Unsolicited advice: needing a man

“I’ll tell you exactly what you need – you need to find a man.”

I was standing outside talking to Ethan’s teacher on Friday afternoon. We had just wrapped up a meeting about enrolling Ethan in speech through the local public school when she made this ridiculous statement while offering (unsolicited) advice about how I could help Ethan through this tough time.

Honestly, after she said this, I lost track of what she was saying and why/how a “man” would solve all my problems. I was just pissed.

I don’t doubt that having a strong male role model would be good and healthy for Ethan (and Lauren), but to make a broad, bold statement like this is just… stupid. (SIDENOTE: I have started the process of matching E with a Big Brother, but it could take months for the right match to be found.)

Ethan and Lauren (and I) don’t need a “man.” If I started dating TODAY, it would be a LONG time before I’d introduce someone to my kids. If a man from church or school offered to take Ethan fishing or bowling or to play video games, I would be very hesitant to let my son go alone with someone. (Think of all the horror stories…) His teacher recommended sending Ethan on a playdate with a friend when the friend’s dad would be around (right, because men are KNOWN for participating in kids playdates…)

No, a “man” isn’t the answer. (See my previous entry on men and unicorns.)

There isn’t a man in our lives, and we don’t live close to family or close friends. But Ethan sees women (me and my mom) doing all sorts of things: sleeping on a submarine, taking out the garbage, hanging shelves, building things, watching sports, talking about his personal care and hygiene, going fishing (my mom takes E, not me. Fishing is where I draw the line), discussing urinal etiquette, killing spiders. Not to say these are all “men” things or that these are the only things men are good for. Quite the contrary. Even if Mike and I were still married, I’d probably be doing most of these things (and arguing with Mike at the same time). The point is that Ethan sees us doing all sorts of things to keep life moving. We do all this without complaint, without being told, to keep everything running smoothly. And at the same time we’re doing all that, we’re also making meals, cleaning the house, doing laundry, grocery shopping, hemming school pants, walking the dog, reading bedtime stories, helping with homework, kissing boo boos, and on and on.

Ethan and Lauren are witness to a fully functioning household – with or without a traditional family structure.

Now I understand that both kids would benefit from being around a strong male role model, to have a real reference point for what it means to be a good man/husband/dad/friend. But that’s the thing. It isn’t about exposure to a random old testosterone-filled person. It’s about finding the “right” man, a good man, from whom my kids could learn and grow.

And those don’t sell those at Target.

Only parenting

Mike and I were separated when he died, so mentally, I was prepared to be a single mom. I had been thinking about it for months before we the court order that removed him from my home.

I knew it would be difficult. I knew there would be challenges, but being the kind of overplanning-kind-of-person I am, I was ready to be a single mom.

Given his condition, I knew Mike wouldn’t have a dominant role for the first year or two, but he’d be “there” by phone or Skype or the occasional supervised visitation. But, hell, he was GOING to pull his shit together – he was going to get BETTER, or so I believed.

When he was better, he’d have weekends, holidays, summers with the kids. And then I’d have a free weekend, or a kid-less couple of weeks over the summer. I had plans with that “free” time.

Things don’t always go according to plan.

There’s a big difference between being a “single” mom and being an “only” parent. Differences I’m just starting to realize 10 months after Mike’s death.

Being an “only” is exhausting. There is no time away, no time to refresh, no downtime. You’re always “on” no matter how much you just want to be “off” for a while longer. There’s no end in sight, no waiting until the other parent’s weekend. I’m actually jealous of “single” parents.

Before Mike slipped into a bottle of vodka, we were a good team.

  • When I reached the end of my rope, he was still calm and rationale, and vice versa.
  • If he had a bad day at work and needed a break when he came home, I was there to take Ethan (Lauren was born AA – after alcoholism), entertain him, keep him away until Mike found his peace – and vice versa.
  • On weekends, one of us could always sleep in while the other handled breakfast and other morning rituals. For parents of kids who always wake up by 6 a.m., an extra hour or two of sleep can make or break the day.

We tagged-team parented a lot. It worked for us.

Since Mike’s death, I’ve learned to have more patience and that’s good. But patience only goes so far when there’s no parental backup – and I’m still nowhere near as patient as I should be.

I have a few friends who have volunteered to take the kids when I need a break. (One divorced mom friend even really “gets it.” She’s mentioned the “only” parent thing without me ever discussing it. I cried that someone acknowledged it!)

But I don’t like to ask for help. And if I did take my kids to a friend’s house or drop them off for a few hours, I’d probably be so worried about them, and feel so guilty that I NEEDED the break, that I wouldn’t be able to relax. (God, what if Ethan talks about how much beer his dad drank – which is a favorite topic of conversation right now? What if Lauren freaks out? Am I letting the kids down by needing an escape?)

Being an “only” parent isn’t where I thought I’d be, and I often wonder how I got here. But “only parent” is now our normal. I just need to get comfortable with it, figure it out, come to terms with it. I’m not complaining or asking for sympathy, just realizing there’s a big difference between the two distinctions. Being an “only” parent is what I am now.

Therapy update: starting over

Right after I wrote the post on rethinking the direction of Ethan’s therapy, I got an email from R, Ethan’s therapist. He attached a link to the neuropsychologist evaluation process and a list of professionals at the local children’s hospital. As I suspected, he was pushing an evaluation, ignoring my concerns that Ethan’s grief wasn’t being addressed.

I let the email sit for a week before responding. Then I responded (this is the actual email – except I used his name, not “R”):


Thank you, R. I’ve done a lot of research in the last six weeks or so, and I’ve talked to several people on the issue as well. As I mentioned in Ethan’s last session, I was leaning toward an ADD/ADHD diagnosis when we first started seeing you; however, as I’ve become more aware of the grieving process in children, I think there’s another issue that needs to be addressed before he is evaluated. Ethan *might* very well be ADD/ADHD to some degree, but until the core issue of Ethan’s grief is addressed, it will not benefit him to be labeled. 

To recap what Ethan’s been through: Within weeks during the summer of 2010, Ethan became a big brother, his grandpa died (and my mom moved in with us), his father was sinking deeper into alcoholism (and Ethan saw many things relating to that), and my marriage was crumbling. Literally, all this happened over a four-week period. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with (and he was seeing a counselor at school and another one outside of school), a year later, Mike and I separated, and I decided to relocate the family to Wisconsin. Five months after the separation and just weeks after Ethan moved here, Mike died. 
That’s a lot for a child to take in, absorb, and figure out how to deal with. A lot of his behavior issues at school (and to a lesser degree at home since we don’t see the same behavior outside school) mirror what other children go through as part of the grieving process. The acting out, the aggression, the anger are all part of the process that many children go through. 
You’ve done a good job helping Ethan become more aware of the symptoms and finding ways to deal (i.e., handling his anger), but I think there needs to be a focus on dealing with the grief aspect. If this isn’t an area of expertise, please let me know. I truly believe this is where Ethan needs the most help right now.
It was a week before I heard back from R. I wasn’t surprised by his response. Turns out, he has very little experience helping younger children with grief issues, and he recommends taking Ethan to a different therapist. Not surprised, but a little ticked off because:
  • My reason for seeking help was very clearly spelled out for R from the first meeting. We spent two hours talking about what Ethan had been through in the last few years, including (very much including) dealing with the deaths of his grandpa and his dad.
  • R had adequate opportunity to indicate this was not an area of specialty. Every session, R prompted Ethan and I to talked about upcoming (or recently passed) anniversaries like the date of my dad’s death, Father’s Day, my wedding anniversary. Hearing me talk about Ethan’s reaction to these dates might have been opportune time to say, “hey, that’s not really my thing, you know? But let me refer you to someone else…” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Ethan really clicked with R, and I haven’t told him that we will be changing therapists. The therapist to which R has referred us has requested that I meet with her alone the first time. I’m a little hesitant to go with someone who R has recommended, but it’s worth (at least) meeting her. I’m going to lay it on the line though – we need to address Ethan’s grief. He needs the tools to comprehend and process these two deaths.

New therapist is going to get grilled: I want to know what kind of experience she has with kids E’s age, and what kind of processes she has for working with kids dealing with grief. And I won’t hesitate to find a different therapist if I don’t feel she can address the issues and REALLY HELP Ethan.

I’m making the call tomorrow to schedule the first meeting with new therapist.

Last conversation: REVISITED

So what would I have said to Mike if I knew it was our last conversation? I don’t know…

Would I have reminisced about the old days? When we met in college and started dating? What about his confession of love at the reflecting pond? Remember the corner of my dorm room that I let him decorate with beer signs? Or how about when we moved to St. Louis in the heat of the summer? How about when he proposed in our tiny campus apartment (still my favorite engagement story of all time)? How about our wedding reception at the haunted brewery – and getting locked in the haunted B&B the next morning? Remember what a fun time everyone had, some even calling it the “best wedding ever!”?  Remember how we didn’t even know if we’d have wedding guests, since it was weeks after 9/11 and people weren’t sure if they’d be safe? How we didn’t know if there’d be a honeymoon since it was supposed to start in NYC? What about finding our first house and moving into it – how excited we both were that we could afford a brand-new house? Oh, and what about the home improvement projects (the deck and the “Dr. Seuss shelves” and the tiled backsplash), and how we always joked that Mike was “handy for a lawyer”? Remember when I decided I wanted to be a mom, and how Ethan was born almost EXACTLY nine months later? Remember taking Ethan home the first time and not knowing what to do? How about when he let Ethan slide out of his car seat in my parents’ living room and his panicked “don’t cry, don’t cry!” plea to a tiny baby? Remember why we bought our second house because I said our first house was too small for another baby? And how Lauren was born nine months exactly after we moved into the Highcliff house?

Or maybe I would have just screamed at him, begging for answers. When did the drinking start? Why did it get so bad? Was this the reason he lost his last two jobs? Was he even applying for jobs in the two years he sat in the basement? How many times did he blame OD’ing on his depression meds, but it was really because he was drunk? Why couldn’t he just stop? Didn’t he love us enough? Why did he throw everything away for a bottle of cheap ass vodka? Did he ever drive drunk with Ethan in the car? When did the smoking start? Did he not care that he was putting our lives at risk when he smoked in the basement (and put out the cigarettes on the carpet – which we found after he moved out)? How COULD he trash the basement with his empties, cutting open the couch to hide bottles in the cushions, pushing aside ceiling tiles to hide cans, pulling out insulation in the storage room to store empties between the cement wall and the drywall? Rehab, AA, detox – nothing worked, but why? Couldn’t he stick with a program? Weren’t our kids “enough” for him to get his act together? Wasn’t I “enough”?

Or would I just say goodbye, hold his hand, and watch him go?

Would there have been a message he wanted to share with our kids? Or would he just say good-bye? Would he have even wanted to see the kids? (After all, Mike refused to have Christmas with the kids last year because he “didn’t want the kids to see him like this.”)

I just don’t know what I would have said to him…

Last conversation

It was a Monday evening in January when Mike and I had a phone conversation about urinal etiquette.

I know it was Monday because it was the last time Mike and I spoke. My last conversation with my husband was an argument about bathroom behavior.

Earlier in the day, Ethan’s school called me. There was an incident in the bathroom involving a group of boys who were acting inappropriately. All the parents were asked to have conversations to discuss the appropriate way to act in the bathroom, specifically the urinal area.

This was a little out of my area of experience.

I called Mike on my way home. He answered, sounding tired and pissed off.

“Hey,” I said. “I heard from school. We need to talk to Ethan about how to act in the bathroom. I don’t know any details other than all the parents of the boys are having the talk with their sons tonight. Maybe you can call later and have that conversation with him?”

After months of calling every night at the same time, it had been days since Mike called to talk to the kids.

“That’s not happening,” Mike said.

“What?” I asked. “I just need you to tell Ethan how to behave at the urinals. You know, boy stuff.”

“Why can’t YOU do it?” Mike asked.

“Because I’m not equipped, pun intended, to talk about urinal stuff. All I know is you’re not supposed to look at anyone around you in the bathroom.”

“That’s it, just look straight ahead. No talking. Honestly, I don’t know why you can’t do this,” Mike replied.

“Because it’s your chance to be a dad. To have a man-to-boy talk with Ethan about something important, a life lesson.”

“I don’t feel like it,” Mike said. “You do it.”

“Fine!” I yelled. “I have absolutely no credibility in this area, but I’ll handle it, just like I’ve handled everything else! There’s nothing weird or awkward about a MOM having a talk with her son about urinal etiquette. Thanks for nothing, asshole!”

I hung up the phone, furious that Mike was refusing to man-up and talk to Ethan about “boy stuff.”

That was the last time we talked.

On Tuesday, I had two missed calls and messages from Mike’s cell number. I didn’t want to listen to the messages or return his calls. I was so mad that he wouldn’t talk to Ethan, and I didn’t have anything nice to say to him.

I wouldn’t listen to those messages until after I knew he died. The messages were pocket dials, obviously not planned or intended. I could hear background of the TV and rustling of something. I heard Mike cough. I heard his mom offer him something to drink. Everything was muffled, in the distance. I was just eavesdropping on those last hours.

Those pocket dial messages are now gone forever from my phone. But I’ll always have the memory of our last conversation. Urinal etiquette. Not the topic I would have chosen, if I would have known.