puts the other down. Sure, your ex may not be the parent you want him (or her) to be. But you can be the parent your children can model. You can be the example for them. And they can learn to love themselves by watching you.

A New Species: The Rare “Dadzilla”

I had so much fun writing a June/July cover article, “Is Your Dude a Dadzilla?” for FitPregnancy magazine. I can’t provide a link to it, as it’s only available in print on newsstands, currently. I’ve been freelance writing for Fit Pregnancy magazine for more than 10 years now, as I pitched my first article when pregnant with my first child. Back then, I was writing fast and furious about business and careers for many magazines and newspapers and could barely find time to breathe, let alone research about pregnancy. I decided in my 5th month to start researching and pitching pregnancy topics that I was suddenly, very, concerned about. I met a wonderful FitPregnancy editor who patiently read all of my pitches and, encouraged me to keep researching topics and sending more, until she finally gave me an assignment. Little did she know, through all the research I did for her, she helped me to get ready for birth and parenthood!

I’m really excited about my latest article because it is so unique. In the 10 years that I’ve been writing about pregnancy and parenting, I have never written an article that delved into the topic of “Dadzillas.” In fact, I’d never heard of such a thing: a dad who is TOO involved? The idea actually made me laugh as I hadn’t encountered such a being in my world. But what I learned, as I spoke with expectant parents and experts across the country, is that overly involved dads may really just be dads with a need for control.

Ah, now that’s something that many of single mom friends might be able to relate to: power struggles with the ex over control. And I’d venture to guess that the control issues may have had their burgeoning beginnings during the early days of marriage and even in pregnancy. (That’s just a hunch.)

For the article, I interviewed several expectant moms who shared stories of their controlling husbands. Some were trying to monitor every morsel of food their wives ate—refusing to cater to their partner’s junk food or ice cream cravings and reminding them that they shouldn’t gain too much weight during pregnancy. Others were reading everything they could about birth and insisting their wives not have an epidural or pain medication during delivery. The story provides expert advice on how best to reign these type of men in—while also appreciating and acknowledging their efforts. Because, at the end of the day, everyone wants an involved dad for their children, right?

While this story may not be extremely helpful for my main audience of single moms, upon re-reading it, I found kernels of wisdom that may apply when relating to any controlling parent. I had a particularly insightful interview with Will Courtenay, Ph.D., a psychotherapist specializing in men’s issues in Oakland, Calif. and author of best selling book: Dying to Be Men. He explained that anxiety and loss of control can make men “spring into action.” Their tendencies to want to do something, or fix things immediately, can often mean that they do rash things that can seem callous. (Like the man who reminds a 7 month pregnant woman that she doesn’t want to gain too much weight…) Unless your ex is completely sociopathic, I think there’s a good chance that the advice from our experts can also help you better co-parent. For instance, all experts interviewed say men need to feel included, appreciated and listened to. At the same token, you may want to channel their energies with lists of things to do to help, but you also always need to stand your ground when things go awry.

I’m mulling over this advice and think the best one for many of my separated mommies with young children is to “wait before responding.” This advice is great for any couple: whether separated, divorced and co-parenting, or together. Think about it. If your partner or ex suggests something that you’re not particularly excited about, if you get defensive, yell, or disregard him, he’s likely to get angry and be less likely to suggest anything in the future, or become less involved with the kids. But if you tell him you heard him, but just need a day or two to think it over, and then make an appointment to talk about it later—it can defuse the moment and give you both time to digest the information, cool down, and be respectful.

There is so much more great advice in this article. I love when my work adds so much to my life. I hope you get a chance to pick up this issue, (now in grocery aisles and newsstands) that also has fabulous farmer’s market recipes and advice on how to lose the dreaded and lingering post-birth jelly belly.

Have a great day everyone!

Laura x

A Mother’s Legacy: Music and Memories

A rare event: mom playing piano for an audience in 1999.

My mother escaped in her music. I imagine that it held magical qualities for her. It lifted her up out of her life. It gave her a voice when she didn’t allow herself to speak. It gave her eloquence. And it was private. She played at home, preferably alone.

If you’ve ever seen someone play piano by ear, you might have an idea of what I am describing. It’s amazing to hear and watch a person completely transformed while they play. But again, with mom, it was immensely personal and I always knew it was how she communicated best, or worked out her feelings. My mother rarely said she loved you without crying, for instance, so it wasn’t an every-day thing to hear. As her child, you knew she loved you, but she just couldn’t speak it easily. She also rarely talked about intensely personal things. She did so through her songs—most from the Big Band Era. Not only could she play by ear, but she would get into a trance-like state and would free-associate by playing one song with a meaning that led perfectly into another that carried that meaning a bit further until she seemed to come to closure or have had a complete conversation. I so wish I had recorded some of her “sessions.”

When she was going through her divorce and I had taken a bit of time off college to stay with her, I felt privileged to listen to her play. Some evenings after work I would tiptoe into the house if I heard the piano so she wouldn’t stop. She might play for 30 minutes and had no idea I was there. She played dramatically with an emotion that you’d never see her display anywhere else. I could even hear her nails clicking the keys she was moving so fast. I’d sit in my old room upstairs and listen as she played old musicals that might lead into a Tommy Dorsey tune and then surprisingly to a pop melody of Lionel Richie‘s, as long as they held a key element of a similar message. Anything she heard on the radio, she could play perfectly, as she only needed to hold the melody in her head to translate it to the keys. She didn’t like to “perform” and rarely played for others. I was therefore, really shocked when she played piano at my wedding. Every song had “baby” in the title (as I’m the youngest of her four children). I don’t recall all of them, but “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” and Dorsey’s “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” were some of them. I don’t think anyone, outside of family, knew how emotional it was for her to play these songs in front of a crowd and the photographer caught her shy feelings of love perfectly. I was touched beyond words.

As Alzheimer’s grips your loved one, you sit by helplessly as they slip away. When living in London, I flew back each summer between 2005 and 2008 for a few weeks or longer each visit. I’d notice that she had a harder time with the piano by 2007, but would continue to play. Although sometimes, she’d have a harder time with verbal conversation and would still play perfectly. Alzheimer’s is funny that way. By the time I was really going through the ringer with my husband, my mom was in the moderately severe stages. She got easily upset and I hid the fact that I was going through Hell from her. Even though she might not remember specifics the next day, I knew she was a sponge and would absorb my sadness and would worry about me every time my name was mentioned. Somehow that worry would carry over. She might not know why she was worried, or couldn’t remember my soon-to-be ex-husband‘s name, but I only wanted to bring her happiness when I visited. I swore my siblings to go along with me and not talk about my separation with her. Well, in July 2010, I was far from happy. It was incredibly hard to visit and pretend everything was ok. I had my then one and a half year old with me, who was sick a lot and had a hard time sleeping. I was barely 100 lbs from grief. My soon-to-be ex had left me for another woman in September of 2009, less than a year after we had moved back to the States when I was pregnant. He was back and forth with his emotions and his behavior was erratic when he was back from Europe. But at this point, I’d been a single mom for almost a year. I had just dropped the older son with relatives in Tennessee for a camp before coming home. I don’t want to use this blog to post sorted details, but suffice it to say, I’d been through a year with broken promises and many attempts to reconcile, and I was now trying my hardest not to show any of this mess to my fading mother. Southerners can be excellent actresses—and I’m the queen of being able to ‘fake it till you make it’ for the most part—but this was going to take an amazing feat. I pulled it off, remarkably, for most of the week spent on walks with the dog or visits with the neighbors or in her garden. One evening, however, Jamesy just would NOT sleep. He cried most of the night and I was at breaking point. My mom came down the stairs at 3 a.m. to the room where we were. She was having a remarkably lucid moment. The kind of moment that loved ones pray for. For a year I knew I had angels helping me survive and I guess one came on this trip too. As mentioned, I didn’t tell mom anything about what was going on in my personal life. She adored my ex and I didn’t want to give her one more heartbreak. But she saw I had been crying and she calmly took Jamesy’s hand. They walked into the living room and she played this song. It’s not the best performance of hers, but out of her entire repertoire, she chose: “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”  (For those of you who aren’t well-versed in 1930′s Broadway tunes, it was also performed by Judy Garland, Benny Goodman (one of Mom’s favorites) and Louis Armstrong.

I’m convinced that she was trying to help me with Jamesy and send me a message of comfort at the same time. Somehow, she was able to break free from the entangled plaques crippling her mind and play once again. It was a miracle that I caught it on tape as I never seem to have the camera at the right time. I’m so thankful for this moment as I haven’t seen her this lucid again. Happy Mother’s Day, Annie. And yes, I’m finally finding my way to the sunny side of the street. I wish you were here with me, but I know that you are, somehow, in spirit.

A Mother’s Legacy: Beauty and Brains

Photo By: THE Herb Ritts (Exhibit currently @ The Getty)

The photo is stunning. Its elegance, drama, lines, curves, shadows are absolutely breathtaking. A good friend is visiting from London this week and I took her, with my boys, to The Getty museum yesterday. Kate has always adored old Hollywood glamour, and since this is her first trip to America, what better way to get an infusion of that glamour than at the Herb Ritts’ exhibition at The Getty—which has the best views of Los Angeles as well. We took turns in the delicious exhibition that featured many celebrities and sculptured bodies against dramatic backdrops. Kate played with the boys in the kiddie room and allowed me the time to wander, meander and soak all the beauty in. What I noticed, (besides the intensely chiseled men) is that the women Ritts tended to photograph had a raw and natural beauty. Not much makeup. Large eyes. Voluptuous lips. Intense presence that smacked of intelligence or wisdom beyond their years. As I walked around the exhibit, I began to think about what my next blog post within A Mother’s Legacy should be. I’ve been a bit distracted with my friend in town and have gotten a bit behind, my apologies.

As I was looking at a photograph of an anonymous woman with gob-stocker -sized eyes, plump lips and strength in her features, it hit me. My post will be of my mother’s raw beauty. Mom never thought of herself as beautiful. She didn’t shop much. She didn’t exercise beyond walking and gardening, but was skinny as a rail for most of her life. In her photographs from college, which I found and saved after helping to settle her estate, you can see her timeless beauty.

MaryAnn Roe

Growing up, I rarely saw my mother, who was a child-protective services social worker, put on make up. She had her signature lipstick, but beyond that, she was a bit helpless in the makeup department. As you can see in her graduation picture, she had a natural beauty. What I love even more, is that she also had incredible smarts. She was accepted into both Brown University and Duke University and decided upon Duke, where she met my father and lived her entire adult life. I don’t think my mother ever made less than an A in her entire educational career. She could have done just about anything (or nothing, as she didn’t have to work) but  was driven to help the down-trodden and less fortunate. In the early 50s, when most women were concentrating on finding Mr. Right, mom seemed to concentrate on finding Mr. Right AND helping women to achieve their dreams and equality. I love the photo taken in college as it shows a bit of her chutzpah. She is gorgeous, even with a man’s haircut, and has a rebellious cigarette in her hand. I can see her drive that likely inspired her to later help found Women In Action, and volunteer relentlessly, even with most Democratic elections. She dedicated herself passionately to her job as a social worker, requiring her to often visit others in slums and sometimes put herself in dangerous situations.

She had a way about her, through the life that she led, that taught her three daughters that they could do anything they set their minds to. She didn’t preach to us and rarely said a negative word about anyone. She showed that beauty, grace and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. I will never understand how someone who woke every morning at 4 a.m. to read the newspaper back to back and do the Times crossword puzzle, could have her brain so horrifically attacked by Alzheimer’s at such a young age. Life isn’t fair. My sincere hope, by writing these blog posts, is that the women and men who take care of my sweet mother will read my words, see the pictures, and treat her with dignity. Because the person who is ravaged by Alzheimer’s does not represent the beautiful soul still somewhere within. The hardest thing about leaving your mother in the care of other people who are not family and who have never known her in her prime, is that you have to take a leap of faith that they will care for her in a gentle manner with patience and respect. It’s hard to know. She can’t talk to me. But hopefully they’ll get a sense of her kindness. I know from the director of the facility that mom is still trying to help others, even in her condition. It’s just a part of who she is. I think we are born with innate gifts and hers (besides playing piano by ear, which I will write about later) is definitely a sincere kindness and need to help others. And that is a rare beauty that isn’t found often in my world of LaLa land—or anywhere else  for that matter.

A Mother’s Legacy: Staying On The Brink

Mom and William, one week old, November 2001

“I want PIE!” Jamesy yells at me this morning. He has already climbed onto the second shelf of the pantry, which he knows he isn’t allowed to do.

“Well, I didn’t make the pie, and besides, that’s not a breakfast food, is it? Lets get down from there,” I reply calmly, trying to mask the tension that is rising like bile in my throat. I look at my angelic, chubby three-year-old with star-lit, midnight blue eyes and tousled blond hair. I know what is coming next—what has been happening in our house for months now.

‘NOOOO!!!!” he wails like a super sonic boom and then hurls a kitchen timer against the wall.

I take a deep breath and  pick up his squirming body. “Ok, time out buddy.”

His legs kick my calf. Hard. A zinger of pain flashes up to my kneecap and down to my swollen achilles’ heel. Why did I forget to put that damn boot back on? I think as I grimace with pain. Almost three weeks ago I tore a tendon in my left calf, so chasing after my three-year-old has now become an Olympic endeavor. I manage to strap him into his time-out chair—which is my second car seat. As I walk to pick up the now broken kitchen timer, he kicks his seat over, landing with a thud. His head is now on the floor, his feet raised above him in a sitting position. The crazy guy laughs, looks at me victoriously, and then starts screaming again.

“I HATE TIME OUT!!!” he screams.

William and I just shrug and sit down to eat our breakfast. We have gone through this scenario many times since we took the advice of Jamesy’s teacher who recommended that I place a car seat in my kitchen and strap him into it for a time out each time he throws things, yells, hits, climbs the pantry walls, bites, etc. Ignoring him, threatening with a consequence, taking away toys, and dare I admit, even a spanking, all don’t work on my little guy. Putting him in time out didn’t work before because he just refused to stay seated. Strapping him into time out is helping, believe it or not. It’s just taking an extraordinarily long time. I have a very stubborn three-year-old who hates to hear the word No or not be able to do what he wants to do. Like most I guess, but his older brother was never this ballsy or stubborn. Eventually, he stopped these shenanigans.  Plus, I didn’t have William and Jamesy close together in age. William is 10, James 3. I can’t imagine surviving life as a single mom with an insanely stubborn James and a brother only one or two years older. Seriously, with an ex in Europe and no family help, I might have ended up in Betty Ford or some mental facility.

Today, when I was taking James to school, I thought about my mom. You may be wondering what my son’s behavior, and how the scene I just described to you, has anything to do with a Mother’s Legacy. Well, a lot actually. My mother had four children and a husband who would work three-day shifts at the hospital. Back then, three-day-shifts were not frowned upon like they are today. She was virtually a single mom in Boston with my brother 3 and two sisters ages 2 and 1. They were all still in diapers!!

“Well, I just didn’t know any better,” my mom said to me 10 years ago when she visited me after I gave birth to William. “I mean, back then, you didn’t expect your husband to help you. You didn’t complain either. And I just thought it was fun,” she laughed. I clearly didn’t believe her last statement.

When she said this to me, I was in the throws of repeated sitz baths for a class 4 tear, (men reading this, DON’T ASK), sore nipples, engorged breasts verging on infection since I couldn’t get the milk to come in properly, and hormones raging to the point where at certain moments I literally wanted to die. Exhaustion, hormones, whatever it was, I realized that what I was feeling was akin to what clinical depression must feel like. Having three kids one right after another, and than four years later her oops child, (which I am), my mom must have always been on the brink of despair. But I don’t remember seeing her succumb to it, not over raising children anyway. Maybe she was just too busy.

Mom and William, three months.

Over the next two years after William’s birth, she graced me with her stories. But her stories about raising three babies were what inspired me most. She didn’t know why I was in shock, but clearly, she loves babies and has a higher threshold for stress, than I do. Her stories gave me strength, however. Luckily for me, once my breast milk came in with earnest and I could breast feed around the clock, my cloud of depression lifted. I listened to her stories and began to think I can do this.

“Every Sunday I called my mom and we’d talk about politics. I loved our Sunday calls,” my mom told me 10 years ago.  “Well, this one Sunday, I’ll never forget it. Your father was at the hospital and I looked around as I spoke with NiNi (her mother) and I saw your sister (and with her next description, I knew exactly which sister it was) climbing up the curtain rod! I started to go for her, but then I heard something and looked out back and your other sister was pushing down your brother from his bicycle. Well, I’m still on the phone, but as I go to your brother, I turn around and look back and I see your sister now putting a screw in her mouth!” Amazingly, the whole time she’s telling me this story, she is smiling. What lesson did she learn? Not to decorate, or put up curtains partially, and then take a phone call when you have three children. I, on the other hand, was completely horrified. I had my one and only baby suckling at my breast and began to think I will never, ever, have another child.

“Well, I laughed and laughed about that. Of course, I had to get the screw out of her mouth first!” my mom said. Over the years as her Alzheimer’s began to take hold, she repeated that story to me over and over again.

Mom and William, 2 years.

It was as if she knew that I’d need to remember it too. That I would need to pull it out of a file in the back of my mind to remind myself that this craziness is what it’s all about. We’re all pushed to the brink when raising children. But it’s how we handle it and carry through that matters.

Three years ago I was visiting my mother. She was still at home then, although we had assistants to help her. It was evening, and she had fallen asleep with her TV on. I went in to shut it off. She raised up and pointed to the hall light.

“I finally put a cover on it. Like it?” she asked me. I turned to look at the hall light and noticed a new sconce. “Oh. Wow. Yes, we finally have one.”

“I know, I never replaced the old one because I was so ashamed,” she said to me, clear as day.

When I asked her what she was talking about, she replied, “Well, one day, when you four were up to something. I can’t recall really, but one of your sisters was yelling and your brother was doing something, I don’t remember what, but I got so mad, I actually threw my shoe up the stairs and it hit the hall light. I never did replace it (the sconce) because I wanted to look at that ugly bulb to remember how stupid I was. I didn’t want to lose my temper like that ever again.”

I swallowed hard and held her hand. “It’s ok mom.”

“Oh, it’s silly. I should have known better. Don’t do that kind of thing, ok?”

The next morning, when I told her I enjoyed our talk she replied, “Oh? What talk? Didn’t you just get here?”

Well, call it Divine intervention, but I know we did have a talk and I’m so grateful—that even though she didn’t remember it—I always will. And I thought about her advice today after Jamesy threw his smoothie across the car and it landed with a SPLAT across the entire backseat. Sigh. I’m clearly on the brink too. But I’m going to be brave and stand on the edge and take a deep breath. I may have to dig in my heels and brace myself or a long stay. But my little guy will grow up eventually, right? And if I make it through with my sanity in check, just think about the stories I’ll be able to embarrass him with!

Single Mom’s Budget Travel Tips

Photo by: Sam Squansh

Summer is around the corner. As a single parent, instead of getting giddy about your well-deserved time off, or some family fun, you may likely be getting depressed. Are you looking at your check book and thinking there’s NO WAY you can afford a vacation? If you are newly separated or divorced, you may feel like you will never travel again. I mean, it’s hard enough to even drive to see the grandparents with kiddos of a certain age, right? Even if you could afford a European or Hawaiian vacation, would you want to fly alone with the little ones? (I’ve done this many times,  as I used to live in Europe and my Ex still does, so I transport the kiddos to him. I’ve learned many tricks to entertain and distract the one, two, and three-year-old minds on transAtlantic flights. Even so, it’s extremely taxing. For tips on how to survive flights with your children read my article Survival Tips for European Travel with Children .)

But, back to reality…How can you afford a holiday with the little ones this year? If you’re creative, flexible, open-minded and resourceful, you’ll be amazed at the many ways to subsidize travel expenses. I’m going to share a few of my favorites. There’s NO reason why you can’t figure out a way to get away—even if for a weekend. If your Ex has the kiddos for a week or two over the summer, that might be the perfect chance to escape solo. If you are traveling with them, however, there are ways to lower costs, make new friends, and find affordable babysitting or camps so you can rest. I hope these ideas inspire you and if you have more, PLEASE chime in!

Top Travel Tips for the Single Mom: 

Try a House Swap: My favorite site is Sabbatical Homes. This site was founded by Nadege Conger when she realized that there was a need, predominately in the academic community. Her husband, who is a professor, travels a bit for work. Like many of his colleagues, he can take sabbaticals or visiting professor gigs at other universities. From this idea—to cater to academia—her site has grown to a larger audience. It is still much smaller than the main home exchange sites and feels more manageable—as it’s easy to identify and conduct background checks on the people who respond to your ads. If you’re thinking, “who would want to swap houses with me since I don’t live in California or Florida?” this site is for you. Academics often want to get away to work on a proposal or book—or need to teach at another university—expanding the typical search requests and making your house more viable. Since Nadege is French and travels a lot, there is large audience on this site from Europe. After posting my house, I had requests for house swaps in Italy, France, Spain and Hawaii. You can also rent your house via this site. If you are interested in an adventure and are flexible about where you go, this could be a great option. Plus, house swaps provide a great way to really enjoy your holiday with a local’s perspective. I’ve house swapped via craigslist (before learning of this site) and had amazing trips to Paris, Venice and London. (Which I will write about later, since they were all amazing holidays with local flare.)
Another great site to rent homes for your next vacation, or perhaps to list your own is: Vacation Homes and Villas.

Take a short cruise:
Lisa Van Riette, a single mom of three from Orange County, Calif., took a three night/four day excursion with Carnival Cruise Line this year for just under $1,000. Yup, you read that right. This included meals and kids camps and activities for her kids, ages 7, 11 and 13. “They had so much fun together! There were so many activities, like a build-a-bear (camp), a scavenger hunt for my 13-year-old and an all-you-can-eat (ice-cream) sunday party. I had time off and then we’d all get together for dinner. And, the food was good! You can’t beat it!” says Lisa.  This mom has taken many cruises with Carnival, but experts also rank Disney Cruise Line high for families as it has nursery staff for infants.

Explore Single Parent Holidays:
Organizations like Single Parent Travel offer group-discounted vacations for single parents and their children. A current package includes a a five day/four night Harry Potter excursion at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. Other trips include Telluride and the beaches off the Turkish coast. I can’t say the vacations are extremely cheap (Harry Potter costs between $850 and $1,300 for rooms alone), but they offer a group discount on rooms and a built-in community of other families with children, so your kiddos will make friends and play, while you can enjoy adult conversations with other single parents. It’s a brilliant idea.

Find Travel Deals:  
There are plenty of agencies out there to sign up with, but my favorite is Sherman’s Travel Deals . Highlighted on his site right now is a great article entitled Fifteen Summer Trips on Half a Tank outlining great weekend get-a-ways. Sign up and you’ll receive his weekly email of travel tips and the latest deals. For instance, BookIt.com has a hot deal for discounts on summer vacations, ending May 1st.

Rack Up Miles.
If you have credit card debt and a decent credit rating, transfer your account to  a credit card that is offering you airline miles. For instance, some credit cards will give you 25,000 miles for opening an account and then offers miles for each dollar you spend or transfer over. To compare credit cards offering miles, go here.

Single Mom’s Wanderlust: A State of Mind

As many of you may know, I used to live in London and traveled quite a bit. I moved back to California in the summer of 2008, when 7 months pregnant. Southern California is a great place to be when you’re sleep deprived and in need of sunshine and fresh air. But lately, I find myself starting to get that twitchy foot. The itch that, in the past, would make want to purchase a last minute rail ticket for a weekend excursion to somewhere in Europe. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss my old life at all. I really do believe that I was supposed to go through this mess: this divorce, this single motherhood thing and that it’s all part of a plan. It’s forcing me to grow and realize my inner strength and  I have embraced that better things are yet to come. BUT, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes need to GET AWAY.

Now that I’m regularly sleeping through the night, (isn’t it marvelous when your child finally lets you??) I’m feeling the urge to hit the open road. I crave getting into my car and driving for long periods at a time with no real destination. I recall reading Ann Tyler’s book Ladder of Years where the main character, a 40-year-old mom, took a walk and just kept walking until she moved to another town altogether. I loved it. (Although I adore all of Ann Tyler’s books.)

Don’t worry, ya’ll. I’m not about to do that. But I realize that I need vistas. I need to explore. It’s always been a part of my DNA. My Ex hated that I rarely planned or structured our trips beyond arranging a house swap or renting a flat or house somewhere. I liked to meander and discover things—to sit at cafes and people watch or talk with a chatty local and get the low-down on where to go that evening. I miss spontaneity. In college, I’d take off and drive from Georgia to Maine with no set stopping places in between. I’d stop where it felt good to do so. I naturally gravitated to journalism as I liked the constant change of scenery or new voices. As a child, I wandered in the woods and horse trails. I love discovering by happenstance. With that said, I’m literally and financially too grounded to take off as a single mom of two kiddos.

But I’m realizing that I can still get a little bit of that flight feeling by opening my eyes wider and exploring closer to home. By being present and taking in my surroundings or taking short excursions with the boys, we can explore. So, I’m rarely without my camera these days. I’m far from a photographer, (and none of my pictures were taken with special lenses or have been touched up in some way) but I find that shooting pictures of the beauty that surrounds me in Southern California reminds me there are things to discover in my own backyard. It helps ease that yearning for an excursion I can’t have right now.

There will be days ahead for faraway travel. But for now, I’m going to keep drinking in my sun-kissed part of the world. When I take pictures and look at them later, I’ll remember to thank God for second chances at a new life. I am grateful to stay put at the moment. I am grateful to have the time to create and discover what beauty surrounds and lies within.