Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How Not to Handle This Co-Parenting Issue......

Remember the Berenstain Bears?  One of my favorite books involved Papa Bear teaching Brother Bear how to ride his new bike -- or, rather, how NOT to ride it.  Well, I recently pulled a Papa Bear stunt and decided to fess up to it and offer my behavior as an excellent example of  how NOT to treat your teenager when he has chosen to live with the other parent.

So, earlier this summer my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She decided to come to Denver to have her chemotherapy treatments and, to the extent we could do any planning under severe emotional strain, we planned to have my mom live in my place as kind of a "home base" while she is here.  Our home only has two bedrooms, so, after agonizing over the situation for a ridiculous amount of time, I discussed the situation with my 17 year old son and his Dad.  I could turn my dining room into a room for my son and we could keep our parenting time schedule, or he could basically live with his Dad full-time and we would work out some way to spend time together.  We decided that staying with Dad was the best idea given all the unknowns about my Mom's health situation.

For numerous reasons, some unknown to me, my Mom has decided to stay with my brother and his significant other (she's wonderful) -- they have a much larger home, but it is not close to me or her doctors.  So, the bottom line is that I'm now alone.  I'm not a person who cannot be alone, but I am a parent who misses having her son around - even when he was here and spending most of his time in his room doing teenage boy stuff he was here and I had some connection to his life.  I could give him hugs, peek in on him while he was sleeping and, occasionally, try to see what girls he was writing to online :-)  Austin doesn't understand what the big deal is and, so far, isn't enthusiastic about going back to our parenting schedule.  Austin's Dad is thrilled with the new situation and takes every opportunity to remind me that I put my mother "ahead of" my son and, obviously, am not a good parent.  [NOTE:  The "I'm a better parent than you" theme is nothing new -- in fact I think it began the day Austin was born.  Superfun.]

The thing is that when I was agonizing over what to do, I rationalized that I have always known there would come a day when Austin would get sick of going back and forth between two homes -- and, especially as a teenager, he is definitely in a "daddy phase."  I reasoned with myself that this was totally fine and that as long as Austin is happy, healthy, doing well in school, I should support what he wants to do.  RIGHT.

Knowing that something is "right" in your mind, does not make it any easier on your heart. (or your ego)  I learned this lesson when Austin's dad and I divorced and it seems to be a recurrent theme in my life.  I try so hard to take my ego, my needs, my "issues" with Austin's dad out of the equation when trying to come to grips with this situation.  I try even harder because I work with parents who struggle with co-parenting their teenagers and I always stress that parents need to check their ego at the door when it comes to deciding what is best for their child(ren) in any particular situation.  Alas, even after 15+ years of co-parenting practice, I sometimes fail spectacularly.

Recent example:  I commented on something that Austin had posted on Facebook -- I know, bad idea.  He wrote back saying that this was why he didn't want me to be his friend -- even though pretty much everyone else is -- dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma.....I FLIPPED - it was so ugly - I wrote him back a private email (I had some of my wits about me...) basically saying that I didn't feel like his mom anymore, that I felt like I only heard from him when he wanted something (kinda true) and that maybe he could send me a Christmas card or graduation announcement just to let me know how he's top it off I made a snotty remark about how I hoped he and his family were doing well.  Yeah, I told you it was ugly.

I tried to retrieve the message - no go.  I alternated between feeling totally justified and feeling like a total failure as a parent for about 24 hours.  I waited for some kind of response from Austin.  I knew I had handled the situation badly and that his reaction was not going to be "oh mommy, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, I didn't realize how much it meant to you to have me here, etc. etc. etc." -- he is not that kind of kid.

Imagine my surprise when he showed up after school the next day.  He came in, gave me a hug and told me all about his day.  I told him that I was very sorry about the message I had written him......turns out he hadn't read it yet.  THERE IS A GOD.  (alright, I am being dramatic....but I was relieved)  I explained to him what happened, how I felt and asked him what he was feeling and if we could do anything to have more consistent contact.  It was pretty much a one sided conversation -- he wasn't upset, but still didn't understand why it mattered where he slept and really needed to get online asap.......we made plans to at least have dinner together once a week and to schedule some nights that he would spend with me.

What have I learned from this? 

1.  Don't write on Austin's facebook wall.

2.  When you know you shouldn't hit "send", don't.

3.   I'm not perfect, and I'm not horrible - I'm human.

4.  Letting Austin see that I'm human, and that I realize when I make mistakes and try to correct them, is a good way to teach him how to handle similar situations in his life.  Instead of sticking to my "position" and trying to force a situation that doesn't work for him, I let him know that I respect his needs/decisions even when I don't like them.  I'm not suggesting that parents should always let their children decide when they want to be with either parent -- in fact research clearly concludes that it is a huge mistake to put that decision in the hands of  younger children as it puts them in the untenable situation of having to choose one parent over the other.  In our situation, however, Austin is 17 and a Junior in High School.  He has spent 99.9% of  his life complying with a parenting schedule that, although we discussed it with him and got his input as he has grown up, was imposed upon him.  As long as he doesn't take advantage of the situation ("hey dad, I'm staying at mom's tonight [so I don't have to work on that report you keep hounding me about...])  I think it will work out well.  As long as I keep my monkey brain under control (i.e., not make this about me or my parenting) I can live with this arrangement.

Doesn't mean I don't miss him though.......  

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Secondary Trauma and My Job - Terminating Parental Rights

I work as a guardian ad litem - in Colorado GALs are attorneys appointed by the Court to "represent" the best interests of a child who has been adjudicated dependent or neglected.  When a child comes into "the system" (human services & the courts) everyone's first goal is to reunite the child with his or her parent(s) as quickly as possible.  Without going through all the gyrations involved in one of these cases, I'll cut to the chase -- when all else fails, the State (via the County) moves to terminate parental rights.  Legally this means that, if the Court grants the request for termination, in the eyes of the law mom and/or dad are no longer parents.

On an intellectual level it makes sense to me -- we can't put kids' lives on hold until their parents get their acts together.  Kids continue to grow and, especially at very young ages, have significant needs for stable and appropriate caregivers.  If  mom and/or dad can't meet those needs after a reasonable period of time getting assistance from the department of human services, the child has the right to be placed with people who can meet those needs. 

Well, it all sounds good on paper - but as I approach my first termination hearing I am learning that, for me at least, it is not so clean cut.  My job is to look out for the best interests of the child - not mom or dad.  I cannot, however, shut down the part of me that is a mother myself.  Not only that, I am a mother who struggled, made mistakes, have no illusions that I know it all and can relate in many ways to the parents of the kids I represent. 

My first termination case involves a young woman who was raped at age 13, got pregnant at age 14 and at age 19 now has 2 children.  Both of her parents are/were alcoholics and drug addicts and she has known nothing but chaos in her life.  She has substance abuse issues, but the biggest barrier to her successfully parenting her kids is untreated mental illness.  She is bi-polar and tends towards mania -- a manic mother is impulsive, self-centered, grandiose, unable to slow down enough to consider how her actions may be affecting her children.  When this mom is on her medication consistently (and not using substances) she is great.  It is killing me that I have to recommend to the Court that her rights be terminated when I really want to say that we as a country have failed her.  We failed her when she was growing up and we are failing her now.  This mom doesn't have health insurance and can't get consistent mental health treatment -- when she can see a doctor, she can't afford the medication and has noone in her life who is consistent enough to help make sure she takes it all the time.  We have got to do something about mental health care in this country and we have to do it now.  Stepping off of that soapox.....

How do you just one day stop being a parent?  A court order doesn't change how you feel about your children.  A court order doesn't erase the life you had with them -- bringing them home from the hospital, celebrating the first tooth, staying up all night with a crying baby, the joy of seeing them take their first steps towards you.  I'm sure there are some parents who really aren't all that affected when their rights are terminated, as they haven't been involved, etc. but I haven't met a parent yet who doesn't unquestionably love their children.  The mom whose rights are being terminated soon has come to visit her kids every week - regardless of her mental state (not always a good thing, but she has made it to her visits), these kids are attached to her, they know she is their does a court order change that?

My heart breaks for this mom and her kids.  I know they are going to be loved and well cared for and they will have the stability they so desperately need -- but I can't imagine that they won't notice that mommy is gone.  I can't imagine the kind of grief that this mom has been, and will be enduring.  Somewhere inside I think she knows that this is the right thing to do for her kids, but I wonder how much comfort that gives her?

It is not giving me much comfort right now.  I'm pretty sure my grief over this situation is what they call "secondary trauma" and I don't know what to do about it.  I don't know how to work without compassion and I don't WANT to work in a system without compassion.  I need a case with a happy ending soon.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oh Crap - College......

So, I'm walking through a bookstore the other day (a very dangerous thing for my bank account) and I see a table loaded with stuff about college -- taking the ACT vs. the SAT, writing application essays, evaluating colleges, financial aid, college survival kits, calendars with deadlines for stuff - like tests and college applications -- I'm about to walk right by the table when it hits me - OMG AUSTIN IS GOING TO COLLEGE SOON, VERY SOON, TOO SOON !!

I'm not ok with this on so many levels its ridiculous.

Its not like I didn't know it was coming....eventually....Austin has been talking about going to college since he was very young. I remember the conversation we had when he was about 5 and talking about us going to college together. After I explained to him that he will be a very big boy by the time he goes to college, that parents don't go to college with their kids and he will be living with a roommate he sat and thought for awhile and said "well I'm going to tell them I don't want anybody in my room except you" (my heart flips) and I told him that by the time he goes to college, he will be such a big boy that he won't want me to live with him at college -- he looked at me with big brown eyes brimming with tears and said that he would always want me to live with him....and from that day forward he has gotten everything he has ever wanted :) kidding....but it was very sweet.

Austin is 17 now and will probably be horrified when I tell him about that conversation -- at this age he would prefer that I not know where he will be going to college. Alright that is an exaggeration, but he really hates sharing information with me. Even worse, he doesn't want to live with me all the time. Ahhhh - a topic for another post.

When I was in high school we really didn't even talk about college. I went to a very small school in a very small town and out of my 42 person class, I think 6 of us ended up going to college. I was so sheltered that I thought everyone went to college -- it was never presented to me as a choice or something I had to strive (or pay) for. ACT? SAT? I had no idea what these things were or that they could control my future -- they didn't even offer the SAT in my town -- you had to drive 2 hours to a larger town to take it. I took the ACT (no prep) early in the morning of the first day of the district wresting tournament -- now THAT was a big deal -- I was a cheerleader and wresting was "the" sport in my town and I had to miss part of the first day of the tournament because of this stupid test. Luckily I have always done well on standardized tests and I somehow ended up with a fairly high score so I had some choices of schools when it came time to choose.

Times have changed.....I guess we were supposed to have started taking Austin to colleges that he might like to go to last year (oops!) and to have narrowed down his choices. Apparently we are supposed to hire someone to assist us in getting Austin into the right college (I'm using "us" as a convenience, Austin's dad and I don't do much together - and yes, I'm the woman who helps people learn how to co-parent - what is your point?) Here is my question: Is it really that complicated? Are we negligent if we don't do all these things the "experts" tell us to do? I want the best for my son and I want him to be happy and it would be great if he could get a job after college, but I don't think it helps him much to be completely stressed out and consumed with the competition of getting into the "best" schools.

Am I nuts? I went to a teeny tiny high school that offered one course for college bound students, then I went to a relatively small in-state university and then I went to an in-state law school. Turns out that getting into my law school was very competitive -- not sure how I made it in, but a large percentage of my classmates were from the "best" colleges - Harvard, Yale, Berkley (sp?), etc. and (not to brag)(ha) this small town girl from a "no-name" college held her own very well against those people and graduated very high in the class. Unfortunately, in my chosen profession firms are very very snobby about what law school you went to and what your rank was. If I had understood that at the time I was applying to law schools, I might have tried to get into a more "prestigious" law school - who knows. So, I'm conceding that at some level the school you go to can be pretty important, on the other hand, I got a great job right out of law school.

Back to Austin -- he is a junior in high school getting good grades and loving life. I love that he is loving life -- I get so much satisfaction from seeing him enjoy his high school years. Do we really have to get all serious now in order for him to get into a college? The stacks of books at Barnes & Noble suggest that the answer to that question is "yes" and "you should have started years ago." Am I the only parent resisting this? Does anyone else think some of this stuff is overkill?

I guess I'll be doing some book shopping soon. If the economy stays the way it is I just might be joining Austin in college - wouldn't he just loooooove that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sometimes we just need our mommy....

A few weeks ago, right before my mom had her first chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer, she had a little (ok, massive) breakdown. I was in a total panic -- I was supposed to be strong for her, to be positive and tell her everything was going to be alright and we would be through this unpleasantness soon, and I for SURE wasn't supposed to cry with her. My heart broke as she clung to me, just as I have clung to her so many times throughout my life, and I held her just like she has held me. She was so scared. Her mother (my grandma) just passed away less than a year ago after dealing with cancer for several years. They were very close, they spoke all of the time and in her final months my mom took care of her. Despite their differences, their souls were the best of friends. As I held my scared and trembling mom, I realized that all she really wanted was to have her mom there to hold her and comfort her.

What I really wanted was to have my healthy mom to be there for me for a few minutes - I wanted to cling to her and tell her how scared I am about my sick mom and how I don't know how to handle all this and how much I need her and how much my son needs her. I wanted to be able to tell her all about my fears, just like I've done all my life - but they are too big this time. I don't think I can even let myself feel them all at once. I feel so much shame because I seem to focus on what all this means for me and my life (and my brother and sister and niece) instead of on what it means for her -- what it must be like to have your whole world turned upside down by this intruder in your body, what it must feel like to have pain that you know is coming from the disease, how hard it must be to go from being completely independent to almost completely dependent, how awful it must be to think about the possibility of not being here to watch your grandchildren grow up, how hard it must be to cling to your daughter when all you really want is just a few more minutes with your mommy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thoughts on co-parenting from a veteran.

My ex-husband (the first one) left me a voice mail message tonight informing me that I had missed Back to School Night. Interesting that he waited to call until it was over. Interesting that he felt the need to call "just to let me know" that I missed it. Interesting, but not surprising. Just another opportunity to point out that he is the better parent.

Part of my job is to work with divorcing parents and to encourage, if not outright coach them on co-parenting. Luckily for them I have a wealth of knowledge based on 15 years of marginally successful co-parenting myself. I'm only being a little sarcastic here -- I really do think that my years and years of struggling with issues of re-marriage, step-families, completely different parenting styles and all of the zillions of other little issues that co-parents have to face on a daily basis allows me to bring some much needed perspective on what the real challenges of co-parenting are because frankly, unless you've been there, you have no idea.

I'm a book junkie (admitting you have a problem is the first step...) and have read numerous books about co-parenting in a desperate effort to figure out how to do it "right" for my son and to keep up on the literature for professional reasons -- I haven't found one that I would recommend to my clients. They all seem to be written by people who sit up on a pedestal and observe co-parenting and offer really useful advice like "treat one another as business partners" --- huh?? Come down into the trenches people, seriously......yes, it would be great to remove all emotion from parenting decisions and treat your ex as a business partner but who can do that?? What does it really mean? How do you get to the point where you can do that or even come close to doing it? THAT is what people really need to know.

I'm usually a quick study, but its taken me 15 years of attempting to co-parent to realize that, like everything else in life its a process, some days I'm totally on top of it and other days I could do a whole lot better. Some days I accept the fact that my son's father is really and truly never going to change (duh....) and I'm at peace with it, knowing that I'm doing the best I can.....other days (like, for example, today) I am totally triggered by his behavior and want to rage at him and tell the world what I think about his latest stunt.

On its face, his choice to call and tell me that I missed something important doesn't seem that outrageous. In context, its totally out of line. I've spent the last 6 weeks dealing with an ailing mother, for the past 2+ weeks she has been hospitalized with a terrifying "superbug" infection that the doctors were not sure she would beat. Today we moved her into a "skilled nursing facility" so that she can get help regaining her strength and then resume chemotherapy. I couldn't go with her because I've come down with some bug and am running a fever (hello guilt).... he knew all of this, I spoke to him earlier today about it and he didn't mention Back to School Night.....until it was over.... and he could tell our son that I didn't show up. I think that is mean. I'm pretty proud of myself for not picking up the phone and know. Instead I'm going to make sure I touch base with my son tomorrow and let him know how much I love him and how disappointed I am that I missed the opportunity to meet his teachers and find out about his classes.

On the bright side I now have another situation that I can use as an example with my clients to illustrate the benefit of not immediately reacting to an ex's obvious attempt to push buttons. When you don't go into reaction mode and engage in a futile attempt to defend yourself, you don't give your power away and you don't waste your precious energy fighting a battle you will never win. ("oh geez Kim, I forgot you had all that stuff going on today and I should've called you to remind you about tonight, but I picked up extra copies of everything for you"....THIS CONVERSATION WILL NEVER HAPPEN) Forgive yourself for mistakes and use your energy towards maintaining a positive relationship with your children. You can "win" with them and aren't those the relationships that are most precious to you?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Milestones: Austin is 17!

Seventeen years ago today my life was forever changed -- my son, Austin, came into this world to share this adventure with us. I wonder if other mothers are like me -- I definitely have motherhood-induced memory loss, but my memories of the day my son was born remain vivid and precious. I've shared the story of my labor/delivery and early hours of being a mother with Austin every year until this one -- today he is finishing up a great summer spent training to be a counsellor at a camp he loves and I won't see him until tomorrow. I wonder how it feels to him to be without either of his parents on his birthday? I don't like it - fyi. I doubt it is bothering him as much as it is me.

Austin arrived at 4:07 p.m. at St. Joseph's Hospital in Denver. I still remember what socks I was wearing -- awful choice. Anyway....despite our birthing plan for some reason the Dr. immediately handed Austin to the nurse, who began doing nurse things in, what I believed to be, an unnecessarily rough manner (hormones).... in fact, after reviewing photographic evidence, we see that my mom was the first family member to touch Austin -- just like a kid sticking his finger in the icing on a cake, we see her hand reach up and touch Austin's leg while the nurse is cleaning him up. Very sneaky. My first real meeting with Austin came very late that night, after everyone had gone home and we were alone in a hushed hospital room. I was exhausted (well, I thought I was - later I realized that that was nothing.... but I digress...) Austin was wide awake, very alert and our eyes met - I remember the intense sweetness of that moment as I realized that I knew this little soul and he knew me and somehow we knew that everything was going to be alright because we were together. Then he started crying and I realized I had absolutely no idea what to do with a baby.

Turns out Austin survived his childhood and is an amazing young man. People congratulate his father and I for raising such a great kid, but the reality is that Austin was Austin from the minute he came into this world -- a force to be reckoned with, a strong will and a compassionate person. We are just lucky that we didn't stifle who he is - we got to know him, gave him some guidance and a foundation and watched him shine. I can't wait to see what comes next!!