Monday, April 30, 2012

I'm Tired of Explaining Myself

*You ask, "Why don't you get a sitter?"
I answer, "The house is too messy to invite anyone over."
"Why don't you clean it up?"
"I don't have time. It's not that I'm a loafer."
I'm tired of explaining myself.

"Have I offended you?"
"I can't banter around and around."
"You haven't responded to my e-mails."
"I'm too busy. I don't think we've lost ground."
I'm tired of explaining myself.

"Why can't you stay out really late?"
"Losing sleep affects my ability to cope."
"You're no fun."
"I've had chronic fatigue syndrome. Sorry, but nope."
I'm tired of explaining myself.

"Do something for yourself today."
"I need to hustle to make ends meet."
"You will be fine."
"Now that would be a feat!"
I'm tired of explaining myself.

"Look at the bright side."
"I've struggled with depression, being a writer."
"Sometimes I feel connected to you and other times not so much."
"I'm moody or maybe bipolar."
I'm tired of explaining myself.

"You should be doing this with your career, not that."
"I'm doing what I need to."
"Talk to this person. Get into that discussion. Go to that event."
"It's a matter of priorities. I can't bite off more than I can chew."
I'm tired of explaining myself.

You seem to want more than I can give.
I must be disappointing you,
yet I can't change my situation.
I don't know what else I can do.
I'm tired of explaining myself.

Can you accept all sides of me?
Don't you see that I'm struggling?
A full-time single mother is overwhelmed
and doing too much goddamn juggling.
I'm tired of explaining myself.

I can see your motives are pure,
but please pay attention to what I say and write.
The answers are all there --
clear as day, in plain sight.
I'm tired of explaining myself.

I'm tired of explaining myself

I'm tired of explaining

I'm tired

*The You in the poem is a collective You. It does not represent any one person or particular group of people I know.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Knot in the Pit of My Stomach

We hear about Ayla, Lisa, and now Isabel, say a prayer for their safe return, and thank the Lord our children are not missing like these little girls. We can't imagine being one of the parents of Madeleine McCann or Etan Patz -- cold cases coincidentally making the news in the last week. British police have asked Portugal to open the former, and the latter was reopened and days later closed following a futile search of a New York City basement.

However, six days ago another such real-life nightmare hit very close to home for those of us living on Cape Ann in Massachusetts. The child's name is Caleigh Harrison, and she is from Gloucester, the city next door to my town. She was out for a walk along the shore in neighboring Rockport with her mother, four-year-old sister, and dog when their ball sailed over a wall in front of some summer cottages, and the mother went to retrieve it. When she returned, two-and-a-half-year-old Caleigh was nowhere to be found.

Was she a victim of foul play or abduction? Did she fall off a footbridge between two beaches into a creek whose strong current leads out to sea? Thus far, none of these scenarios has been ruled out.

As soon as the story went public, my Facebook friends and I started posting articles about it, comments, and requests for prayer. One such friend even works with the girl's grandmother! I discussed the situation with two mothers during a playdate not long after. One used to live in the area of the beaches and knows them well. She talked about the footbridge and demonstrated with her hands the pulling motion of the Atlantic Ocean as the tide at that location went out, as it reportedly was doing at midday last Thursday when the incident occurred. She used phrases such as "wanting to throw up" and "a knot in the pit of my stomach" to describe her feelings upon hearing the news.

I nodded because I got the exact same sensation. It is absolutely horrible to think about that poor innocent toddler's fate.

As a beachgoing single mother by choice of two sons, the ordeal also felt incredibly and personally scary to me. An old boyfriend of mine once said, "When you have more children than there are parents in the family, you are outnumbered." I am outnumbered every day -- a fact that really comes into play at the beach.

Singlehandedly managing young children at a beach can be one of the most difficult tasks of any parent. Indeed, it has been for me.

First off, neither of my sons are what you'd call "fish." Though he's taken many swimming courses at two YMCAs and one aquatic center, my eight year old is still reluctant to stick his face in the water (or most bodies of water, I should say), making for a serious aquatic impediment. Incongruously, the ocean -- with its waves, undertow, and current -- is the body of water in which Christopher performs best. Don't get me wrong: He doesn't swim in the ocean. He merely jumps through the waves and gets knocked down and tossed by them. He has never gotten in trouble in the ocean, though I watch him vigilantly as he plays in the water with his excellent swimmer friends. (As for myself, I am grateful to be a strong swimmer and former lifeguard, albeit never an ocean guard.) Then there's my younger son who stays away from the ocean altogether except perhaps to cool off his lower body, rinse off sand, or fill up his bucket.

Nonetheless, he presents a huge challenge on the beach because he is A Wanderer. Dare I say he's gotten a little better since getting older? I'm not sure. Naturally, at six years of age, he no longer absentmindedly toddles off or runs away willfully to exert his independence. Instead, he wanders just as a course of being in his own world. He can be very good all day playing beside me alone or with friends then suddenly disappear into a crowd of sunbathers, umbrellas, and sand toys just before it's time to leave. Believe me, I have many war stories to tell. I will save them for another post. Still, praise the Lord, I have always managed to find him.

Having resided on a coast my whole life except my college years, I can't really image living inland for any substantial length of time. I expect that I would feel claustrophobic, needing to at least once in a while gaze out at the blue horizon.

The ocean is a place of beauty, recreation, relaxation, and renewal. It is an inspiration for great art and fine writing. Winslow Homer, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Philbrick. Yet, lest we forget, it is also a place of great danger from drownings, shark attacks, and boating or scuba diving accidents.

As I have since last Thursday, I will continue to pray and think positive thoughts for young Caleigh and her family. By some miracle, perhaps she will be found alive and unharmed. Anything is possible. Unfortunately, a tragic outcome is more likely, it seems. I hope her loved ones get the closure they need before too long.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Week of History and Morality

In my opinion, one of the most important jobs of any parent is instilling in their child or children a sense of respect for history and morality. As a single mother by choice, this duty falls squarely on my shoulders, but I welcome the challenge.

This week two events of regional, national, or international importance brought this aspect of parenting to the fore for me. The first was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the second was the wake for fallen Greenland, NH, Police Chief Michael Maloney.

On Sunday evening, the History Channel ran a two-hour documentary on a recent expedition to the world's most famous wreck site. The ocean floor was mapped by two newly developed unmanned robots called AUVs -- autonomous underwater vehicles. The robots, whimsically named "Maryann" and "Ginger" after the popular characters from Gilligan's Island, uncovered never-before-seen pieces of the Titanic that, along with other evidence gathered by top underwater experts and forensic scientists, enabled them to essentially reconstruct the vessel and draw conclusions about how it broke apart and plunged to the sea floor.

The findings put to rest the century-old lingering questions about the disaster: Was the ship poorly built? No. Did faulty rivets "unzip," causing a rush of water to enter the ship? No. Was the ship traveling too fast when it hit the iceberg? No. The iceberg was not spotted until it was too late due to the moonless night and calm seas. Why were there so few lifeboats on board? The ship carried as many as required at the time. Unlike the Lusitania, Andrea Doria, and Costa Concordia, all of the lifeboats on the Titanic were functional because the ship did not tip to its side. In fact, a large number of passengers were saved because the "unsinkable" ocean liner stayed afloat for almost three hours.

I could tell from the preview that the program would be captivating, so I offered my older son the chance to see it. Many other mothers of eight year olds, I suspect, would not have permitted their children to watch because it follows a true-life story of death and disaster -- unpleasantries they want to shield their kids from as long as possible. But my son has known about the Titanic for a long time and, like me and scores of other aficionados the world over, is fascinated by it. Besides, it was school vacation week. Why not let him stay up till 10 p.m. to watch to the end?

We as parents are not able to predict which privileges we give our children will positively impact their future lives in a significant way. But I venture to say that allowing my son to watch an entire program filled with some of the latest scientific inventions and investigative techniques, a virtual holographic reconstruction of an iconic shipwreck, and answers to a longstanding mystery stands as good a chance as any to make a mark on him. What red-blooded boy wouldn't love that? "Cool" was my son's response when I told him about the show.

On Wednesday, we went to Alton, NH, to climb Mount Major. Electronic signs along I-95 informed drivers to take Exit 2 for Chief Maloney's wake, scheduled a day before his memorial service attended by US Attorney General Eric Holder along with thousands of police officers from around the region. Maloney, the police chief of Greenland, NH, had been gunned down the previous week by a suspected drug dealer during the execution of a search warrant. The shocking incident, which also involved the shooting of four other police officers in addition to the apparent murder of the suspect's girlfriend followed by his suicide, occurred in a small, unassuming town not far from where I lived nearly twenty-five years ago. As a reporter in those days for a daily newspaper that covered both my community and Greenland, the tragedy felt a tad personal to me. So when I learned the wake was still in progress as we drove through the area on our way back home to Massachusetts, I felt an emotional pull to attend.

My sons knew of the horrific crime from seeing coverage of it on the news and from hearing me talk about it as part of my ongoing, broken-record anti-drugs and -guns mother lesson that has also included tutorials on Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. among others. The boys have also been fed a steady diet of praise for those who uphold and enforce the law as well as others in the giving-of-themselves professions. So when I presented the idea of going to the wake, my sons said yes without hesitation.

I wasn't exactly sure how I would handle the issue of them seeing Chief Maloney's body in a casket. I mean, talk about being up close and personal with death! I have an open, progressive attitude toward parenting -- and we have discussed the passing of my parents, other relatives, a dog of mine they both knew when they were little, and famous people -- but subject them to a viewing of a stranger in a funeral home? Hmm, not sure about that.

Well, I had learned that traffic was backed up along the route where the funeral home is located. So, I figured, there was a very good chance we wouldn't even be able to get near the wake. Maybe the best we could hope for would be to position ourselves relatively close to the action and just observe the goings-on outside, whatever they might be. As a former news reporter and current news junkie, I like to be where news is happening if at all possible.

As I suspected, we could not get into the wake. The line was too long. In fact, I heard from the clerk at a gas station where I bought a copy of my old newspaper that a customer reported waiting two and a half hours to get inside the funeral home. Surprisingly, we did not have trouble getting to the site. The traffic was light enough at that early evening hour for us to drive right past without being stopped in the road for long.

But taking the time and making the effort to pay our respects, if only spiritually, was worth it. The Town of Hampton, NH, the location of the wake, was handsomely decked out in yellow ribbons, American flags, and messages of tribute. As I explained to my boys, it is rare to have the opportunity to witness a community honoring one of its citizens to such a great extent.

Block after block, street after street, the messages kept coming. R.I.P., Godspeed, and my personal favorites: "Some serve, some protect. Mike gave his all," and "God's finger touched him, and he slept." It was a beautiful display, and it brought my eldest son and me to tears. The scene outside the funeral home was even more impressive as countless uniformed police officers waited in the driveway, and a line of mourners whose end I could not see extended to the back of the stately white building. Reporters and cameramen stationed themselves on the sidewalk across the road as a police officer directed traffic.

Had I created a memory for my sons? I believe so. I believe they will remember the love expressed by the people of Hampton toward, in the simple yet straightforward words of one tribute, "one of the good guys." I believe they will get it that honorable deeds toward other people are the way to go; criminal actions are not.

Faced with two disparate yet highly publicized news events, this week I chose to break unspoken parenting rules by affording a potentially life-changing (or, at least, memorable) privilege to one son and by presenting a model of noble behavior to both sons.

As they are receptive to my informal morality lessons, I am confident they will grow up to become good men. That's what I want most for them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

DSOT: Part II (Social Life)

Short of major purchases or lavish trips, there are few things that can eat up your funds faster than your social life. You can drop big bucks going out to dinner, a club, a movie, or a concert. But don't forget the babysitter!

If you are a single mother by choice, you don't have another adult in the house to look after the kids while you kick up your heels with your girlfriends. You don't have an ex-husband to take the kids off your hands every other weekend and one evening a week, thereby freeing up your time enough to make a social life possible. If you're lucky, you may have someone -- or sometwo or somethree -- who you can call upon to relieve you so you can get out. But if you are like me, you don't . . . not really, anyway. And that is a problem.

Time to start thinking about "Deprivation School of Thought!" That is what I call doing without a "luxury" in order to prevent going broke.

Sure, I have friends (other mothers) whom I could call to ask if they'd take my boys for a little while so I could go out. I have made requests in the past, and I am most grateful to these people when they have accommodated me. I have asked for child-care help when I have had a work prospect, a chance to advance my writing career, a job to perform on a school-vacation day, a scouting commitment with my older son, and an opportunity to get rich (trying out for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire). I have not, however, sought their assistance for something as frivolous as painting the town red.

Whenever I broach the subject of needing a favor, I feel very uncomfortable. Since becoming an adult, I have viewed myself as a superindependent person. I do not like asking for help for anything. But the reality of being a single mother by choice is: you must ask for help sometimes. Once I've asked, accepting that help then makes me feel guilty. That's because I know I cannot reciprocate to the same level.

With my house in such a bad state, I cannot have that family's child/children over for a playdate, much less a sleepover. So I've offered to drive the children places to relieve the mothers of some of the back and forths (with only a few exceptions, they haven't taken me up on it). I've bought Christmas presents for the mothers, yet they've bought me ones in return or given me something I've needed: last year, a Christmas tree. I have brought presents back from a West Coast writing conference, written thank you notes, taken their children to a farm day and holiday library program, and even invited one on an overnight camping trip. His mother and a male neighbor had separately tried to get him through the night sleeping outdoors, but only I succeeded. It was a coup greatly appreciated by the family and of which I am very proud. Still, no matter what I do, it never seems enough to me.

I live in a constant state of feeling indebted to other people, especially in regard to my inability to invite children over.

So to avoid the pitfalls of having to ask and feeling guilty -- not to mention enduring the possible discomfort one feels when sensing real or perceived resistance, pity, or judgment that asking might bring about -- the single mother by choice without free and willing help must hire a babysitter. Well, guess what? Babysitter fees add up quickly, often doubling the amount spent on the evening's entertainment.

Can the SMC really afford to go out under these circumstances? Some can, and some cannot. I try to take a long-range view, so I put myself in the latter category. As such, I do my best to practice DSOT by saying no to a social life that costs me too much dough.

I remember going out once a year ago. I sent the boys to "Movie Night" at my health club for a cost of $10 each (no discount for members, which I was at the time). Then I went to a popular local establishment to hang out. I just wanted to get out of the house and check out The Scene. I had two beers and one appetizer, picked up the boys two and half hours after leaving them, and returned home nearly $50 poorer. Sure, I met a few people, whom I've not seen since, and had a good time. But that good a time? A $50-worth good time? No, I did not have that good a time. The price of the evening shocked me, disappointed me -- and knocked some sense into me. I realized I could not imbibe and nibble willy nilly again, at least not more than once in a blue moon.

Somewhere in my mind, I could see a marquee blinking "DSOT, DSOT" at me.  

As I am not part of a couple, I do not get invited to many parties in my conservative town. The much-smaller divorced contingent has also not embraced me as I am not one of them either. The type of social gathering I am most often invited to, aside from children's birthday parties, is incongruously the modern-day version of the Tupperware or Mary Kay party: the sell-your-gold-jewelry or buy-someone-else's-jewelry party, i.e. courtesy of Silpada and Stella + Dot designs. I remember the hostess of one such party saying to me, "It's been a long time since I've had a LADIES party," the implication being that she throws plenty of co-ed parties, though I wouldn't know from experience.  Yes, these genteel wine-and-cheese soirees are for women only -- a demographic I am, let's just say, a little too familiar with, being one myself obviously but also having attended girls' schools for four years and a girls' camp for part or all of six summers.

Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad! Can you say, "Very female-centric life?" And my mother also wanted me to go to Smith College!

This weekend, as a matter of fact, I was invited to one of the aforementioned gatherings. I really wanted to go because I'll take any adult party. As it is being held on a Sunday afternoon when I am normally with my boys, however, the child-care issue once again reared its ugly head. Not having received a response yet to her invitation, the hostess contacted me. I explained my predicament: no child care, house too messy to bring a babysitter in anyway and, oh, by the way, as money is tight, I probably wouldn't be buying any jewelry. (Got to stay strong with my DSOT.) I was hoping my sons could join her children doing whatever they would be doing so that I could go. Without saying so specifically, she implied that would create too noisy/chaotic a situation while the party was going on. After hearing her plan for her kids that afternoon, I would have to agree. She has her hands plenty full without bringing my sons into the mix! She suggested a playdate, instead.

Poof! went my adult-party opportunity. Just like that. Damn.

In a couple of weeks, I have yet another evening event I would like to attend. It's an annual reunion down in Boston for an outdoor school I went to in Wyoming in the mid-1980s. And while I do like my kind of jewelry (much better than plastic storage containers and cosmetics!), this party is really much more up my alley. I have actually consistently managed to get myself to it the past several years. A small miracle, really. This year? Hmm. Not clear. Thus far, I have made no moves toward cleaning up my house, calling a babysitter, or finding a place where my sons could go on that particular school night. Indeed, it will be very interesting to see if I can pull it off.

Regretfully, not having child care prevents the single mother by choice of young kids from attending ANY adult parties.

Perhaps surprisingly, I am not moaning about this situation. I accept it. It is part and parcel of being an SMC. Making the choice to raise a child on one's own means making some sacrifices and being stoic about them. I, like all my other SMC sisters, must suck up the parts of the lifestyle we don't like.

I feel that my social life, at this time, is an area I can curtail as it is a nonessential. It is not eating, clothing myself, or taking shelter; it is expendable. Desirable? Yes. Necessary? No. Others may disagree. Surely, I see that having a robust social life makes a person happier. However, I know myself pretty darn well by this point, and I know I am capable of a great deal of deprivation.

For now, I am satisfied to do (or not do) what I must.

Have you tried giving up a social life that costs too much money? How did it work out?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Deprivation School of Thought: Part I (Exercise)

Being a single mother by choice means being worried about finances.

It doesn't matter whether the woman is a low-paying social worker or a rake-in-the-big-bucks investment banker. She still expends mental energy -- granted, some more than others -- concerned with the condition of her family's coffers. She could get fired, laid off, or fall victim to an incapacitating illness or injury that would jeopardize her job standing for any period of time. Certainly, these predicaments can befall any working mother. But they are particularly troublesome for the SMC because she does not have another adult in (or out, in the case of an ex-husband) the house to provide a second, backup income toward raising the children. She, alone, is responsible.

The SMC must tighten her belt any way she can. Personally, I follow what I call "Deprivation School of Thought," sometimes more successfully than other times. DSOT means sacrificing a nonessential aspect of one's life for the good of the checkbook. For the SMC, it can mean survival, i.e. keeping one's head above water financially. But it comes with a warning label, too. It can cause crankiness, depression, anger, celibacy, distance from friends, feelings of isolation and resentment, and stress eating (or any other manifestation of unhappiness). In other words, it's a lot like PMS. It is best administered in doses, if possible, or for finite periods of time with breaks in between.

I practice DSOT in regard to exercise and my social life. Today I will examine the former, i.e. my fickle relationship with my health club. When I discovered this amazing club, I said to myself: No, you need to finish your book first. That's DSOT talking -- holding off on something you want until you've achieved something else. I knew if I joined the club I would have trouble getting my money's worth because I was flat-out with my manuscript. I couldn't see myself putting it down long enough often enough to pay off the monthly fee. DSOT would act as incentive for me to finish.

Only problem: I couldn't finish! It dragged on and on and, finally, I stopped writing. Then there was the matter of editing the blasted thing. I plodded through the entire 344-page manuscript making change after addition after deletion after change. Mind you, copy-editing my way through took nearly a year. At last I said, Done. So I picked up the paper doorstop, nestled into a comfortable couch, draped myself with a cozy blanket, and attempted to read it from start to finish with no tinkering whatsoever. Couldn't do it. I found something (okay, many things) I didn't like in Chapter 1. Just a teeny tiny tweak here with the black pen . . . oh, and over there and over there and over there. No biggie. Same thing happened in Chapter 2 and then Chapter 3 and, before I knew it, I had hit The Wall (or I wanted to hit a wall) -- the realization that I was incapable of doing a read-through without making changes. So there went another year and, oops, another year. Has Britney Spears written this song? Already angry from DSOT, I became doubly angry because I could not put my damn pen down.

Sometimes it really sucks to be a Virgo.

So I threw in the towel or, rather, picked up my gym towel: I joined the club. Happiness! DSOT can be implemented just so long before it makes you want to crack . . . or turn to crack.

Unfortunately, my original fear that I wouldn't use the club enough panned out almost immediately. The Pilates, yoga, and Zumba classes I wanted to take conflicted with my boys' school-dropoff and -pickup schedule. What's more, they weren't offered in the late morning or early afternoon when I was available to take them. Paying the hefty monthly fee made me cringe. Yet I still wanted the opportunity to hang out at the small outdoor pool in the summer, and I wishfully though unrealistically vowed to somehow make membership viable. But like a bad, co-dependent romantic relationship, I hung on far too long before eventually coming to my senses. Back to DSOT.

My sons attended the club's summer camp a few years ago. It cost an exhorbitant amount of money, exacerbated by the fact that the boys (and I) were not members at the time. After two summers forking over the dough for one or two mornings of camp for one or both boys, I discovered my town's program at the elementary school. For roughly the same number of days attended, the town's camp was about nine times cheaper . . . and that didn't even take into consideration the fact that the program held sessions in the a.m. AND p.m. while the club offered my sons just one per day, making the value more like EIGHTEEN TIMES as great!


As a New England-ranked tennis player before becoming pregnant with my first son, I was interested to see how he would do if given the chance to take one of the club's renowned clinics. Charlie, of course, had to tag along and was quite obnoxious, really, with his fixation on the club's cafe food case. (Is it my imagination, or is this becoming a running theme of the blog posts?!) He was SO obnoxious, in fact, that I decided to sign him up for his own club membership. DSOT bit the dust. That enabled him to go to the club's child-care center for the one-hour duration of the tennis clinic. I would have him out of my hair, I would not be spending extra money on snacks, and I would be able to concentrate on my first grader's playing. (Incidentally, Christopher was not a member, so I got no break on the cost of the clinic.)

Alas, after two twelve-week sessions, Christopher bid tennis adieu. He observed that he was the worst player in the clinic -- I hate to admit it, but he was: poor footwork, lack of control, too many sky balls -- and, understandably, wasn't happy about it. Poor fella'. So the whole experiment, which cost $552 plus Charlie's membership fee of $39 per month, backfired big time! Here I had tried to turn Christopher on to my best sport and one of my favorites and, instead, he hates tennis still to this day.

It's frustrating when your greatest efforts turn out to be royal failures.

Jumping ahead a few months, I decided to put my and Charlie's memberships on hold for the summer. Nearing DSOT. Once again I had been unsuccessful at regularly incorporating club time into my crazy schedule. On the other hand, I was not quite ready to drop out altogether. Unfortunately, even being on hold for three months (the maximum allowed per year) cost me money. Wish I was kidding.

Come fall I couldn't justify maintaining a membership at all. So I resigned again. Hurray for DSOT! But my on-off relationship with the club was back on by winter. Like the middle-aged woman who mistakes a hip hop music mogul's car for her own on a humorous Straight Talk! commercial, I was still experiencing a smidgen of the false "I'm feeling richer effect" from having received a hearty check from my insurance company for my indoor flood last May. Three months later, the feeling has dissipated. I pulled the plug for what seems like the umpteenth time at the end of last month. Practicing DSOT once again.

With the outdoor season upon us, I can't see myself choosing to go inside to work out on machines. (I've despised exercising this way since rehabbing my bum knee following reconstructive surgery nearly fifteen years ago.) I can't see myself suddenly finding the time to take classes. Or, for that matter, swimming laps in the indoor pool or playing tennis, though I certainly would like to do both.

Minus the club, I will be engaging in exercise that costs me nothing, and that I truly enjoy: hiking, riding my bike, swimming in the ocean and any other body of water I can get to, playing tennis on public courts, and taking out my small flat-water kayak.

If not taken to the extreme, Deprivation School of Thought doesn't have to make you miserable. It just requires a little ingenuity to stave off its negative effects.

Do you practice DSOT? What have you given up to save money?