Tag Archives: Mother

The Thing Divorced Parents Fear Most

lost child

After divorce, you’re not always there to hold their hand. (Image/The Coverage)

When people experience divorce, several life changes happen at once, often compounding an already-excruciating time for those involved.

First, your partner is gone. Maybe you feel rejected. Maybe you feel guilt.

The entire ebb and flow of your life turns upside down. Everything feels different. You either live in the place you shared with them which now feels lifeless and empty, or you live in a brand-new place which can be a difficult adjustment under the best circumstances.

Some percentage of life tasks once performed by your partner aren’t getting done. You—literally—have more to do every day, even if you were the one doing most of the heavy lifting. Since I wasn’t, everything from vacuuming, dusting, laundry and bathroom cleaning to kitchen cleaning, opening mail, bill paying and keeping track of Life things on the calendar were added to the These Things Need Done pile. Life got harder.

You often lose in-law family members and friends overnight. Maybe they miss you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you’ll never know.

Your money situation can be affected. Sometimes majorly. Sometimes it scares you.

Sometimes single adulthood produces life and social challenges in the dating and partnership arenas.

If you’re a parent, the situation with your children tends to emerge as the most-difficult component. It’s hard to lose your time with them. Kids grow so fast anyway. My son was in preschool when my time with him reduced by half.

It didn’t take me long to realize: if he’s a kid for another 14 years, that means I just lost SEVEN years with my son.

What would you trade for seven more years with ANYONE you love? Maybe everything.

There’s a long list of things negatively affected by divorce. But what I perceive to be the worst thing is something I rarely see discussed: The loss of any and all control of what happens to your children—the very people for which you live and breathe—when they’re not with you.

When Life Beats You Into Submission

When James Bond gets captured, we always know he’s going to pull off some rad-007 super-spy escape to get out of whatever situation he’s in.

In more tragic fiction stories, the bad guys sometimes catch up to and overpower our heroes. In some stories, those heroes may die or suffer enormous loss.

It’s often hard to watch or read. When the hero gets taken down from a fight he or she couldn’t have possibly won. Somewhere along the way, the characters realize, as we do: there’s no escape.

I like to say I don’t believe in unsolvable problems. That there’s ALWAYS a solution, or at least a way to make something or a situation substantially better.

But with kids after divorce? [*massive exhale noise*]

It can feel like there’s no escape. Not that you want to. But the reality of divorce and custody law and, I imagine, most of our moral compasses, gives us no obvious solutions.

That’s what makes it hard.

Some people are crappy spouses, but amazing parents. They “deserve” to be divorced because of their substandard efforts or behavior in marriage. And without going too far down the semantics and “Yeah, but” rabbit hole, it can be argued that amazing parents NEVER “deserve” to lose their children, even just sometimes. Certainly, children don’t deserve to lose parents.

As an advocate of personal responsibility, I think married parents should be intellectually capable of understanding that what’s best for their children is to always love the other parent in mind, heart, word and action, but I also know how murky the waters get and how gray the areas get when emotionally damaged humans start doing what emotionally damaged humans do.

Under the very best of divorced circumstances—where two adults communicate frequently, never undermine one another or use their children as pawns to inflict pain, and who truly demonstrate a commitment to putting children first—(which I’m insanely blessed to experience in my life) it’s STILL super-hard.

And there are so many levels to that. You worry about their physical health and safety. You worry about whatever undeserved emotional and psychological baggage they’re taking on from your past or present failings.

Mothers’ hearts break while driving away from screaming, outstretched-armed infants too young to verbally communicate or understand why mommy is leaving them. Mothers who stress over their children eating unhealthy meals, not brushing their teeth before bed, or being left unattended for long periods of time by partying, video-game-playing, or otherwise inattentive, fathers.

Fathers’ hearts break while looking at vacation photos of their children posted on social media while a bunch of people who used to be inner-circle friends and family Like and Favorite and Comment on Facebook and Instagram: “Everyone looks so happy! Love this!” Fathers who stress over their children’s unknown neighbors, or trying to match the level of domestic care their kids might experience at mom’s, or seeing another man experience father-child moments with their kids while attending baseball games or riding bikes and probably other things we’ll never hear about.

That’s when things are optimal.

When they’re not?

The other parent’s girlfriend or boyfriend might present some kind of threat to your child’s wellbeing. Perhaps in some obvious and specifically terrifying ways, or perhaps in more subtle mind- and heart-damaging ways you can only imagine.

I know of one 10-year-old girl and 7-year-old brother who text their dad (a guy I believe to be a decent man and fiercely loving father) every time a strange man emerges from mommy’s bedroom. The last number I heard was 6.

Maybe those new boyfriends or girlfriends are criminals. Abusers. Addicts. Maybe they’re psychotic. Moronic. Cruel.

Maybe they’ll teach your kids that what they’ve been taught about faith, or politics, or personal interests are “wrong” or “stupid” or not as good as some other thing.

Maybe they’ll tell your kids about things you do and spin them in ugly ways in an effort to make them think less of you.

Maybe they’ll make up lies to make them afraid of you or not want to see you at all.

In the United States, we have a legal system that mostly—but not always—helps people navigate these situations, but even then, they’re brutally expensive, emotionally exhausting, and even when things go your way, you STILL end up facing the tragic reality of your child’s other parent being someone you (and maybe even your children) can’t trust to take care of them in ways you perceive to be best for them.

Right or wrong, if your heart’s in the right place, it’s all a bit more than human beings are equipped to handle.

The Thing About Control

Maybe there’s a really wise approach to feeling out of control. Maybe there are obvious choices to make, and when we do, everything gets to be okay afterward.

Even though I feel truly blessed to share parenting with someone who I perceive to do virtually everything “right,” and who loves our son with the same passion and fierce loyalty any parent could want, I STILL experience this loss of control we’d all ideally like to have over the things that mean most to us, and affect us most deeply.

One of my friends texted me about a month ago: “May I request a future post about HOW TO COPE WITH A DOUCHEBAG dating your ex-wife and constantly hanging with your kid?”

My friend is solid people. But while I’m inclined to trust his judgment that his ex-wife’s boyfriend demonstrates legitimate douchebaggery, I can’t be 100-percent sure his feelings aren’t comprised the same as most of us are when we talk and think about our exes.

Regardless, this is an important thing.

It’s profoundly important when children are truly at risk.

It’s pretty damn important when children are being damaged in some ways, even if only accidentally.

And as part of the Macro Divorce Conversation, this needs acknowledgement and its day in the sun.

It’s hard to lose control of anything that impacts our lives.

It’s CRUSHING to lose control of things that directly impact our children’s wellbeing.

Maybe We’re Never Actually In Control

I wish I had an answer for how to cope, JBD.

But I don’t. I just…don’t.

I might die on my drive home today.

We can’t control whether our hearts will beat five seconds from now.

And I think that means we can’t control most things. Some people accept the lack of control as fundamental to the human experience. Others have faith that God’s in control, which helps eliminate fear.

Maybe the best we can do is influence.

We can use brute force and later pay the legal and human consequences.

We can use the legal system and maybe after spending a bunch of money, something gets better somehow.

We can fight back, trying to do things that might affect our exes as much as we feel affected.

Maybe some of that serves the purpose of helping our kids. Probably not.

Or.

Maybe we can accept responsibility for the role we played in creating the situation. Maybe we can accept responsibility for choosing life partnership and/or procreation with someone capable of not putting our child’s welfare above other things.

Or.

Maybe we can work on being the kind of people who make this spinning rock a better place to be. Maybe we can work on being people who light up the darkness.

And.

Maybe we can WANT and actively work for good things to happen to our exes, if for no other reason than to give our children the best lives possible.

Maybe we can pray for their hearts and minds. Maybe we can wish good things for them. Maybe we can say nice things to and about them. Maybe we can support them. Maybe we can help them. Maybe we can work on redeeming ourselves in our shared-parenting relationships by walking a higher path than we did on our marches toward divorce.

And just maybe, when we love that hard, walls come down and connections form.

Just maybe, our children thrive even under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Because life feels extra-difficult when we try to control everything only to discover we’re never really in control.

Maybe when we love hard enough, we won’t feel like we have to.

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It Doesn’t Jive Because We’d Just Assume Do Things the Wrong Way

Ptolemy's geocentric model of the solar system

Everything revolves around Earth. We can actually “prove” that. Right? (Image/Khan Academy)

Donkey wrote: “Matt has a post about leaving his crying wife in the hospital after giving birth/having a C-section. Lisa said her husband did something similar (he now can’t believe how he could do that, so credit to him and Matt both for having realized the extreme shittiness of that. Grrrr. Honestly, thinking about it just makes me feel some kind of immense primal rage).
“Do you have any idea as to the thought process of a shitty husband (who isn’t a Dick who gets off on abusing his wife) who makes that ok in his mind? That after 9 months (usually) of pregnancy and the woman, really, risking her life during childbirth/ C-section often suffering through a lot of pain, and then is also left alone with their newborn, it’s ok for him to go to get a good night sleep and leave his crying wife who’s begging him to stay alone?
“I can understand that some people wouldn’t be hurt by a dish by the sink and all of that (and we’ve already had the conversation about accepting influence even if you don’t understand), and I remember Matt saying it was hard for him to empathize with people’s physical discomfort that ha couldn’t relate to. I understand that men can’t really get how pregnancy/birth feels like. But still, isn’t childbirth very much accepted as a VERY Big Deal, a painful and stressful and high risk deal in our society, and that the role of the modern man is to support his wife however she needs? I would think leaving your wife alone after childbirth when she’s crying and begging you to stay would be just as obvious a faux pas as cheating (again, for me, I believe I’d rather have the father of my child cheat on me with 10 prostitutes than leave me crying alone in the hospital after having our baby).
“Matt, if you have any more explanations of your thought process you want to share, I would appreciate that too of course. I’m really just trying to understand the (faulty and frankly, like Lisa said, narcissistic) thought process, because I just don’t get it.”

I left my crying wife alone in the hospital like an asshole just hours after she delivered our son via emergency C-section.

It was a long and difficult labor for her. The doctor induced labor 26 hours and 24 minutes prior to the time of delivery, give or take a few minutes or a false memory.

The anxiety, fear, stress and physical discomfort my wife felt after nine months of pregnancy, followed by a long, painful, vulnerably exposed and at times terrifying delivery ending in emergency surgery, is something only a mother could possibly know.

I won’t pretend to.

But I can understand today in a way I did not eight years ago, what a betrayal and moment of abandonment that was for my ex-wife. She was in pain, frightened, and needed someone simply to BE PRESENT with her. To feel loved and supported. And she asked me to stay. Begged, even.

And I made a different choice.

After years of reflection and additional wisdom earned only by living longer, I can see and understand how much that moment damaged my relationship in a way I couldn’t at the time. I think it’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Not only did I not recognize that moment for what it was, when my wife would bring it up later as an instance in which I hurt her, I’d actually get mad at her for holding grudges and using the past against me. I’d treat her like she was the problem because she had anger issues she needed to work out. Like there was something wrong with her, because clearly there is nothing wrong with me!

After all, everyone else liked me and thought I was a great guy. She must be wrong since she’s the only one saying it!

I didn’t do all of those things as part of some meticulously planned and conspiratorial attempt to inflict maximum emotional damage on my newborn son’s mother—the woman I vowed to love forever—nor did I defend myself in later disagreements as part of a thoughtful strategy to make her feel shitty, push her away and ultimately destroy my marriage, leaving my little boy with divorced parents and a broken home.

What was the thought process? 

There kind of wasn’t one.

I thought my choices were, if not “best,” at least reasonable every step of the way, and at any point in which there was disagreement, I believed I was correct, and that she was incorrect.

I Make Mistakes Like Every Known Human, Ever

For 1,500 years, early astronomers used Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system to create astronomical charts. “Geocentric” means Earth is the center of the universe, and everything in the night sky is orbiting around it.

Today, we know this isn’t true. Nicolaus Copernicus got suspicious and theorized we were actually the ones moving around the sun. Later, Italian genius Galileo Galilei proved it.

But for 1,500 years prior, every educated person in the world believed the sun revolved around Earth. And it wasn’t because everyone was a bunch of stupid morons. Given the mathematical parameters and limited technology of that time, you can PROVE Ptolemy’s model.

For 1,500 years, every scientist, navigator, educator and thought leader in the world knew how the sun, moon and stars would move in the sky. They could “prove” it convincingly by accurately predicting what would happen next, even though EVERYTHING about their prediction model was based on something completely untrue.

(Note: The following is NOT directed at you, Donkey. I genuinely appreciate your question, and it’s my pleasure to write more about it, because it’s important. I’m simply trying to illustrate my point further.)

You’d just assume your husband or boyfriend cheat on you with 10 prostitutes as opposed to leaving you alone at the hospital after giving birth?

No.

You’d just as soon have that happen.

That doesn’t jive with your expectations of a husband and new father?

No.

It doesn’t jibe with your expectations.

Because I’ve had some wonderful editors through the years who have taught me things, I no longer make the common mistake of saying or writing “assume” when I mean “as soon,” nor do I make the even more-common mistake of saying or writing “jive” when I really mean “jibe.”

I learned the “assume” one in my early twenties when I was the editor of a semi-large university newspaper and working as a summer intern for a daily newspaper. I learned the “jive” one in my late twenties after more than 10 years of being paid to write things.

I didn’t use the two phrases incorrectly on purpose. I remember feeling quite a bit of embarrassment when I realized how many times I must have used each phrase incorrectly up to that point, and how some of the people who heard or read that from me knew I was an ignorant dumbass.

Until I was in a very specific, focused moment in which someone with more knowledge and experience than me corrected my mistake and helped me learn from it, I never even had reason to question the legitimacy of my word usage.

I KNEW I was correct. You know? Even though I was actually incorrect?

You Are Biased and Selfish Without Realizing It

That’s the first of eight reasons Why You Can’t Trust Yourself, according to one of my favorite writers, Mark Manson.

He writes:

“There’s a thing in psychology called the Actor-Observer Bias and it basically says that we’re all assholes.

“For example, if you’re at an intersection and somebody else runs a red light, you will probably think they’re a selfish, inconsiderate scumbag putting the rest of the drivers in danger just to shave a couple seconds off their drive.

“On the other hand, if you are the one who runs the red light, you’ll come to all sorts of conclusions about how it’s an innocent mistake, how the tree was blocking your view, and how running a red light never really hurt anybody.

“Same action, but when someone else does it they’re a horrible person; when you do it, it’s an honest mistake.

“We all do this. And we especially do it in situations of conflict. When people talk about someone who pissed them off for one reason or another, they invariably describe the other person’s actions as senseless, reprehensible, and motivated by a malicious intent to inflict suffering.

“However, when people talk about times when they inflicted harm on someone else, as you might suspect, they can come up with all sorts of reasons about how their actions were reasonable and justified. The way they see it, they had no choice to do what they did. They see the harm experienced by the other person as minor and they think that being blamed for causing it is unjust and unreasonable.

“Both views can’t be right. In fact, both views are wrong. Follow-up studies by psychologists found that both perpetrators and the victims distort the facts of a situation to fit their respective narratives.

“Steven Pinker refers to this as the ‘Moralization Gap.’ It means that whenever a conflict is present, we overestimate our own good intentions and underestimate the intentions of others. This then creates a downward spiral where we believe others deserve more severe punishment and we deserve less severe punishment.

“This is all unconscious, of course. People, while doing this, think they’re being completely reasonable and objective. But they’re not.”

What if We Assumed the Best About One Another?

I don’t pose the question as any sort of defense of the behavior I now believe to have been emotionally abusive.

But the validity of the question remains: How much better might our relationships be if, when something happens and we’re missing too much information to KNOW why it happened, we tell ourselves the most generous, best-possible story to explain it rather than the most cynical, or worst-possible explanation?

One of the most famous and important scenes in the Harry Potter saga takes place near the end of the sixth (second-to-last) book. You either know the story and what I’m talking about, or you should start reading the Harry Potter books right now. Yes, adults. Even you.

Seconds before death, a beloved character faces his killer and says “Please.”

It seems like a man begging for his life to be spared. But his life isn’t spared. Other characters in the book are horrified, as are the emotionally invested readers.

In the absence of information we later learn, the killing seems like the malicious work of an evil murderer. But once the story is told fully, we realize the killer was actually GOOD, and the dying man’s “please” wasn’t a mercy plea, but rather a request for his secret ally to kill him in order to protect a confused teenager from becoming a murderer or from suffering punishment for refusing to.

Not unlike the scientific community during the Ptolemaic period of astronomy versus the scientific community today, we believed one thing under one set of facts, and as more information was gathered, we came to believe something else, which turned out to be the truth.

I left my wife alone in that hospital because I didn’t know better.

It wasn’t my fault. It was simply my responsibility.

We don’t know what we don’t know.

We make choices, learning things along the way. Stuff happens, and we are all constantly interpreting the things happening around us with limited information. Sometimes we’re right. Much of the time, we’re wrong.

In this case, I was wrong, and am deeply sorry for the damage I caused. There are millions of guys out there doing these exact same things. Hurting their spouses accidentally, even when they are told their actions are hurtful. They STILL don’t know. It’s the Secret About Men Most Women Don’t Know.

But I can’t do anything about yesterday. I can only do something about tomorrow.

Life’s too short. I want to live it well.

That jibes with who I want to be. Because I’d just as soon be part of the solution.

By actually doing things the right way.

…..

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She Feels Like Your Mom and Doesn’t Want to Bang You

angry mom and son

(Image/Shutterstock)

Your mom probably doesn’t want to have sex with you.

I work hard at not judging. Glass houses and whatnot. But that’s a good thing, right? Your mom not wanting to sleep with you? Because, ew?

I don’t know to what extent incestuous relationships’ taboo classification is a byproduct of biological trial-and-error and documented birth defects, or is something culturally driven, and everyone just sort of looked around at one another and agreed: “Yeah, not banging family members sounds like a good rule! I’m on board! Shouldn’t be a problem because I just naturally don’t want to anyway! Because, ew!”

The reason isn’t important.

But for your marriage’s sake, being aware of this general reality is helpful. Because no matter how many times you sarcastically remind your wife that she’s not your mother and you wish she’d stop acting like it, she often feels like your mother.

This is bad for your sex life.

And, gone unchecked, a precursor to the death of your marriage.

What I Meant To Say…

You may be aware of this, and are already super-sick of hearing about it (just like I am), but I wrote a post called She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink which several million people read. Depending on who you ask, I’m either a genius who saves marriages, or a huge pussy whose wife actually left—not because of dishes—but because I’m a huge pussy.

A bunch of guys developed heartburn over a particular passage, and even though close to 100-percent of them will never read this, I’ll selfishly feel better having addressed—and hopefully, clarified—my stance.

From the “dishes” post:

“But I remember my wife often saying how exhausting it was for her to have to tell me what to do all the time. It’s why the sexiest thing a man can say to his partner is ‘I got this,’ and then take care of whatever needs taken care of.

“I always reasoned: ‘If you just tell me what you want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.’

“But she didn’t want to be my mother. She wanted to be my partner, and she wanted me to apply all of my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household.

“She wanted me to figure out all of the things that need done, and devise my own method of task management.

“I wish I could remember what seemed so unreasonable to me about that at the time.”

A Closer Look

“But I remember my wife often saying how exhausting it was for her to have to tell me what to do all the time. It’s why the sexiest thing a man can say to his partner is ‘I got this,’ and then take care of whatever needs taken care of.”

This does NOT mean, every day of my life, my wife bossed me around. It does not mean I awaited her daily instruction on how I could be her little man-servant and cater to her every whim.

I don’t write sentences expecting millions of strangers to read them and not know what I’m talking about.

Here’s what it does mean, specifically:

My wife was awesome about keeping the house clean and organized. She ALWAYS did—hell, I don’t know—65- or 70-ish percent of every house chore (dating back to a couple of apartments I lived in alone when we first got together).

Like so many adults today, we both grew up watching our moms do most of the housework while our dads went off to work and mostly stuck to “man chores” like mowing grass, shoveling snow, sanding and staining decks, cleaning the gutters, taking out the trash, etc.

Because I wasn’t as self-aware in my youth as I am now, I didn’t identify the imbalanced workload.

But here’s the key part: My wife—usually on Saturday mornings—wanted to clean the house. I would have been happy to wait an extra week or two because I don’t like cleaning in the same way you don’t want to bang your parents. But I wasn’t going to sit around watching SportsCenter while my wife scrubbed toilets, and vacuumed floors, and dusted furniture, and wiped down bathroom vanities. Even I’m not THAT big of an asshole.

And the second key part: We brought our baby boy home from the hospital and if you’re anything like me, it was VERY surreal and every minute afterward for several months, you’re like: “What the hell do I do now?”

But my wife wasn’t like me at all. She talked to lots of other moms and prepared herself for some of the challenges of caring for newborns. She read the baby books. The ones Seth Rogan didn’t want to read in Knocked Up. The ones I didn’t read, either.

“I always reasoned: ‘If you just tell me what you want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.’”

I wasn’t asking my wife to boss me around.

I was asking my wife to HELP ME help her. Read that sentence again, guys. I wanted to help my wife. I did. But instead of actually being helpful, I put the burden of responsibility on her to manage her life, our baby’s life, AND my life. It was the most stressful time physically, psychologically, and emotionally my wife had ever been through. The health and wellbeing of her and my little son rested entirely on her being the best mother possible. And instead of putting in the work to support those efforts the best I could, I totally abandoned her to do all the “baby work” alone, while I sat around daydreaming of the future when I would be throwing the football around with him in the backyard.

We totally do that now too. My little son and I. It’s great.

But instead of mom watching from the deck with a drink and a smile, she has a new mailing address.

Generalization Police, Beware!

Many sons grow up hero-worshipping, or at least modeling behavior after, their fathers. Dad watches sports on TV, and does “man chores,” and probably makes most of the money.

Mom cleans and folds their clothes, vacuums their bedroom, replenishes the refrigerator and pantry, cleans their pubic hairs from showers, washes dishes after dinner, and packs lunches.

But mom has an even-harder job.

Mom manages the schedule for EVERYONE in her family. Not just for herself, but for her children’s school, medical and extracurricular needs; her pet’s veterinarian appointments, and her husband’s stuff, too.

It’s HARD to be an adult.

I’ve lived alone about three years now with a young child in grade school there half the time. IT. IS. HARD.

Keeping track of what he needs every day, and for coming school days, and managing my calendar to make sure I’m where I need to be on his behalf. Taking care of his needs alone just half the time, combined with managing my house alone is EASILY the most mentally challenging and taxing work I have ever done, and there is no close second-place thing. And I don’t keep the place 80-percent as nice as it was when my ex-wife lived there. Still quite challenging.

Sons too often grow up this way and end up woefully ill-prepared for adulthood or marriage. It’s bad.

“But she didn’t want to be my mother. She wanted to be my partner, and she wanted me to apply all of my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household.

“She wanted me to figure out all of the things that need done, and devise my own method of task management.

“I wish I could remember what seemed so unreasonable to me about that at the time.”

Hopefully you get it now.

She felt like my mom because I never took the initiative to identify the needs of our son nor the needs of the household, and then set up whatever personal system I needed in order to take care of stuff. I just derpy-derped around all the time as if me not saying or doing anything would make life tasks magically disappear.

Combine those maternal feelings with a little bit of resentment and a little bit of boredom due to hedonic adaptation, and you’ve just prepared to perfection the She Doesn’t Want to Have Sex with You casserole with a side of You’re Kind of an Asshole gravy.

It might seem hard to believe a man could go through many years of marriage hearing his wife tell him about how exhausting this dynamic is for her, and how much it upsets her, and STILL not get it.

But I’m relatively smart.

And that’s precisely how I experienced it. So I know it can, and does, happen.

But maybe with the help of a Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure visual aid, it won’t have to happen to you.

It’s your mom, dude.

…..

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The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

face-in-hands

Between acting like my wife should hurry up and get over the unexpected death of her father because it was damaging our marriage, and my nonchalant denial of her postpartum depression following our son’s birth, I can’t decide which is my greatest failure on my journey toward divorce.

I wake up every day believing I’m a good person, but maybe I’m not.

My failure to adequately support my wife after losing a parent was largely a function of a million previous tiny failures culminating in her breaking point in the midst of grief. When everything hurts, you need someone you can trust to help take some of the pain away. I’d stopped being that a long time ago. I just didn’t know it yet.

I thought she had been nitpicky, overly emotional and occasionally unfair for the previous seven years. Like most guys, I was selfish and clueless.

So, here’s a secret I’ve never told anyone: I have a sociopathic trait. I lack the ability to empathize with the physical pain of others.

When I read books, or hear someone describe something I’ve never seen, my brain dials up images, but what I visually imagine is almost never what reality looks like when I get to see whatever the thing is. And maybe that’s why I struggle with relating to the physical pain of others. Because I can’t properly imagine it.

I am quite sensitive to emotional pain—especially if I’ve been through something similar to a hurting person, or can adequately imagine what it would be like to.

That matters for two reasons: I wasn’t appreciating how much physical discomfort my wife was experiencing during pregnancy, and because I was an ignorant mook, I also failed to grasp the fear, stress and anxiety she might have been feeling worrying about both child delivery, first, then the following 18 years of being responsible for the safety and wellbeing of an actual person.

I was texting friends from the chair next to her bed while she was in labor. I was updating them on her and the baby’s status, so I thought I was doing something important. My wife expressed displeasure with my choice. She wanted me to be fully present and engaged with her, demonstrating my commitment to her, and reinforcing in her mind and heart that I would always be at her side through life’s difficult moments.

These are things I understand today. They make perfect sense, because today I am less of an ignorant mook. But on that day seven and a half years ago, none of that made sense.

The mere act of marrying her demonstrates my commitment to her forever, I thought.

OF COURSE she knows based on thousands of conversations how much I value being a good father.

OF COURSE she knows she’s loved.

OF COURSE she knows she can count on me.

She knows me well enough. She knows I’m a good person.

I wasn’t illogical for assuming and believing that. I was just profoundly ignorant. I think most guys are because no one ever explains it to us in a way that ever computes and resonates.

I would never consider something more important than the birth of my son. But texting friends while my wife was in labor—no matter how uneventful or undramatic it seemed to me—felt to her precisely like I cared more about doing what I wanted than being there for her in her most-vulnerable moments.

I would never physically abandon my crying wife. But that’s exactly what I did. She cried. She asked me not to go. But I’m stubborn and moronic and had it in my head that I needed to be well rested for the days ahead per the advice of other fathers.

I left my crying wife alone in a hospital room just hours removed from an emergency C-section where she struggled to breastfeed a screaming child who didn’t want to with nurses who made her feel like she just wasn’t trying hard enough.

Why?

So I could sleep, shower, send photos to family and friends, and revel in the amazing feeling of being a father to a newborn son.

I hope you believe me when I tell you how reasonable it seemed at the time.

In the context of my nine-year marriage? It’s the single worst thing I’ve ever done.

Then I Made it Worse By Suggesting Postpartum Depression Wasn’t Real 

My wife developed postpartum depression.

My lack of education about hormone loss and the psychological impact of childbirth on a new mother, combined with my lack of respect for mental and emotional health issues across the board, were just the ingredients needed to make me a profoundly negligent asshole in the early months of our son’s life.

I thought postpartum depression amounted to mental weakness.

I thought it was something “crazy” people feel, like Andrea Yates who drowned five of her children in the family bathtub.

I thought it was tantamount to my wife not loving our infant son.

This is just a phase she’ll get over, I thought.

She’s emotional sometimes, but I know she isn’t crazy!

I know she loves our baby.

Instead of reading books, talking to other parents, researching PPD or even just actively seeking ways to help my wife in whatever way I could make the difficult adjustment to parenthood, I played a lot of online poker and watched football and convinced myself I was a good husband and father because I have a kind heart.

I hope when she thinks back on those days, she remembers at least something positive about me, but I can’t say with certainty that she can, or that she should.

She tried to talk to me about it later. About the PPD. About how sad and afraid and alone she felt in the hospital when I’d left her there. About how she wanted me to actively participate in the planning and organization of our new life as parents.

But instead of apologizing with heartfelt sincerity for hurting my wife so badly, I’d get angry with her and accuse her of looking for yet another reason to complain about me even though I was such a good guy. Good guys are well liked and get told what good guys they are all the time, so when their wives point out their shortcomings in a relationship, all the “good guys” resort to the old: “How is it that the person I married is the one always bitching about me?” Because if no one else is bitching about you, they must all be right, and your crazy emo wife must be wrong.

Postpartum depression, according to the Mayo Clinic, typically requires professional treatment, including therapy sessions and, when applicable, anti-depressant medication.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following things mothers suffering from PPD can do to speed up recovery:

Make healthy lifestyle choices. Include physical activity, such as a walk with your baby, in your daily routine. Try to get adequate rest. Eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol.

Only a mother with a thoughtful and attentive husband can realistically expect to get the sleep, healthy food preparation, and time (not to mention energy) for physical activity to achieve a healthy lifestyle and overcome PPD.

Set realistic expectations. Don’t pressure yourself to do everything. Scale back your expectations for the perfect household. Do what you can and leave the rest.

A new mother only feels like she has to do everything when her partner doesn’t have her back.

Make time for yourself. If you feel like the world is coming down around you, take some time for yourself. Get dressed, leave the house, and visit a friend or run an errand. Or schedule some time alone with your partner.

There are only enough hours in the day when all of a household’s responsibilities are tended to. Time alone with a partner only works when the partner makes himself available for such things.

Avoid isolation. Talk with your partner, family and friends about how you’re feeling. Ask other mothers about their experiences. Breaking the isolation may help you feel human again.

When my wife tried to talk to me about it, I basically invalidated her condition and dismissed it as a figment of her imagination. “You’re a great mother,” I kept saying, as if you can’t be a great mother AND feel uncontrollably depressed due to a variety of hormonal and psychological conditions I was largely responsible for creating in the first place.

Ask for help. Try to open up to the people close to you and let them know you need help. If someone offers to baby-sit so you can take a break, take them up on it. If you can sleep, take a nap, or maybe you can catch a movie or meet for coffee with friends.

She tried to talk to me. Several times. She asked me for help. And I denied her my help by suggesting there was nothing to worry about. Instead of trying to understand how she felt and working diligently to figure out what more I could do to help, I pretended everything was fine and left her to fend for herself.

Maybe I did that because it was easier than working hard.

Maybe I let my wife run the show because I didn’t want the responsibility or the hassle.

Maybe every single thing about our lives would be different had I made the right choices.

There were countless little moments where I failed my wife. Where I didn’t work harder to understand her or speak to her in ways that conveyed my sincere desire to be a good partner.

But until I ditched my crying wife at the hospital to catch a few winks, left all the new-parenting heavy lifting to her, and never once apologized or took responsibility for it, I hadn’t actually destroyed my family.

There’s no such thing as time travel. And there’s not enough Christmas magic to rewind clocks and unflip calendars.

But if anyone’s wondering what I’m most sorry for in my entire life, now you know.

…..

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In the Trailer Park with Elise and a Deaf Man

Woman piano player

(Image/Mike Kemp)

I lived in an Iowa trailer park.

Mom always called it a “mobile home,” and fondly remembers it as being “the nicest one in the neighborhood.”

I have no idea whether that’s true. Little kids don’t think about things like that.

I’d sit atop my favorite blanket spread out in the living room and play with my Star Wars and He-Man toys. I was 3 years old.

My mother sat on the bench in front of our upright piano—probably our finest possession—playing beautifully, despite the handicap of having small hands consistent with her short stature.

I’m sure my mother played many things on the piano.

But I only remember one: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, a common choice of beginning pianists. I didn’t know the name of the piece until I was in my 20s. This version is gorgeous:

Near as I can tell, this is my oldest memory.

What are our lives, if not a collection of memories? And if this is my oldest one, what must it be worth?

Save the things we cherish today—right this second—what could be worth more?

I cried and begged my mom not to make me take naps, staring and poking at the bottom of the top bunk which no one ever slept in.

I sobbed when she threw away my blanket because the stitching had come undone on the binding.

I developed anger issues when my parents later divorced and mom moved us 500 miles to Ohio.

But there is no amount of sadness, anger or pain that can erase those moments with mom at the piano.

Everything was—really and truly—okay.

I didn’t worry about what people thought of me, or how to make more money, or whether I’ll ever meet a girl who will like me, and who I like back.

I was just there. Just being. Pure and innocent and totally content.

With my mom who would make it okay. With my dad who would come home from work later and play Star Wars with me.

And with this piece of music. Magic.

Just a footnote on the list of Beethoven’s best work. One he chose not to publish for the final 17 years of his life.

Maybe he thought it was shitty. Maybe he thought it would never matter to anyone.

I wonder what he’d think of that score being an endearing and enduring memory of some random stranger on the other side of the world more than 200 years after writing it.

He probably wouldn’t care.

But I’d like to believe the implications would make him feel good about his impact on the world.

Beethoven is famous for being deaf.

He wrote some of the world’s most influential musical pieces between age 30 and his death at 56, totally unable to hear any of it.

What’s the equivalent of that? A fragrance maker who can’t smell? A photographer who can’t see? A choreographer who can’t walk?

The story of Beethoven’s accomplishments in music following his hearing loss (which happened gradually—he wasn’t completely deaf until around age 30) is the ultimate retort for anyone offering excuses for why they can’t achieve success in their life pursuits.

He was shy. Socially awkward. Ill-tempered. And had, according to various biographies, an “unfortunate physical appearance.”

Women apparently didn’t want to have sex with, or marry, him.

The lonely genius.

So he poured himself into his art, producing many of the world’s most famous symphonies, which are still heard today—more than two centuries later.

A deaf man wrote music that people absolutely adore 200 years later. I don’t have an adjective for how astounding that is.

Even though Beethoven never married, he still had feelings. A love letter he never sent to a married woman named Antonie Brentano was found after his death.

Für Elise is linked to a couple different women, but there’s no direct evidence he was in love with them.

Beethoven’s loneliness is worth contemplating. Here’s a man so famous that every classically educated person on the planet has heard of him. He was admired and beloved while still alive despite being a prickly cock to most in his life.

We all know somebody like that. Except the one we know is a retired electrician or factory worker, and not very many people will remember them after they die because they didn’t leave behind anything of value.

They didn’t leave behind anything beautiful.

Not like this. This ode to Elise.

Beethoven was dead 40 years before ANOTHER guy named Ludwig found Für Elise and published it.

This musical composition is an afterthought.

If any hardcore classical music fans read this, they’ll probably think the score is low-level bullshit compared to Beethoven’s—and his genius German musical predecessors, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—most influential work.

You know how popular albums always have three or four songs everyone knows, surrounded by songs most people have never heard or care to?

It’s super-common for my favorite songs to be among those lesser-known titles. It’s either because I have amazing taste that most plebs could never understand, or because I’m the trailer-park rube who likes crappy things that will never be popular.

Both are possible.

I can listen to Für Elise on repeat for hours, as I have through this entire writing.

I don’t know how the world hears it. Maybe people think it’s silly that I don’t prefer Beethoven’s 5th or 9th symphonies.

Maybe dudes who lived in Iowa trailer parks can’t tell the difference between good and great.

I only know this:

My mother didn’t play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 while He-Man was riding Battle Cat, or while Luke was lightsaber-fighting Vader back when the good guys always won.

She didn’t play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 back then. Before the whole world changed, and everything went from safe and perfect to something else. To something unsteady.

But mom did play Für Elise 33 years ago, and it was beautiful. And even now, when it’s playing, it’s almost like nothing bad could ever happen.

It’s almost as if everything is going to be okay no matter what.

Maybe because it is.

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A Failed Marriage, a Beautiful Son, and Tomorrow

father son hands

(Image/ashscrapyard.wordpress.com)

“Fine. I’ll just stay with mom all the time and you won’t see me anymore!” he said about seven years sooner than expected.

I can’t remember why he was upset with me. It’s usually because I denied him something he wanted.

He was 6 when he said that during a father-son fight more than a year ago. An occasionally angry little boy adjusting to a brand-new school and a brand-new life where mom and dad live in different houses. An occasionally angry father adjusting to the same.

I try to remember how I felt at age 5 when my parents split, but everything’s hazy. I remember bits and pieces. The moments. But I can’t remember me then. How I felt. But that’s no surprise. I can’t remember me five years ago.

I haven’t talked to any therapists about it, but my amateur self-evaluation is that my traumatic experience with divorce two and a half years ago is largely due to hypersensitivity related to also going through it as a child. I think some things I’d buried might have clawed their way up to the surface.

I was the only kid I knew whose dad lived hundreds of miles away.

I don’t know what parts of me—good or bad—are byproducts of that upbringing. I wonder whether living near, and coexisting well with his mother, might make his life better than mine.

I cried a lot in the weeks leading up to, and following, my marriage imploding. Everything hurts. And it scares the shit out of you when you figure out you can’t run away from it.

It’s there in your office meetings at work.

It’s there when you’re having drinks with friends.

It’s there when you visit family for the first time without your spouse and you’re totally drenched in failure.

It’s there in the house you shared with her for more than seven years.

It’s there when you look into your child’s eyes. The most beautiful, pure, innocent, precious thing you have ever known. And it’s your job, your mission, your solemn duty to provide him with the safety, resources, education and love required for him to have a chance at a life better than your own.

And you feel like you just helped destroy his family.

You’re afraid of everything and you’re carrying a mountain of shame.

You wonder how you can ever take care of him if you can’t even take care of yourself.

Maybe he deserves a better father than this, you think.

Maybe he does.

I was in his mom’s driveway helping him buckle his seatbelt—something he does now on his own—the last time I remember crying. Every child has a patented little frown that no other kid can make. All parents recognize it because it’s the one that makes your heart bleed. The corners of his mouth turned down. Tears fell.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I said.

“I just want you and mommy to live in the same house again,” he said.

And then you hold your breath and wonder whether your heart will keep beating. I knew he wished for that. He just hadn’t said it until then.

He’d been so strong and brave. Wearing his little mask every day like his parents used to while hiding a marriage on life support from family and friends.

You hold his little face in your hands and apologize harder than you ever have before. You pray your ex isn’t watching you from the window. You mutter silent Why me, God?s before remembering that you brought this on yourself.

When you neglect a garden, the plants stop producing. And the flowers wither and die.

I have a massive capacity for forgiveness. This doesn’t make me a good or virtuous person. I didn’t work hard to grow into a person who forgives easily. It’s a gift I didn’t earn.

It caused a lot of problems in my marriage. Because my wife and I would fight, and it was ALWAYS the same fight. I think maybe every couple has it.

Something I did or didn’t do would upset her, and she’d tell me about it. And instead of acknowledging something I had done hurt my wife’s feelings, I would get defensive and justify it. I didn’t apologize. Since I didn’t do anything intentionally, I didn’t owe it, I reasoned, and I’d go to great lengths to justify that, too.

Why is she always finding something new to complain about?

I think most husbands and boyfriends get annoyed about things their wives or girlfriends do, but because they don’t like to have “talks,” they avoid saying anything. Having a beer, or watching football, or playing video games, or going to work, or literally any other thing in the entire universe including taxes and dental work are less painful than “talks.”

I always viewed it as loving my wife enough to overlook her “shortcomings,” and was always perturbed I didn’t get that same courtesy in return. I didn’t have empathy for my wife’s feelings because I didn’t know she felt things in profoundly different ways than me. I didn’t have perspective because I ignorantly took my marriage for granted and thought winning battles was more important than actionable love.

She didn’t like that after a good night’s sleep I felt good and was ready to move on because she was still pissed about the unresolved thing.

These things piled up with each passing argument, and instead of acknowledging them, I’d stay defensive and complain that she was keeping track of all these supposed crimes and unloading them on me every time she was upset. I would never be so petty as to do that to her, I’d say like a smug prick.

I didn’t know that her way would have saved our marriage, and that my way was why half of all marriages fail, and why many that don’t are broken and miserable.

Maybe my son will get angry all over again when he’s old enough to recognize that. Or maybe because he’s a boy, he’ll empathize with me by default.

His mom is a grudge holder and is still angry with me about how our lives turned out. I sometimes feel it in those (now rare) moments when she gets upset with me about something I did or didn’t do as her co-parenting partner.

I don’t know how to stay angry. It goes away like magic even if I don’t work at it. But I think it’s opposite for other people. I think they don’t know how to not be angry. A burden they didn’t earn or deserve.

Maybe it’s just nine years of feeling unheard and invalidated all piled up into a mountain of shit too heavy and painful to always keep hidden.

Since there’s no such thing as time travel, our son is all that matters now.

Have we infected him somehow?, I wonder.

Is he secretly sad and angry?

Has he forgiven us?

Will he ever?

“Dad,” he says into my ear. “You’re the best dad in the whole world. If I could choose any dad out of every dad there is, I would choose you.”

He tells mom the same thing about her. And we believe him. He really would choose us.

Some combination of love and resilient childhood magic stirs inside him.

My handsome little second grader, rapidly approaching the day when I’ll no longer be able to call him little.

We crafted a small boat for him to race at a Cub Scouts function this past weekend. Win or lose, he showed maturity and graciousness in congratulating opponents. Losses left other kids in tears. My little man shrugged them off, knowing we did all we could.

One year ago, he was desperate for acceptance from the first graders in his new school. His mom and I worried privately about him being a social outcast because we’re not ingrained in the community the way most of the other families are.

Last year, kids didn’t chant our son’s name in support when it was his turn to race. This year, many did.

Last year, we worried about his social life. This year, every Cub Scout in his class came to our table at the event to sit with and talk to him.

We grow together, that boy and I.

Him—socially and academically. Me—emotionally and professionally.

He rifled through a deck of nerd cards during breakfast this morning. “Nerd cards,” being the little role-playing trading cards popular with kids (and some adults), but which I was too “cool” to play with when I was younger. Things like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Gormiti cards. The particular nerd cards this morning were Gormiti cards given to him by an older boy he looks up to. Gormiti, to me, feels like Wyler’s Flavor Aid to Pokemon’s Kool-Aid®.

You know—even lamer than the regular amount of lame.

I started teasing him: “Hi, I’m Tony Romo and I play Pokemon. And I’m arts-and-craftsy Tony Romo, and I play Gormiti.”

He half-smiled because he likes the DirecTV commercial I was spoofing.

And then I made up another Pokemon-is-better-than-Gormiti joke, and I saw his sweet little face do the patented frown thing, and he started to cry.

I felt like a dick.

I walked around the counter scooped him up, sat him on the counter and hugged him tight, because I’m not the guy I used to be.

“I’m so sorry, bud. Did dad just hurt your feelings?”

He nodded, so I hugged him again.

“Kiddo, you are allowed to like whatever you like, and I am so sorry if I made you feel like I thought your Gormiti cards were stupid. I think it’s awesome that your friend gave you those and I want you to have so much fun with them today, okay?”

I meant it.

He nodded that he understood.

Hands on my shoulders, he sort of pushed me back a few inches so we could look each other in the eye.

“I love you, dad,” he said.

He meant it.

Because he has a massive capacity for forgiveness, too. And God-willing, maybe now he has a role model for how to deal with hurt feelings in ways that can heal rather than divide. That soften hearts rather than harden them.

That, at the risk of oversimplifying humanity, might be the keys to making romantic love last.

The keys to the forever kind-of families.

The keys to healing the broken.

So that we can unlock tomorrow without fear of the unknown. Because we’re ready now.

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Staying Together For the Kids is a Good Enough Reason For Me

(Image/bhhook at Deviant Art)

(Image/bhhook at Deviant Art)

It was like I couldn’t catch my breath. I was afraid.

I’d never felt anything like this before. I stood over the bathroom toilet and vomited even though I wasn’t sick or drinking. But I felt seasick. Like a guy in a row boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with no oars and no way to signal for help.

What the hell is happening to me?

It was the first time I’d ever experienced anxiety so badly that I threw up. It’s a feeling I got to know well during the run up to, and the aftermath of, my divorce. I puked a lot.

I still do sometimes.

You might say I’m a little unsteady.

I was 23 the first time she left. It was just for a week to visit her family in Ohio. After spending my entire life in either Ohio or Illinois with my parents, friends and extended family, I was totally alone for the first time ever.

I was in Florida 1,100 miles from the nearest person I knew. And I could really feel it. And I just lost it.

That’s the first time I realized how reliant I was on other people and how much I needed an anchor.

I grew up in this safe little Ohio town with a close group of friends, my mom and stepdad (who I met on my 5th birthday) and a big extended family.

When I wasn’t there, I was with my dad who I only saw a few months out of the year 500 miles away.

I think maybe when your parents split up when you’re 4, and live 500 miles apart, it fucks you up a little no matter how great the rest of your life is.

I used to think I was normal.

But then I broke inside and realized there’s no such thing as normal. Just a bunch of different versions of being human.

Mama, come here
Approach, appear
Daddy, I’m alone
‘Cause this house don’t feel like home

I spent every day of my life feeling safe and loved with my parents until I went away to college. I spent most of college living with one of my dearest friends from grade school and high school having the time of our lives. I spent my last year of college with the girl who would eventually be my wife.

When you get married, you officially leave the nest and build a new one. The most intimate of inner circles in your life (your parents—and siblings if you have them) moves out one rung on your circle, and your partner takes that place in the center.

She’s your new safety net. Your new normal. Your new foundation.

So when she flew back to Ohio for a week, leaving me alone far away from anything familiar for the first time, it was my first taste of isolation. It didn’t take, I realized, staring into a toilet and recognizing just how little control of myself I had.

That’s the part that scares you the most. I’m not in control. What might happen next?

I had always thought I was strong and steady.

But really, I was weak and fragile.

If you love me, don’t let go
If you love me, don’t let go

My mom left my stepdad while my wife was pregnant with our son. Mom called to tell me when I was on my lunch break. She cried. I cried.

Then I vomited some more and called my wife because I needed something steady. She left her office to come hug me. I felt like the biggest pussy imaginable. I was almost 30, for God’s sake. I’m supposed to hold HER. And I’m fucking crying on her shoulder?

I was just smart enough to know shit I’d been carrying around for 25 years was rearing its head.

I didn’t visit my mom for about a year after that.

But I had my wife. She’d always be there.

When we met, I was strong and confident. But now I was something else. I wonder if that scared her. I wonder sometimes if the fear and anxiety that started to build throughout my late 20s and early 30s made her feel unsafe. Like she couldn’t trust me to make everything okay, no matter what.

You can’t know it until you know it: When your insides break, you need more than another person to make it okay.

The only certainty I ever had in life was that I would never get divorced and put my children through what I went through.

That’s it. That’s the one thing I was sure of.

I had plenty of time to get used to the taste of failure while I slept in the guest room for 18 months feeling it all slip away one failed attempt to save it at a time.

I’d like to tell you I spent most of that time thinking about how hard it would be for my young son. How he could end up feeling so many of the same uncertainties and co-dependent tendencies I did if his mom and I divorced.

But I was mostly thinking about me. That I was about to lose the only thing I was sure about. Maybe it’s not the same for everyone, but when I got married, I thought of my wife in the same way I’d always thought of my parents. The person you can count on to love you unconditionally and always be there.

But then you realize it’s not true. I guess I really don’t know anything.

And then you’re back in that oar-less boat in the middle of the ocean, and the storm is kicking you around, and you want to start paddling but you don’t know which way to go because there is no home to go to anyway.

Hold, hold on, hold onto me
‘Cause I’m a little unsteady
A little unsteady
Hold, hold on, hold onto me
‘Cause I’m a little unsteady
A little unsteady

I hear a lot of people say that staying together for the kids is a bad idea.

If there’s heavy dysfunction like infidelity or physical abuse or addiction problems, I can co-sign with that. Exposing children to those things is not in their best interest.

But what about the rest of us? The ones who just die from a thousand little pinpricks?

The people who are bored. The people who are angry. The people who are scared. The people who are sad. The people who are confused. The people who are lost.

Those people need a good reason to fight for it.

If you won’t do it because it’s the right thing, or because you vowed to do so, I think doing it for the kids is a pretty legit reason.

People always say (including me): “I would do ANYTHING for my kids!”

Fuck you.

And fuck me, too.

Because we won’t love for them.

But maybe it’s because we don’t know how.

Because no one ever showed us.

Because they didn’t know how either.

Mother, I know
That you’re tired of being alone
Dad, I know you’re trying
To fight when you feel like flying
But if you love me, don’t let go
If you love me, don’t let go

Author’s Note:

I was at an X Ambassadors concert Saturday night having an amazing time. They’re incredible and are going to blow up in 2015-’16 and you should buy their albums. The band played this song. It’s rare for a song to grab your soul and squeeze, especially in that surreal environment.

But it did. So I had to write this post.

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Happy Birthday, Mom

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

It must have been hard. Raising me.

You were so young. Just 21, right? Just a kid? A kid with a kid.

I still feel like one of those.

Is it the same for you as it is for me? Did you think about your future and assume it would all just click one day? Magically? When I was in grade school, I knew I’d finally figure it out in high school. When I was in high school, I knew I’d finally figure it out in college. When I was in college, I knew I’d finally figure it out once I got out in the real world. Once I got out in the real world, I knew I’d finally figure it out once I settled down and got married.

And now I’m divorced. Single dad. 35.

And I don’t have anything figured out.

At one time, that might have terrified me. But not anymore. Because I’m beginning to think the older and wiser we get, the more aware we become of how little we ever really know or understand.

We don’t have much control, and we were delusional whenever it felt like we did.

Each day I wake up, I get incrementally closer to making total peace with that: I am not in control. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But everything’s going to be okay.

You had to say goodbye to me for months at a time when I’d leave for dad’s.

That must have been hard. I have such a hard time saying bye to your grandson for much more than a couple days.

You had to deal with my selfish, me-first, independent, only child nature. I took EVERYTHING for granted when I was a kid, mom. Everything.

Love. Money. Safety. Health. Fun. Friends. Family. Laughter. Innocence. Spiritual peace.

And you, mom. I took you for granted. I still do. You can tell because I don’t call you enough. Because I still am so good at doing the me-first, only child routine, even all these years later.

I think you carry a lot of guilt about my childhood. Questioning some of the choices. Wondering whether you could have done anything different to give me a better life.

It’s been a rough go in my thirties. Everything just seemed to go to hell right then. And it has taken me a long time to find my way. I still haven’t found it. But I’m not just wandering aimlessly anymore. I feel close.

Mom. You’re why that’s possible.

You’re why I get to feel any sense of hopefulness and excitement about my future.

You dedicated your existence to providing me with the guidance, life lessons, kindness and decency, principles, and spiritual foundation that have allowed me to feel alive again.

Without you, I might not know what love looks like.

Without you, I might not understand what it means to forgive, or be forgiven.

Without you, I might not be alive because I didn’t know being alive could hurt so much until one day it did.

Mom, without you, I couldn’t be me.

It was so easy to not like who I was throughout these past years. Self-loathing. You probably know the feeling because I think everyone whose lives don’t turn out absolutely perfect feel it. And I’m pretty sure that’s all of us. Even those whose lives seem particularly charmed.

And you know what saved me?

All of the things that you instilled in me, via genetics or example.

Love and kindness live inside me and the days worse than I’d ever imagined couldn’t kill it.

Friendliness and smiles are my gift to those near me because most of the time I don’t even know how to be another way.

Hope is my favorite word. My favorite idea. Hope. Always.

I’ve taken to saying the following, and I love it because it’s always true and always will be: There’s no reason that today can’t be the day the best thing that ever happens to you, happens.

I am genuinely hopeful, mom. That I can be a better man today than I was yesterday. That I can be a better father. A better friend. A better writer. A better son.

I am ashamed of my failings. And I’m sorry for all of the times I didn’t act grateful for all you’ve done. And I’m sorry for all the times I might seem ungrateful in the future.

But I need you to believe that deep down in the places no one gets to see, that I am trying to do good. To be good. To be a teeny tiny part of making this world better than I find it.

I would never want to be anyone but me, mom. Ever. I’d trade nothing but some poor choices.

So much of the good that lives in me is because of you.

In many ways, I am you.

Thank you for my life. Thank you for dedicating so much of your life to mine. Thank you for teaching me how to love.

You sacrificed everything (nearly your life, mom—I don’t forget that) for me.

And I’m not going to waste it.

That’s my birthday gift to you, mom. And I hope it’s enough.

I love you more than I say.

I appreciate you more than I act.

And I’m still chasing those dreams. The ones you instilled in me all those years ago. And now it’s time to start running faster.

I know this life can be beautiful. Because I’ve lived beautifully. And it’s because of you.

I still care about making you proud. And I still intend to.

Happy birthday, mom.

To many, many, many years.

I love you.

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Remember to Remember

I don't have a pensieve. Bummer.

I don’t have a pensieve. Bummer.

I was just paging through an old photo album my mom gave me during my Thanksgiving visit.

I was little in the photos. Newborn and toddler pictures. Photos of my mom, dad and I all together, before they split when I was four years old. Photos I’ve never seen before.

Images from the early 1980s. My parents, aunts and uncles all younger than I am now.

I don’t remember any of the moments captured in the images, even seeing the irrefutable proof I was there.

I don’t think that’s particularly abnormal—not remembering much from your first few years of life. But it got my wheels turning.

Friday morning, I sat with my five-year-old son, my 20-year-old sister and my mother. Mom’s obsessed with old family videos and insists on watching them whenever we’re all together.

VHS tapes.

She popped one in.

It was Easter Sunday, just after my 20th birthday. I was home from college. My little sister was five, like her little nephew today.

I watched myself supervising her Easter egg hunt, remembering none of it.

And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t remember the vast majority of my life.

I can’t miss the memories I don’t have. But conceptually, I found that realization a little sad.

MCI and Cheap Long-Distance Rates

At some point on that Easter morning 14 years ago, my mom hit the “Stop” button on the camcorder. An inconsequential move at the time.

But an awesome one in 2013.

Because something rad happened. After a tracking adjustment (remember VCR tracking?!?! Mom’s totally old-fashioned) I realized my mother had taped over an old football game we’d recorded.

It was the 1989 NFL playoffs. The Cleveland Browns versus the Buffalo Bills.

“Mom, can we please keep this on for a little bit? This is kind of amazing.” I said.

She obliged.

Just a couple minutes in, my favorite childhood quarterback—Bernie Kosar—hit my favorite childhood wide receiver—Webster Slaughter—with a perfect pass down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown catch and run.

I instinctively raised my hand in the air, celebrating the success of an event I’d watched 25 years ago, but don’t remember.

It’s not a big deal watching old ball games. Because of ESPN Classic, most sports fans have seen old game footage before.

But you know what IS a big deal?

Watching 25-year-old television commercials. Because they DON’T show those on ESPN Classic.

First, it was an old Ford commercial, touting the merits of the 1990 model year Ford Taurus.

Have you driven a Ford, lately?

We all laughed.

Then it was a commercial for Delta Airlines. When’s the last time you saw a commercial for an airline? Southwest is the only one advertising on TV these days, right?

Fly the friendly skies.

Then it was an old Coors Light commercial. Everyone looked awesome because it was 1989.

Coors Light! It’s the right beer now!

And finally, there was a great MCI commercial bragging about how much cheaper their long-distance phone call rates were than AT&T’s.

The phones were big and old.

We were still 18 years away from the iPhone.

Amazing.

And the entire thing made me smile. I’ve told at least three people about it.

And it struck me as a reminder.

A reminder to soak in the moments.

To remember to remember.

To take a lot of photos. A lot of video. A lot of mental snapshots.

Maybe write it down.

So you can taste it again. Feel it again. Live it again.

The world’s always spinning.

The clocks, always ticking.

Always.

Tick, tick, tick.

You and me? Right now?

We happen once in a lifetime.

Make it count.

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