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.

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