Category Archives: Motherhood aka “The Greatest blessing…EVER!”

You’re not my dad…

I ponder never having brought someone “new” into my son’s life because I was afraid of navigating the conversation around, “You’re not my dad!” Truth be told, there are many reasons why I made a conscious decision to not date until my son left for college, but navigating a new man in our lives was just something I chose to avoid. I had enough on my plate.

As we have become a world beautifully filled with blended families and men and women stepping in to be an additional blessing to a child’s life, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about how to navigate this. Mostly I can speak to it from my experience of embracing another woman in my son’s life with his dad. I stand firm with one belief…you love my child, and you don’t have to because he is not “yours”. He deserves to be loved. So, as challenging as it may be, I am grateful for your loving him and I would never take love away from him.

That comes from the perspective of what a child needs, but what do partners need in navigating those relationships? How do we support a new partner in developing their relationship with our children and their own concern about hearing, “You’re not my dad!” It’s not easy. Depending on the circumstances and age of the child(ren), the process is different. Any partner we bring in to our family needs to be able to develop their own relationship with the kids. We need to be able to step aside, trust in the person we love enough to bring them into our kids’ lives and allow them space to work it out together…without our constant interference rooted in a need to prevent something “bad” from happening.

There are conversations as partners that we can have about how to support one another in the evolution of these relationships, and there are conversations to have together with our children. Include them in the gray area of what this all is. Allow them a voice in how to navigate it. As the biological parent, we have an innate sense of trust and connection with our children, but people coming into our lives, loving us and loving them don’t come with the same intuitive skill. What is normal, natural for us, is a learned partnership for them. If our partner is concerned about stepping on toes or trying to figure out what their role is and can be, talk about it with the kids.

“I love your mom and I love you. I am excited about being an important part of your lives. And I also know that I’m not your dad. So I want us to be able to talk about all of this if/when it gets uncomfortable. I want you to feel safe in respectfully letting me know if the way I am approaching a situation doesn’t feel right or sit right.”

There is a way to include our children in the evolution of the “plus” relationships of new people in our lives without giving them unbalanced power or unintentional opportunity to manipulate us.

I’m still not certain I did the right thing (a question I ask myself with regard to many, many decisions I made as a parent), but I made it. I also filled his life with incredible men who have loved him and guided him and supported him, and never once had to tread near the notion of threatening his dad’s place in his life. I am blessed with 3 brothers who have had my back my entire life, and picked up that mantle with my son. The husbands of my girlfriends have always seamlessly included us, and him when it mattered most. So whether or not my son witnessed me loved and respected as I should be in a partnership or having a male figure in our home, that absence was mitigated by the male role models he has had.

“Bonus” adult people in our children’s lives are a gift worth embracing.

 

Ninja Parenting

Ninja parenting is a phrase I coined as my approach evolved to meet the needs of my son in every phase of his life. He grew up hearing me say over and over again, “I will always have more patience than you have attitude and more tools in my toolbox than you have challenges to give me.” The poor kid never had a chance against my ninja parenting expertise.

From the day I found out I was pregnant, I knew in my soul that my responsibility was to guide him throughout his life in the ways in which he needed, not the ways I wanted him to need. So I did my best to be present and really think about what he was looking for from me in every situation, every challenge, every phase of growth. When he was an infant, he needed to know he was safe. Not in a bubble to where nothing ever went wrong, safe, but that he could trust himself and trust me. He needed to “feel” safe, not just hear me say the words. I wanted him to know the world is full of hope and promise knowing full well that the reality of mistakes and hurt and the ugliness of the world would reveal itself to him in time, but if he held the belief in his heart that better things are possible, then when he faced pain or challenges, he would be able to tap into his courage and potential to overcome them.

When he learned the art of communication and began asking “Why?” every waking hour of every day, I recognized that he was looking for affirmation to be curious about the world, to question when things don’t make sense, to never be satisfied with the status quo. So even though it was at times inconvenient to have to be thoughtful and intentional in my response, I did my best to feed the hunger he had for learning and understanding and thinking for himself.

He reflects now and says I “made him” make his own decisions from the time he was eight. Actually, what I was doing was offering him safe parameters in which to have input in his own life. Have thoughts and opinions. The easy way out for both of us would have been to give him all the answers, tell him what he was supposed to do and have him follow my direction. But that doesn’t help him when I’m not around or when he got older and was in the world on his own. Of course I wasn’t going to let him have sole power over when he went to bed or whether or not he endangered his life or someone else’s, but if he thought it was a good idea to only study for a 5th grade Science test on the 15 minute drive to school, the best way for him to figure out if that was a good study habit was to give it a try.

It looks different for every child and every parent. There is no one way to be a parent. No one right answer for everyone. The only element that needs to be consistent is being present. Being awake to your child. Tapped in. When we make a conscious effort to make ALL of our decisions (even the hard ones) from a place of Love, then we are doing the best we can in every situation. It takes longer to accomplish the goal of helping our children learn how to make decisions, learn that negative actions have consequences, learn how to cope. These are the ultimate life skills we want our children to have as they evolve into adulthood. And they are skills we can’t dictate to them, they are life skills that we teach through action, inaction and interaction.

Ninja parenting….wisdom, patience and love (and a little bit of trust that it all works out in the end).

 

 

 

Souls on a human journey

What can I control in this situation, and what can’t I control? Am I going to spin my wheels trying to change something I cannot control; the past, someone else’s behavior or  the weather? Or am I going to focus my energy on what I can do something about; my reaction, my behavior, my decision to be content?

I have had this conversation with 11 year olds in juvenile hall; bouncing off the walls and getting into fights because they are frustrated and scared being in jail. With young men and women returning home after decades in prison, urgently seeking to get back to their life, right their wrongs and put into motion every aspiration and dream they worked hard to prepare for while incarcerated. And with my 19 year old son as he navigates the transitions of his life. Oh, and I’ve had this conversation with myself, many a time.

Some of the most challenging of times come when I am working with my “other” kids; the 250+ that I have walked with through juvenile and adult court, through lengthy prison sentences and through the myriad of unforeseen challenges they encounter upon returning home, seeking a fresh start and a chance to create the life they’ve always been worthy of. I have always said in my work that I don’t “change” anything for anyone. I don’t “save” anyone. I don’t “fix” anyone. I simply walk with people in some of the most dire of circumstances, helpless to change anything about what happened in the past, but reminding them that they are inherently good, and capable and worthy of a better future while healing their past. And I will have that conversation over and over and over again.

I remember a young man, 19 years old, walked into my office one day, shoulders drooped, eyes choosing to look at the floor instead of at me. His sense of shame was visible in his body language and in his voice. After I hugged him, grateful to be seeing his face after months of being off my radar, he seemed to garner the courage to look me in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry, Mama Cheryl.”

“For what,” I asked.

“For letting you down. I been gettin’ high and I lost my housing and quit going to school.”

He expected me to echo the sentiments he had already heard throughout his life; that he messed up, failed, that I was giving up on him. Instead I let him know that our job as mentors/parents is to create parameters in which they can make decisions, and mistakes with an appropriate risk of harm, sacrifice and loss. Within those parameters, we expect mistakes. It’s all part of learning and growing. The relief on his face and the change in his body language was heartwarming. To know that someone cares enough to walk with you during difficult times, and trust you to find your way through them is critical to each of us. “What now” is more productive and healing than “How dare you”. If we all can’t fall and fail and get back up again to give life another try, we miss the purpose of living. This journey of life is all about cycles of growth.

And then sometimes I run out of wisdom, support, guidance or tools. Sometimes I am not meant to be part of another’s journey to healing. I have to let go and trust that they will find their way; hoping that they do. It is painful, but if someone I love doesn’t see their own inherent value yet or continues to self-sabotage their own life, there is nothing for me to do except send them love from a distance. Let go and pray that they continue to see people come into their life to remind them that they are loved and valued.  But I can’t put more effort into someone’s healing and success than they do. It would be egotistical for me to think that I have the power to change them. I have no power over anyone else, none of us do. I only have love and compassion.

We are all souls on a human journey. We cross paths with one another along the way, to support and be supported. To learn and to teach. To love and be loved. It’s a beautiful journey.

I am. . .

I never felt comfortable identifying as a “survivor”. The survivors whom I have had the privilege of walking with for 18 years, have endured an unimaginable kind of violence. I didn’t think mine was relevant. Mine was the silent kind, the one with no visible wounds or scars. The kind people flip their nose at because “I made a choice”…Privilege over self-respect.

I have often felt guilty for feeling like I endured something because I had access to experiences and “things” that few people ever get to have. I lived a life of profound privilege for more than a decade. On the surface, I had it all….and really, I had nothing. I convinced myself I had love. He convinced me I had love. I owned nothing. I lived in isolation in front of millions of people. I endured silently with a smile and a lot of luxurious “things”…until I couldn’t any longer. I had to choose privilege or self-respect…I finally chose self-respect. But it didn’t come from me, it came from my son. Becoming a mom brought out a fearlessness in me, a recognition that I had better be everything I claimed to be because I now had someone who relied on me to learn it all. I tried to become all of that within our relationship, but that wasn’t the person he wanted. So after 15 years I left with my child, my clothes, my rocking chair and crib. No movers came because I wasn’t allowed to take anything. Not a spoon (although I did sneak some silverware and a blender from one of our guest houses). By myself, I packed up and drove away from our home and to my apartment.

I had to be punished for leaving; I wasn’t supposed to make life altering decisions like that. He was. I bought a bed and refrigerator before my credit card was shut down. And then the fun began. We camped out in our apartment with little furniture, but we had each other…and freedom. I remember one night lying next to my toddler as he slept, taking a deep breath and thinking that if my life never gets better than this, if this is my “it” and I just ride life out from here…what do I have to complain about. I have been blessed with this beautiful human who was born out of love, and I don’t want to miss a moment of his life looking for something else. Looking for a new man, a better life, a new brass ring to chase. And at that moment, I let go of my fears and breathed in gratitude for my life, his life, our life.

I felt guilty identifying as a “single mom” because I had funds, albeit comparatively few, to put a roof over my son’s head in California, which was more than many single parents. I made decisions every step of the way, to maximize my time with my son when he was with me, honoring his relationship with his dad, and always holding out hope that his dad would be a better father than he was a partner. Our son deserved the best of both of us, and I knew in my soul that the only way for that to be possible, was for me to create space from him, to allow me to be free to be the mom I was capable of being. I made that decision out of love for all of us. I was afraid to rock the boat for fear the support for my son would disappear. The only reminder of the debilitating control I accepted for so many years, was that support. I needed it. I wanted nothing more than to never need anything from him again, but I needed that money to give my child the kind of life he deserved.

We lived month to month for a long time. There were times when I had $10 and 4 days left in the month, but we made it work. We built forts in our house and walked to the park and ate dinner at friends’ houses…I’d be damned if I was gonna break under the pressure. That was what he wanted. I had no where near that privileged lifestyle that his dad had to offer, but I had more love than anyone could ever give. I learned that growing up.

Sometimes I was irrationally determined. I had moved us from a rented apartment next door to a stripper and into a rented home. I bought a basketball hoop for the driveway. Loaded and unloaded it myself. Grabbed my toolbox and sat in the driveway with all of the pieces laid out. The beginning of the instructions read: “You will need two people to assemble”. My response to the written instructions was: “Fuck you, I don’t have two people. I have one, and I’m putting this thing together.” . . .and so I did. Until I got to the part where I had to put the 50lb. backboard on the 10 foot long pole and stand. I tried everything I could, holding the stand off the ground with one foot while leaning to pick up the backboard and trying to shimmy it onto the pole. Propping the pole up off the ground with cinder blocks and trying to lift the backboard onto it. I turned red, and frustrated and disappointed in myself. Eventually I gave up and asked a neighbor for help. Because the goal was more important than my pride.

I had great successes too. I made sure that my son knew love. I made sure that he had great men around him in all areas of his life: basketball, school and friends. My family was unquestionably my foundation throughout this time, but there was only so much they could do given the miles between us. My girlfriends and their husbands were also a critical part of our lives. I relied on both family and friends to be a strong presence in my son’s life and felt comfortable asking them for help getting a Christmas tree or cleaning out the gutters, or even talking to my son when I knew he needed a man’s ear.

Some of the hardest times were during middle school and high school when I was working long hours and not home after school. Times when my son left his basketball bag in the trunk of my car and I had to drive 35 miles from downtown to school to get it to him in time for practice…and then back to work. I sat in the bleachers of basketball games writing work proposals on my computer while waiting for his game to start. And some days came home completely tapped out and realizing I had left no energy or patience for my own child.

I did all that. And I wouldn’t trade a single sleepless, bawling night of tears and fears and disappointment. I never took a breath to think about what I had been through or was going through, there was no time. High school graduation, college acceptance, and raising a thoughtful, happy young man…those were the goals. And we got there: my son, my village and me.

The child support is gone. I am completely free. I am a survivor.

From Parenting to Guiding: The transition into college

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The night before we caught a 4 hour flight to Indiana for the first year of college, I found myself waking up at 3am. The last 18 years played like an old reel to reel film fluttering in my mind. “Is he going to pay attention enough to his surroundings? Did I have enough conversations with him about hard work and self discipline? Did I share enough and role model well enough how to treat women with respect and kindness? Did I do enough? Did I do too much?” The memories of car ride conversations and obstacles overcome with consequences and second chances continued to cycle through my mind as I struggled to get back to sleep.

The day of culmination of 18 years of parenting dropped in on me like an anvil. As I asked myself “Is he ready?” I realized that I was really questioning whether or not I was ready. The emotions were deep and full; a cauldron brewing with excitement for his journey knowing that this next phase brings enormous personal growth and adventure (and a whole lotta fun), mixed with the sense of relief and accomplishment that together, he and I made it through all of the emotional, financial and educational struggles (#WeDidIt), topped off with a stabbing pain in my heart that the primary focus of my energy and love for the last 18 years was gone, just like that.

We both made it through that long goodbye in August 2017. We had an agreement to Face Time every Sunday and then during the week, if he wanted to talk, he would call. I would give him space. That took some self control to avoid calling at 7:45am to make sure he was on his way to 8am class, or check in on his nutritional habits and healthcare maintenance. Putting my phone ringer on and checking it throughout the night just in case he needed me, was a bad habit that admittedly took quite a while to break. By week 5 the Face Time conversations came in the middle of the week with the challenges of long hours, adjustments to a different environment and just plain homesickness…all normal first year growing pains. I had to practice acknowledging the challenges, resisting the temptation to hop on a plane and make it better, and empowering his ability to work through them on his own. I reminded him of how capable he is, when he is questioning himself. I encouraged him to take a deep breath and tackle what is most pressing, chipping away at them one problem at a time, and ask for help from the new resources surrounding him. I learned to upgrade my parenting of a teenager to guiding a young adult.

The year came and went with a wealth of new experiences, challenges and successes…for both of us. The summer was wrought with its own adjustment to a more responsibly independent young adult living under my roof requiring a new set of rules and agreements. And then as quickly as it came, we were on to year two goodbyes. This time I wasn’t concerned with whether or not he was prepared. This time I walked away with a gentle pang in my heart that I just miss him. #UnconditionalLove.

Falling Silent

 As a chaplain with children in juvenile hall, you get used to the stories of how kids get caught up with the “wrong people”. How they make poor judgment calls all in the name of figuring out who they are in the world. But you never get used to the damage, the pain, the indelible marks of a short life riddled with abuse at the hands of someone who is supposed to love them. I never ever will understand how we can incarcerate a 14-year-old girl for prostitution as if she chose that career path and that broken arm she had when she was arrested. I can never erase from my mind the countless stories of sexual and physical abuse that many of “my girls” endure before their pain turns outward in anger, just hoping someone will care they are alive.

“I feel like I’m drowning.”

“What did I do to deserve that? “

“I’m mad at myself because I ‘fell silent’.”

These are the voices of young women who should have a bright future ahead of them, but instead are stuck in the quicksand of the remnants of abusive relationships. Repeating the patterns over and over again, letting the boyfriend back into their hearts because he cried and apologized, promising to never do it again. Choosing the “same guy” with a different name who is going to treat them the same way, eventually leaving them with the guilt that they brought it on themselves. That they must deserve to be treated this way because everybody does it to them.  The words of disdain, of hatred, the punch in the face or the choke around the neck are stifling. So stifling that the next time some guy starts to go down that path toward abuse, with red flag warnings at every encounter, they fall silent. Their throat closes as if no words can come out. They just don’t know how to fight it off.

Enough years of this pattern and every man has control over them without even knowing it, or putting forth an effort to suppress them. They feel it in every job interview; that they will never be enough. They hear it in every flippant remark by a male friend who thinks he’s just joking when he calls her a bitch. They sense it in every aspect of their lives. And they fall silent.

In that silence their insides are crumbling. There is an illness that is literally eating them alive. Sometimes they can fake it with a smile, suppress it with straight As and a college scholarship, or create the demeanor of someone who has it all together. But it never goes away. Many times they learn to live with it…until someone sits across from them and invites them to say the words, “I have the right to be me”…and they fall silent. I fell silent too.

I have to believe. . .

Every day I interact with young people who are struggling to get through another obstacle life has thrown in their path. These are young men and women, some still boys and girls, whom I’ve come to call my children because they are; spiritually, emotionally and universally. I read their brilliant prose on FB where they brazenly lay out the raw, brutal reality of lost childhoods, broken promises, painful mistakes they’ve made that are cut into the story that is their life, unable to be shaken by a joint or a rum and coke or a college degree. And every day, with every story, every cry for help, I am helpless. Maybe not completely, but sometimes when my heart is breaking a little too much too often, helpless is how it feels. I help where I can with support, guidance and love, and resources where I have them. But I know the truth is that ALL of the work is theirs. It’s that way for all of us, but somehow witnessing young people experience the journey of life in such profound ways feels more difficult than anything I have personally ever had to endure. Recognizing that they have to find their own strength, their own courage, their own fight (yet again) to pick themselves up and walk out of the darkness of their surroundings and experiences, I am pained by the acknowledgement that I cannot go get them and carry them out. If I do that, I get in the way of whatever lesson it is they are trying to put behind them. Whatever healing is meant to happen. And so I sit, with all of my friends and fellow ‘parents’ who are able to see the Light in all of our children. We sit together, at the opening of that proverbial cave, with candles. Encouraging, guiding, willing them to get up and keep moving. If they could only see us. If they only knew how enormously valuable they are to us. I have to believe they can do it. I have to believe they will. My heart needs to believe it.