Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Relative Importance

Life is all about determining the relative importance of things in order to make appropriate decisions. The vintage quilt I spent twenty-some hours finishing is more important than the blanket I made with leftover sweater squares, so the latter is the one that's okay for R to wrap around his legs and feet while working at the kitchen table. He says he's afraid to touch the other one. Sometimes these determinations are complicated and context-specific: It's more important to not spill coffee on the couch than on the big blue chair, even though the big blue chair is more important as the place where Twelve and I sit together, so go ahead and eat in the chair, though the couch is totally replaceable in the event of a cross-country move.

Distinguishing between important and unimportant household artifacts is relatively straightforward and based on value continua: Homemade vs. mass-produced. Old vs. new. Matched sets vs. hodgepodge accumulations. There's probably some really fascinating research potential in how folks view their household crap, in that we're very, very weird about the things that we care about. For example, I don't care if you break the glass we only have one of, but I was annoyed with myself for shattering a glass last week because that I like having lots of matching glasses, even if they're completely unremarkable. A friend brought a batch of dip to one of my parties in what turned out to be her roommate's semi-disposable plastic container, and the roommate specifically requested its return. The friend and I shook our heads, but validated and accommodated the request because, I'm sure, we were both thinking of the things that we're equally weird about.

Deciding about the relative importance of person-related things, though, is another story, because the values aren't as readily defined. Even if someone doesn't care about old quilts, I think most people understand that some people like antique things and aren't going to challenge your protective attitude toward yours - at least not much and not to your face. With person-related situations, though, it's much more difficult to make allowances.

Delivering Twelve to the plane that would take her across the country to her dad's for the week, I met a woman who was doing the same thing. While waiting for the plane to pull away from the gate, we compared notes on our experiences, and I was struck first by how much worse mine and Twelve's could be and later by how differently the other mom had assessed the relative importance of child support payments and the prospect of co-parenting with a douchebag.

It could definitely be worse for us: The other daughter had started her cross-country flights at five or six, whereas Twelve had reached what now seems like a grand old age of eight before being flung across the continent. The other dad has never paid child support, whereas the sperm donor of Twelve always has, even if begrudgingly and only because I had the presence of mind to have the state handle the support payments from the very beginning. Twelve's dad's wife has gone above and beyond to be nice to Twelve, while the other dad's new wife is actively mean to her stepdaughter.

The first two are small enough semi-victories, but I cannot fathom how it must feel to knowingly send your daughter into the care of someone who treats her cruelly. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me to try. I've knowingly sent my daughter into the care of someone who I don't believe actually knows her as a person and who sees her as an additional charm on his familial bracelet, but that's a very different prospect than the certainty of outright malice.

The other mom's assessments of importance around child support and facilitating the father-daughter relationship mystify me. She decided that compelling her ex to pay child support is less important than preventing arguments with him and she goes out of her way to arrange for her daughter to be with him. Providing financially for one's child, particularly when one has backed out of the daily, physical care and feeding of it, seems the least that should be expected of any parent. I can partially relate, since I didn't request a review of the child support amount until I was sure that the amount would not be reduced. In the years when I suspected that my ex was paying less than he should, I consoled myself with the thought that he had originally agreed to pay a higher amount than the state would have calculated for him and that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie (a philosophy that doesn't take into account the possibility that the sleeping dog will wake up eventually and attack when you least expect it). However, letting him off the hook because you don't want to make him mad just seems impossible.

I also don't understand, on a visceral level, the other mom's commitment to making sure that her ex and her daughter have a relationship. She is the one who reaches out to schedule visits, and so forth. I have always refused to make the first move in arranging for Twelve to visit her dad. It's always been very important to me that I not pretend to Twelve that her dad's actions are any different than they are: He is the one who left and the one who disappeared for five years, therefore, it is his responsibility to reach out to her if he wants to have a relationship with her. My entire childhood took place on stage with a father whose role as a piece of furniture was hidden from me because everyone else was pretending he was a fine dad, so I didn't know anything was wrong. I suspect-slash-hope that if I had known how to identify a man who is present but not accounted for, I wouldn't have married my ex. I won't lie to Twelve about her father, period. I won't try to convince her that he loves her or plaster our house with his photos like Michelle Pfieffer does in One Fine Day. I won't tell her he doesn't love her or confiscate the few photos of himself that he provides, but I'll be damned (as will she) if I create a relationship out of thin air. He doesn't deserve it, for one thing, and it's worse to have a furniture father than none at all.

Even something as emotionally humdrum as where to spend the Thanksgiving holiday has gotten me to get out the importance scales. None of us care so much about being together for each and every holiday that it's a problem when R and I are elsewhere or when my sister was in Hawaii for a basketball tournament, but we do like to be all together occasionally, and the holidays are a kind of obvious time to do that. My family is doing the dinner on Friday, since both of my siblings are with their partners' families on the actual day. R and I said that we shouldn't be considered in the planning process, since we thought we might be able to squeeze in a visit to his vacation property while Twelve's away. We kind of forgot to incorporate Twelve's actual return flight in the plan, I think, because we thought of her as being gone for the whole week, even though she gets back at 7 pm on Friday. My folks' house is in the opposite direction as the airport, so going from the airport to their house is at least a four hour drive. Twelve has a party to attend on Saturday afternoon, not to mention school on Monday morning, so we're not going to make it to Grandma and Grandpas this year and Twelve will miss out on helping retrieve the two dozen or so boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic (a post-Thanksgiving tradition that's surprisingly fun). The importance of avoiding five extra hours of driving and Twelve going to the party had easily won out over a really short trip and leftovers.

Anyway, none of this mattered very much until this morning, when I got a text message from my sister. No pressure, she said, but mom's husband's two sons have announced their intention of being present at Friday's dinner, and that would be the only chance to get a group photo until maybe next winter. 

Aw, crap. 

I don't particularly feel that those two sons are part of my family, since our parents married after I moved out, but for my mother they are a major component of the family that she and her husband have created. I call it fictitious, but hey, I believe in people defining their own families however they wish (hello, marriage equality). Group Photo Op, then, threatens to tip the scales and put a few hundred miles on my car. I don't mind taking one for the team, especially at thirty-three miles to the gallon on the freeway, but [insert dramatic music here] Twelve's heart is set on going to this party. I'm pretty sure the boy she currently likes will be there, and he is an absolutely stellar example of a human being. Straight As, polite, impeccable phone manners of the type I thought were obsolete, and I think he's also good at sports.

Luckily, as I went over the logistics with my sister, she conceded that it wasn't going to work, since apparently one of the sons is leaving Saturday morning. Technically, we could go straight there from the airport on Friday night and get Twelve home in time for the party on Saturday afternoon, but I don't think that will be required.

My family might be a little bit crazy about certain things, but we can be practical when absolutely necessary.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Great Expectations [or] Reality Bites

I did not plan to have Twelve, and how I ended up pregnant is a subject for another day, but today I would like to know what people think is going to happen when they have children. Seriously, what the fuck did you expect? is the exact phrasing. 

This question came up today in talking with R, who is finally home from being on the other side of the planet and needs to get caught up on important things like the conversation I had this morning with a good friend and the general themes and trends of things that people have been posting on Facebook. 

My friend M, the mother of our fairy godson, is annoyed because she's hosting the third annual Friendsgiving dinner this weekend and people are either bailing because they have better things to do or failing to respond at all.

(Just for the record, I believe that Facebook has totally ruined both invitations as a concept and the practice of responding to invitations. Another subject for another day.)

M is also annoyed that, since baby was born, her social life has changed. One of my cousins is annoyed because she has to go to work and leave baby at home. My sister is annoyed that she has to commute an hour each way for a couple of weeks because her husband has to work double during the holidays, so they're staying at his folks' house because grandma is the babysitter when they're both working. A friend is visibly ambivalent about his son because his wife will insist that he stop going out with friends in the evenings once it's born.

SERIOUSLY, people? What did you think was going to happen when you became parents? What did you think was going to fill the social void that's created by the fact that you can't take a toddler to happy hour? Did you think that your husband would magically get a job that pays enough that you could stay home with baby, despite the fact that he hasn't graduated from college yet and the economy still sucks? Do you think that there are never times when you have to do things that you don't particularly like, just because you're a parent?

First of all, you women all chose to have babies in a culture in which the person who gestates and births the baby is the person who is responsible for it. If you're lucky, the father participates, but only as much as he wants to, despite what he says or what you may have deluded yourself into believing. If he does bail, you are entitled to a small amount of child support, if he's employed and findable, but you may have to negotiate a complicated and stressful legal situation to make that happen. Society-at-large, in the form of government assistance, only gets involved if you are totally destitute and extremely lucky, and even that depends on which ideological faction is currently in charge in your state. Don't even bother to ask about things like federally-funded day or health care for your kiddo, because you had it in the wrong country if that's what you're looking for.

Secondly, you all chose to become parents. M's may have been a bit unexpected, but you other three deliberately went out and got pregnant, and all of y'all decided to carry to term, knowing that you have jobs and that your partners have jobs and that you would have to figure this shit out. Again, I can't relate to this, but I'm taking your word at face value, so I cannot fathom why you're complaining about having gotten what you asked for. Do children who finally, after years of begging, get those ponies then complain about having to feed them every day?

Probably. Maybe that's my point: Grow up.

Grow up, and understand that, as young women in the year 2012, you have to make the best of a shitty situation. Yes, we were all told from childhood that we could have it all, and yes, that's a huge lie, so I get where the confusion comes from. What I don't get, at least in the case of my sister and cousin, is why you didn't listen to me when I tried to tell you the truth. You'd been to my house, you'd seen the titles of the books, you knew what my masters degree is in, and you must have known that I know things about this because you certainly knew when to poo-pooh me and be dismissive. Why didn't you listen? Why didn't you LEARN? You watched my life, for goodness sake, you saw me raising Twelve and putting her in day care and struggling to pay for everything.

Good Lord. What if I made it look too easy? 

Okay, that I've not considered before. Maybe, instead of a warning signal flashing and blaring terribly, my life has actually inspired other people to procreate. I suppose that from far away, my accomplishments over the last decade do seem acceptable: Homeowner, graduate school, stable long-term relationship, teenage daughter who's not on drugs.

If I wasn't so indignant right now, my typing fingers stomping angrily, the thought that my life looks good on paper would be as funny as R's straight-faced claim last night that he's not a nerd about his birds. I spluttered my tea all over when he said that, because it's almost as ridiculous as anyone actually wanting to do what I've done.

For all that I'm loving the stage Twelve's at now and have immensely enjoyed each stage of her life, I wouldn't do it again. I don't wish her away, of course, but I wouldn't start over from the beginning for anything. I know the choices that I've been forced into by the reality of the here and now, and they're impossible ones. I turned down a good job when Twelve was small because they wanted me to work on Saturdays, when no child care is available. Later, a crappy job forced me to leave my daughter home alone before I was ready to do that. I'm strongly considering the prospect of staying here until Twelve graduates from high school, which will probably mean underemployment and and an inexplicable gap in my cv.

I often say of interpersonal relationship-related matters that all the cliches are true: We fall in love when we least expect it, it's impossible to predict who will turn out to be your soul mate, be careful what you wish for, and so on. It's also true that reality bites and life sucks, though (only because the indignance has been dissipated by sufficient stomping) I'll leave you with Monica's version, given to Rachel just after she's cut up her dad's credit cards: Welcome to the real world. It sucks! You're gonna love it. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

On Babies, and Confessing to an Abiding Disinterest in Same

About two years ago, I looked around, mentally tilted my head to one side thoughtfully, and said to myself, All of these people are going to start having babies pretty soon. I started joking to R that we're going to need to make a new batch of friends.

Two years ago, the first of our married couple friends had a baby girl. 

Eighteen months ago, a good friend reported an unexpected pregnancy, now my eleven-month-old fairy godson. 

A year ago, my cousin and sister waved around sonogram images.

Approximately six months ago, the first baby girl's parents had twin boys, and no fewer than three other sets of married friends announced upcoming births.

All those weddings that happened over the last five years? Warning signs. Big red fucking flags.

Chatting online with R tonight (he's been on another continent for the last six weeks), I repeated, jokingly, that we need to get cracking on these hypothetical new friends, given that three babies are due to arrive after the new year. 

Secretly? It's not really a joke.

Secretly? I don't really like children very much. Yes, I have one, and yes, I was a early childhood substitute teacher at our Waldorf school for a year, and yes I know what to do with an infant. Yes, I can recite A. A. Milne poetry with the best of them. Yes, babies are indeed quite adorable, some of them anyway. But that doesn't mean that I want to be around them very much or come into contact with any of their bodily fluids or excretions. Or their food, for that matter, as it stinks and usually is found smeared in inexplicable and unexpected places.

The thing is, mine is grown up, almost, and I am both glad about and ready for that. I've made a point enjoying her tremendously at every stage while simultaneously refusing to look back. I've never wished Twelve back a stage. I'm okay with other seventh-grade-sized children in small doses, but I'm just not interested in the smaller ones, for a variety of legitimate and completely morally indefensible reasons. Babies are cute for about seven minutes, and then, since they are still doing pretty much the same thing that they were doing seven minutes ago, they get boring fast. As soon as they can scoot around, they start to mess things up, literally (as in the wanton destruction of whatever's within reach) and figuratively (as in no more casual last-minute evening plans with their parents). They're annoying, they interrupt constantly (often deploying one or more bodily fluids in the process), and they often make terrible noises for no discernible reason. When they become coordinated enough, some of them even touch you without permission, something I find discomfiting even when bodily fluids and food residue are not involved. The bottom line is that kids are gross; have I mentioned that kids are gross?

I know, I know, the parental pot is calling all the other parental kettles black. Am I not allowed to do that, since mine is thirteen and her impact on my life is fading? That's not accurate, actually, given that between volleyball, physical therapy, orthodontist appointments, and riding lessons, I'm not sure that my calendar has ever been more dominated by child-related entries. But those things feel more like things that you do with other people and less like things involving children.

I'm loving barreling down the tracks of adolescence and keeping one eye on the light at the end of the tunnel at the same time. I recommend this approach, actually, because it's realistic and because, let's face it, it's working pretty damn well with Twelve (n = 1). As I told my sister the other night, our whole job as parents is to make ourselves unnecessary. We've got eighteen years to do this, but woe to the parent who waits to start that process until the week before high school graduation. 

I did not have to start moving Twelve intensely in that direction quite as soon as some; one of the things for which I will be forever grateful to the universe is that I was able to stay home with Twelve for almost her first two years. Mind you, I was married to a douche canoe and we lived in the basement of his grandparents' house (in which his father also lived), but the reason they're called silver linings is that they shine brightly in clouds of total shit, and even though the carpeting was orange shag and the grandmother's shrill harping audible, my whole life was devoted to the care and feeding of Twelve, and I loved it.

I find Tillie Olsen's short story I Stand Here Ironing incredibly moving because it reminds me that Twelve and I were given a tremendous gift that too many mothers and daughters aren't: The mental, emotional, and financial freedom to nurture and be nurtured. Between the reminder that being able to give my daughter the gift of nurturing care was and is only possible because I was given the same gift by my mother and the reminder that I must carry a deeply-felt burden of respect for those who are denied that experience, that story gets me every time.


Just because I spent the first year of the new millennium contentedly with my baby does not mean that I want to repeat that process with everyone else' babies. Wearing my Minored in Philosophy hat, I can justify this by pointing out that when I had a small child, I spent time with a) people with children, b) people who liked children, and c) no one, so it is not inconsistent of me to be uncomfortable with children now. When Twelve was old enough to interact with adults with minimal obnoxiousness, I took her into more and more adult-oriented spaces and invited child-free adults to participate in our life to the extent they wanted to. If someone had chosen not to become part of our lives because they didn't like children, I'm not sure I would have noticed, but if I had, I would have figured that I didn't really care what they thought anyway.

The problem is that I still like the people who are reproducing so prolifically, and I'd rather not write them off entirely. I'm just afraid that their lives are going to change so much that we won't fit into them anymore unless we participate in all of the smeary, stinky, noisiness of childhood. Many of them are friends with each other, peripherally at least, which means that our group social events are going to become more and more kid-oriented, just as my life becomes less and less so. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, I'm just not particularly interested.

Ugh. I may be the worst person on the planet. I'll think about it some more and try to decide if I care, and hopefully no one will smear mashed squash on my couch in the meantime. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Just Planning My Midlife Crisis, That's All, Nothing to See Here

I've been planning my midlife crisis for a few years now. It's mostly a joke that when Twelve turns eighteen and moves out, I'll only be 38, and able to do all the things I haven't been able to do whilst being a single parent: Travel a lot, have an adorable little two-seater classic car that I restored myself, and live in a fabulous Manhattan apartment with high ceilings and original moldings. Think half Friends and half Kathleen Kelly's life in You've Got Mail, except that I don't know where I'll work now that Fox Books has taken over everything. (Yes, I need a long-lost uncle to die suddenly, leaving me the only heir to his ethically accumulated fortune.)

Recently I realized that there's another layer to my little fan fiction. I'll have spent eighteen years teaching Twelve how to live without me, but I'm not sure I'll know how to go about living without Twelve. 

I certainly could have lived without Twelve this past weekend; two no-school days plus two regularly-scheduled weekend days equals YOU'RE DRIVING ME UP THE WALL. Long weekends with Twelve have been a bad idea since she was about six. If we have something to do or somewhere to go, we're fine, but if we're just at home, by Sunday afternoon we're both in need of diversion. She needs other people and I need her to go away.

We've been working on the concept of good attention vs. bad attention: She sort of gets that when she wanders out of her room and speaks to me without interrupting (just because you came to a good stopping point in your Harry Potter re-reading marathon does not mean that I am at a good stopping point in whatever I'm doing), I am more than happy to chat. She must understand by now that when she interrupts me, plops down on my lap, and farts, I am not interested in chatting and am probably still irritated at being interrupted in the first place.

Somehow, and apparently this is due to faulty wiring in the adolescent brain, she doesn't always know or care about the difference between good and bad attention. Even though she's often perfectly pleasant to hang out with, I'm becoming less and less tolerant of this kind of intentionally annoying behavior. I've gotten pretty good at the standing lap dump, in which you simultaneously detach hands from clothing or body parts while standing up from the big blue chair, depositing the annoying farter on the floor.

Similarly, being startled by Twelve's maniacally grinning face every time I come up the stairs gets old fast over the course of four days. It's like Ramona's father's grandmother would have said: First time is funny, second time is silly, third time I'm taking away your iPod.

Again, much of the time she's a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and I have no doubt that she'll be just fine when she fledges. She'll do better than Rachel Green, at least; no matching pink marshmallow Peep laundry for her. With her well-developed sense of how things ought to be and the confidence to say so, I can just imagine her making impassioned speeches about any perceived injustice. She already says I'm far too nice to incompetent people, like the person who completely forgot to turn in my time sheet this month. My approach, given that I need to work with this person for the rest of the year: It's not a total emergency, since I noticed it in time and my landlord hasn't cashed my rent check yet, but can you help me figure out what's going on here? Twelve's approach, definitively stated: I would just tell her off.

So, when Twelve is off conquering the world (oh god, I hope she uses her powers for good instead of for evil), what will I do? I will enjoy the uninterrupted quiet, that's for sure, and perhaps I will regain the ability to focus on something for longer than seventeen minutes at a time. When I feel the need to interact with other humans I will call one of them on the phone and we will meet for a nice cocktail. When I want to leave town for the night or the week or the month, I'll just do it. I will use my passport for something other than helping to justify the file folder marked 'Important.' No more asking friends and family if Twelve can stay with them while I go off to a conference, a wedding, or simply to spend time in the company of adults. No one will demand that we go grocery shopping because we're out of organic sliced processed ham food product; in fact, I think I'll just eat out all the time, except for toast. And tea. The markup on tea bags in restaurants is something like five hundred percent. Unless the water is very hot, it's a fancy loose-leaf tea, and you get your own little tea pot, cup, saucer, spoon, and a little dish to set the strainer in, you're just getting ripped off. 

The problem with my midlife crisis plan as it's currently written is that I'll want to do all those things with Twelve. Between our school schedules, her visits to her dad, and my lack of funds, we've done very little traveling together. We're both bummed that she can't come with me and R to a friend's wedding in Mexico during her winter break, and whenever I squeeze a weekend trip with friends out of my budget, she's always annoyed that she's not invited. With occasional exceptions, she's included in whatever local outings she's allowed and wants to do. Tomorrow I'm meeting up with friends to watch the election unfold at a pub down the street, and Twelve is planning to come along. Granted, she just wants carte blanche from the happy hour menu, but still; these are some nerdy-ass people and it can't help but be a more enriching experience than re-Kindle-ing Harry Potter.

I am not worried too much about traveling with or without Twelve. We'll do that if we want, not that we'll be able to afford it. I'm more concerned that I'm going to demand too much of Twelve once she's moved out. I don't want a reversal of our current roles in which I'm the one ignoring the distinction between good and bad attention. I don't want to annoy her, farting pathetically, until she dumps me onto the floor. I want to do interesting things with my life and let her call me when she's particularly proud of having verbally triumphed over some jerk or another. I want to click 'like' when her Facebook status update is that she aced yet another philosophy essay.

Ah, that's what it is. I want the apple to fall just the perfect distance from the tree: Far enough to know you're not part of it anymore, but close enough to appreciate where you came from.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Parent-Teacher Conferences

This morning I went to parent-teacher conferences. I'm going to skip the part about how parent-teacher conferences are constructed by Twelve's school in a manner that is almost completely inaccessible to working and/or single parents, and get to the part about abstinence-based sex education.

Going around the room, Twelve's teachers all said pretty much the same thing: She's smart, doesn't always attend to detail or try very hard, and talks too much in class. No surprises there. She's a great kid, smiles a lot, has a great peer group. Yup, I knew that too.

What I didn't know until I met with her PE teacher is that when sex ed is covered in health class next year, she'll be taught that sex is stupid. Okay, I'm with you at this point, and I actually agree that it's stupid for eighth graders to be having sex, but tell me more. Oh, it's abstinence-based? How so? It gives them info on contraception, right? Okay, go get the curriculum, I'll wait here. Hmmm ... protection and contraception methods are covered as an afterthought in lesson seven? You refer to them as 'safer stupid'?

At this point I'm trying very hard not to panic and just focusing on not alienating this guy. The PE/health teacher is a nice enough young man, and I'm sure that when he mentioned 'protecting one's reputation' as one of the reasons why eighth graders should refrain from sex, he meant to reassure me about the thoroughness of the curriculum. He probably wasn't expecting me to ask him if he plans to cover the gendered sexual double standard and women's double bind, since he looked at me blankly and asked what I meant.

Mind you, when faced with utter ignorance, my policy is to practice the flies-with-honey approach when at all possible, and I had had my tea by this time, so I paused for a bit of mental rummaging-around. 

How do you convey ten weeks' worth of information, discussion, and in-class exercises into a ten-second sound bite? This guy hadn't even read the assigned readings in preparation for our discussion! I backed way up and just started blabbering. "Like how when boys sleep around they're considered studs, but when girls do the same way, they're called a whole list of derogatory names." Tracking with me here, he nodded thoughtfully, and made a connection to how they had been talking about body image the week prior, and he had pointed out to the class that body image is a bigger deal for girls than for boys.


It was rather precious, actually; he had the same reaction as Twelve's kindergarten teacher the day that she realized that the day's story did, in fact, contain a gender stereotype. The Dawn of Awareness, I'll call it. No, that's too strong a term. The Beginnings of an Inkling of Awareness is more like it.

I can work with this.

I consider it a privilege to be present at such moments, and I'd hate to puncture anyone's burgeoning awareness bubble, so I left it with a brief mention of my masters degree and offering to be a resource for incorporating an awareness of gender into the curriculum. I didn't bother to explain that femininity and masculinity are social constructs of the meanings of biological sexual differences, I just said that there are lots of things that we all know and that we just don't have the terms to articulate them yet. He seemed receptive enough, so we'll see how it goes.

Of course I daydreamed about possible in-class activities all the way home: I think eighth graders could handle the gender box exercise, where things that are okay for girls are written inside the girl box and things that are not okay for girls are written outside, and vice verse for the boy box. The 'sit like a boy/sit like a girl' activity would work just fine - it's one of my favorites because it's so simple, yet so profound - and I betcha they could generate lists of terms that are applied to promiscuous individuals of each gender. I dunno if they'll let me guest-lecture - Twelve, I'm sure, would be appalled at the very thought - but at least I won't be blindsided next year during Curriculum Night.

When I got home, Twelve asked what her teachers had said about her. I asked what she thought they said, and she grinned. "I talk too much?"