Dear Old Dad…How to Survive a Turbulent Childhood

IMG_5841My father passed away when I was ten years old, and to say he wasn’t a perfect parent would be an understatement.  He was both drug and sex addicted, and was rarely at home.  When he was around though, he could be really fun and spontaneous; washing everybody in the neighborhoods hair in the kitchen sink, letting us soap our own windows on Devil’s Night, and putting my sister on top of the refrigerator when she stepped on a nail and then proceeding to soak her foot in cottage cheese.

And then there was the other side…

He could be incredibly volatile; screaming at us in the back seat of the car to “shut the bleep up” while he took a hit off of a joint (with the windows up), ordering my brother to go upstairs to get the belt out of his closet so he could whoop my brother (that had to be the longest walk ever), and losing his mind because after scrambling some eggs, he decided to get creative and flip the eggs in the air, and they went all over the floor (I’m not sure he thought that one out).  His behavior was erratic and we walked on egg shells whenever he was around.  He scared the heck out of me, and to this day I have PTSD-like symptoms when I’m around somebody who exhibits excessive mood swings.

He was far from perfect, but today I can say with confidence that he did his best. 

Now, it took me a very long time to buy into this “he did his best” concept.  It felt like a cop-out at first. “Why couldn’t he do better?” I would think to myself.  “He had to know better.”  “He had to know he was hurting us, and himself.”  “He had to know the drugs and his decisions were tearing our family apart.”  But in truth, he was a broken man who didn’t know how to do better or he would have.  His parents never taught him how to love, and when my dad was a very young boy his mother gave him and his siblings the responsibility of watching over their even younger brother, who sadly got hit by a car and died on their watch.  His mother blamed them, and there was tremendous guilt and shame in the family after he died.  It was clear that my father never found a way to forgive himself.

I felt a huge weight lift off of me once I understood where my father was coming from and why he acted the way he did.  I felt even better once I was able to forgive him because I knew in my heart he did his best.  And yet, I still felt a lot of anger and sadness around it, so of course, I had no place left to look but inside.

What were the stories I was still holding on to in relation to my dad? 

What were my expectations when it came to my dad?  (Expectations are something that often cause me suffering, so I knew there was something related to expectation at the bottom of this).

I’ve never met a perfect parent.  I certainly am not, my kids would be the first to tell you, but I can say for certain that I am 100% committed to showing my kids that they are loved. Unfortunately, my father was not quite as committed.   As a result, most of my life, I longed for the type of love I thought the perfect father would provide.  I longed to be loved by a father with great strength, who spent his days committed to his family and who would do just about anything to protect them.  I longed for a father who would give sage advice, who would show me I was loved, who would walk me down the aisle at my wedding, who would look at me with pride in his eyes the way father’s do when they’re watching their children, and most of all, who would show me that I’m worthy. 

I continued to experience anger and sadness until I was willing to look at these stories to see how they were holding these feelings securely inside of me.  What I came away with, after doing some digging, was that it was my job to love me, to know my worth, to be proud of myself, to trust in my own instincts and to know what’s best for me.  This was revolutionary!  But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that nobody else could possibly know what is best for me or give me what my own intuition naturally provides.  And once I took responsibility for my own life, I found great strength in becoming that provider and protector of myself and my family. 

One final step…I still wasn’t there.

Like my father, I still needed to forgive myself.  I needed forgive myself for believing the stories I told myself.  I needed to forgive myself for waiting around for somebody else to rescue me and guide me, when I already had all of the tools I needed to do that for myself.  I needed to forgive myself for believing that all fathers are perfect, all knowing and loving beings.  Most of all, I needed to forgive myself for believing that my father should have put his family first before his addictions and pain.  That was just not the reality – because he didn’t. 

Once I peeked under the hood of my stories, pinpointed my unrealistic expectations, forgave myself for my false beliefs, saw my father for who he really was and forgave my father, I felt free.  Ironically, this path lead me to be more forgiving of myself as a parent, because like my father, I am doing my best. 

Hippie Academy – Freedom Gone too Far!

I was in the third grade at Middlebelt Elementary School, a public school, when my father apparently had a disagreement with the principal, and the principal told him he was crazy. This was not the first time somebody called my dad crazy, by the way, but this time the situation got heated and my father told the principal that he would be removing his children from school. So, what is a hippie dad to do – take his kids to “the Free School”, of course.

bus 2The Free School was a school that basically didn’t have any teachers, per se, but definitely had a few adults roaming around keeping an eye on things. There was also no teaching going on, there was just this honor system type style of “teaching”. They gave us a math book and told us to complete the pages when we felt moved to do so and then we were to place a check mark on the board when it was complete. Thank goodness for the check marks because the inner pleaser in me had to know that somebody knew I was doing the right thing.

I don’t recall any art or music classes, but we did swim once a week in the city pool and watch movies.  And then there was that one “naked massage” class where two naked hippies walked into the room with a massage table and told us they were going to “teach” us how to do massage – now they decide to teach us something! They asked for volunteers and my siblings and I, with wide-eyes, declined.

I have to laugh imagining this going on today.  Helicopters would be flying above the school and the police would have them on the ground, in handcuffs, before they even had the chance to ask for volunteers.  It was the 70’s though, and it was sort of an anything goes kind of era, at least where I grew up.

I don’t recall why we left the Free School, but I am fairly certain it had nothing to do with the naked massage lesson. Looking back, I don’t think we even told our parents, we just wanted to forget it ever happened. We went back to public school, and we were understandably behind and a little embarrassed, but like every experience in life there was a gift.

There was a really nice mix of kids from various backgrounds at the Free School, and that showed me early on that there are all types of people living in all types of situations, and one is not better than the next, just different. This lesson prepared me for having to attend ten different schools after the Free School with a generous mix of cultures in each.

I quickly learned to trust my instincts too when I was asked to volunteer in the massage class. This was one of my first memorable experiences of feeling my instincts deep down inside my gut and trusting them.  That’s a feeling I will never forget, it has served me well.

Finally, I learned self-reliance while taking it upon myself to learn math, even though I did it to please others (another lesson I learned over and over later in life). I needed to know how to rely upon myself just two years later when my father passed away, and so the Free School was simply the practice I needed for “the Big Show”.

We often have experiences that come into our lives quickly and move out just as fast, leaving us with memorable and meaningful lessons.  They are short and sweet. I’m grateful that in the three short months I attended the Free School, I learned many valuable lessons, aside from math, that have stayed with me throughout my life.

Son Opens his Heart While Teaching Mom to Face her Fears

104Losing my daughter, Syndee, was life’s way of smacking me across the head and reminding me just how miraculous life, and childbirth in particular, truly are. As terrified as I was, I wanted to have another baby immediately. I was so nervous, in fact, I held my breath the entire time I was pregnant with Jake; which is kind of ironic since I regularly remind people to ‘just breathe’. The day I brought him home from the hospital, I sat on the kitchen floor and cried for hours, and not just weeping, deep animalistic crying that erupted like a volcano.  I couldn’t have stopped it from coming out if I tried.

Two years later, Jonah was born, and by that time some of my fears began to fade.  I was grateful for my two sons and I started to feel as if everything worked out just as it was meant to be; until our pediatrician discovered that Jonah had a heart murmur.  My fears came rushing back with immense force. “I cannot lose another child!” “I could never handle that kind of pain again!” Thoughts fiercely bounced around in my head.

We went to see a pediatric cardiologist and they revealed that Jonah had what is referred to as a subaortic stenosis; an obstruction or narrowing at the outlet of the lower left chamber of the heart, just below the aortic valve. My fears were raging by this point! 

Jonah required regular visits to the cardiologist to monitor the progression. Every appointment was filled with fear and anxiety because we knew one day he would indeed need surgery. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. At the end of each appointment, the doctor advised us to come back the following year, and there was a collective sigh as we walked out of the hospital exhausted from all the stress. 

Right around Jonah’s 11th birthday he appeared to be slowing down. This was a kid who played at 120% at all times and didn’t stop playing just because he was out of breath.  There was a glaring difference we could see and he could feel.  I’ll never forget the day he told me he wasn’t feeling right and that everything felt harder; breathing, running, playing.  My heart sank.  We both knew what that meant.

The cardiologist confirmed our suspicions; it was time for the surgery. Imagine having to look in your child’s eyes as the doctor is telling him that he is going to have open heart surgery – it was gut-wrenching! If there was anything I could have done to trade places with Jonah, I would have done it.

A few days prior to the surgery, the hospital staff took Jonah on a tour of the hospital. He met the doctors and nurses who would be taking care of him, got a chance to see where he’d be staying and discovered the all-you-can-eat, on-demand menu and the video collection. And then, the doctors asked him if he had any questions about the surgery. My first reaction was “No, don’t tell him anymore, you’ll freak him out!” But he wanted to know details, and as it turned out, it helped him to feel like part of the team that was making the decisions. It gave him a sense of control which apparently put him at ease to some extent. Of course, he almost passed out when they drew blood that day, and to this day he breaks out in a cold sweat and gets woozy from a prick on the finger. Go figure.

The night before the surgery I obsessed over the possible scenarios of how the morning might play out. I envisioned Jonah crying hysterically, clinging to the headboard with all his might, begging me not to make him go. I envisioned throwing him over my shoulder like a cave-woman and dragging him to the car. My imagination was running wild. In reality, he woke up the morning of his surgery, got dressed and walked to the car without a peep. He faced his fears head on! I was in awe as I watched him, and in watching him I gained the strength I needed to be the strong mom he needed me to be. It was a beautiful thing!

Jonah was in the hospital for five days and out of school for a month.  Within four days of being home he refused to take any more pain medication. Within two weeks he was negotiating with me to let him “gently” throw the football around with his brother, and if you knew my boys, you would know there is no such speed as “gentle”. He was, in the truest sense, living in the moment. No pain; no pain medication. I feel like playing ball; let’s play ball. He wasn’t thinking about the past or the future. Kids are the best teachers!

This was a life changing moment for Jonah, one that would show him how strong he was and what he had the ability to overcome. It taught him that life can get a little crazy, but that nothing lasts forever. To this day, he walks through life in the moment with little fear; maybe because he’s already faced his worst fear.

As a mom, I am incredibly proud having seen my son go through this intense experience with such grace and fearlessness. He taught me so much. Two years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and one of my biggest fears was telling my kids.  We had been through a lot and the thought of putting more on their young plates was excruciating. But, because I saw the strength it gave Jonah to know the truth during his surgery, I knew the best thing was to be honest and up front with them. 

When I told Jonah, he said, “Mom, I’m not worried, my surgery was way worse than yours.” He was right, and from that moment on, I felt as though I could handle anything. If my 11-year-old could handle open-heart surgery, I could handle this. Watching him face his fears head on gave me the strength to face mine.

Love your Children More Than you Hate your Ex

smallest just breathe logoGolda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, once said “Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” As quoted in Media Bias and the Middle East (2003) by Paul Carlson, p. 10.

The same is true for two people getting divorced when children are involved.  In order for everybody to win in a divorce, we as parents have to love our children more than we hate our ex, and more than we love our assets!  There is nothing worth fighting over and no material possession worth damaging the well-being of our innocent children.

Every time you make a decision regarding your divorce, you need to step out of your drama and into reality; you may be harming your kids with reckless decisions that are made out of spite for your ex.  Take time to think long and hard before you make any decisions.  It’s easy to get worked up in an adversarial situation such as divorce, but this is no time to lose your sense of doing the right thing.

Let’s say for example, you are talking to a friend or family member, telling them how you plan to get back at your ex in court.  Your child is listening to every word you say, even if you think they aren’t.  If they aren’t listening, they sense what you are up to, don’t be fooled into thinking they don’t.

Kids are far more tuned into what we do than what we say.

What are they learning from you?  To start, they are learning to be greedy adults.  They are learning hate.  They are learning to fight dirty.  They are learning that marriage is a bad thing and ends in horror.  They are learning not to trust the opposite sex, and chances are they will end up in the same type of relationship as you did.  Most of all, they are realizing that their best interest is the last thing on your mind.  Is this really what you want your kids to walk away with from this experience?  Don’t do this to them or to the relationship you previously worked so hard to build with them.

When I filed for divorce, my ex was understandably pretty angry with me.  Our kids were 2 and 4 and I told him up front that he could go as low as he needed to, but that I would not go down with him.  Thankfully, he agreed that there was nothing worth fighting over, and that our childrens’ welfare was all that mattered.  Just because we wanted a divorce that didn’t mean the kids had to suffer.  In fact, it is our job to be sure that our children don’t suffer as a result of our divorce.  It wasn’t their choice to get married, divorced or to be born for that matter.  We brought them into this world; it is our job to protect them!

We also agreed never to say anything negative about each other in front of our kids and definitely not to our kids.  The more kids know they are loved by both parents, that both parents respect each other and that they are going to be okay, the faster they will adjust.  We respect each other and remain friends, which makes life easier for everyone.  Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

Parents who fight in front of their kids, who trash the other parent and who use their kids as bait to get what they want in a divorce are simply being selfish.  Do right by your kids!  Quit being narcissistic – you brought the kids into this world; you owe them responsible, loving parents. It’s the least your could do.

In the end, the only thing that matters is that you and your ex come out of the divorce learning from your mistakes, and showing your children how to resolve unpleasant matters with respect and dignity for yourself and for others.  You don’t have to go down that dark road just because you are getting divorced.

You have a choice, it’s YOUR divorce.  Do the right thing!  Love your children more than you hate your ex, and more than you love your material possessions.  It’s really a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Syndee – Big Loss #10

The greatest gifts in my life have come in the form of breast cancer, foreclosure, my drug and sex addicted father, who passed away when I was ten years old, my ex-husband, my children, Jake and Jonah, and their sister, Sydnee, who died two days shy of her due date.

One might smallest just breathe logoask how losing a father at a young age, getting divorced, losing a child or having cancer could possibly be considered gifts. There is no doubt that these were very challenging times in my life, but once the dust settled, and maybe even during some of the later experiences, I was able to see the gift in each and every experience in my life.

Within each of our not-so-normal lives, we are faced with challenges along the way, nobody is exempt. These challenges show up for us to help us grow. Each and every one of those experiences leaves us with a “gift”. The catch is, we don’t actually get the gift until we are aware it’s there for us. Imagine a beautifully wrapped present hiding way up high in the closet, but you don’t know it exists. It only becomes exciting when you know it’s there and you have the chance to tear it open. The good news is it’s never too late to find them, we just need to open our minds to another way of seeing things.

My hope is that through this series of dysfunctional, crazy, funny, challenging and sometimes embarrassing glances into my life, you will learn to spot the silver linings in your life, unveiling these precious gems that have the power to bring you freedom and peace of mind.

I’m going to tell you some very personal details about my life and you will likely have thoughts of judgment, maybe anger at some point, but don’t stress out, just breathe. I forgive you. Xo

SYDNEE – BIG LOSS

Okay, I promised that even the most horrific events in our lives can bring unexpected gifts, so here goes.

It was 1996 and Eric, my kids’ father, and I decided to start our family. I was ready. I was 33 years old and most of my friends already had babies, the clock was ticking! We needed to get busy!!! It didn’t take long before I was pregnant; I was due in May of the following year.

As much as I wanted to be a mom, though, I wasn’t all that excited about pregnancy. I wasn’t one of those beautiful, glowing, adorable pregnant women who did yoga up to their last month. It was quite the contrary; I ate everything in sight and didn’t really appreciate the miracle that was happening inside my belly.  It was more of a means to an end, actually.

May rolled around and I started to notice my stomach contracting, but no pain.  Hmmm, “that’s strange”, I thought. But, two nights’ prior the baby was rolling around like crazy, so being a new mom, I assumed she was getting ready to come out. I called my doctor and he told me to meet him at the hospital.

While we waited for our doctor to arrive, a nurse and the on-call doctor put a heart monitor on my belly. She looked at me with the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen, and said, with a matter-of-factness that still makes me shake my head today, “There’s no heartbeat.” I couldn’t even comprehend what she was saying because it was just so horrible. At that moment, my world slowed down like I was moving through big fluffy white clouds, unable to fully concentrate, and not really sure what was going on. It all felt very surreal.

Over the next few days, we named our baby, Sydnee, held her in our arms, planned her funeral and was faced with finding a way to go on with life. My whole life’s plan revolved around being a mom; I quit my job, planned our futures and had no idea what to do with my life anymore. This was without a doubt one of the most difficult times in my life. And yet, the greatest gifts in my life came out of this loss. It took me a while to realize these gifts, but once I did, it became clear to me that everything that comes our way brings with it some unexpected gifts.

You see, at this particular point in my life, I was a very angry, resentful, self-righteous, bitchy young lady. I blamed my (former) husband for everything. I took no responsibility for anything in my life, it was easier to blame him and anybody else who walked across my path. I was mad at the world! It never even dawned on me that there was a better way to live life. I figure it was just my lot in life. But then Sydnee died and I had a lot of time alone to think about life.

I didn’t work for a year. I spent my days walking and journaling with my sweet, loving pooch, Zoe by my side. I did a lot of reading and exploring and eventually realized that there was a better way to live. Losing Sydnee brought me to a crossroads that I didn’t even know existed. For the first time in my life I had a choice between continuing on as an angry, bitchy girl or figuring out what the hell I was so bitchy about. I am happy to say I chose door number two, and since then I have been on a road that has led me to yoga, meditation and self-responsibility, without the need to blame anybody for anything. I no longer need to be right all the time either, and life has gotten a hell of a lot better! This was an enormous gift Sydnee gave to me. She was here for a short time to teach me how to love myself and others again. She took me down a road that I otherwise may never have found. I am so incredibly grateful she came into my life!

The two most incredible gifts she gave me were my two sons who came after her. I cannot imagine a world without these two incredible young men in it. They fit me perfectly, they get me and my quirky sense of humor, they love me unconditionally and they make me so incredibly proud to be in their lives. If Sydnee had lived I would not have had them in my life. Also, I wasn’t particularly aware of how fortunate I was to be a mom when I was pregnant with Syndee, I took it all for granted. And since I was so angry at that point in my life, I don’t know that I would have truly appreciated her as much as I should have if she had survived. I can say with certainty that Sydnee has made me acutely aware of just how fortunate I am to be a mom and what a miracle childbirth really is. I am so grateful she came into my life, even though it was for such a short time. She was a great teacher.

Life is gonna suck sometimes, no doubt. But I promise, if you look closely and keep your mind open, you’ll see that some pretty frickin’ amazing things can come out of all the suckiness.

Papa Sam #2

The greatest gifts in my life have come in the form of breast cancer, foreclosure, my drug and sex addicted father, who passed away when I was ten years old, my ex-husband, my children, Jake and Jonah, and their sister, Sydnee, who died two days shy of her due date.

One might smallest just breathe logoask how losing a father at a young age, getting divorced, losing a child or having cancer could possibly be considered gifts. There is no doubt that these were very challenging times in my life, but once the dust settled, and maybe even during some of the later experiences, I was able to see the gift in each and every experience in my life.

Within each of our not-so-normal lives, we are faced with challenges along the way, nobody is exempt. These challenges show up for us to help us grow. Each and every one of those experiences leaves us with a “gift”. The catch is, we don’t actually get the gift until we are aware it’s there for us. Imagine a beautifully wrapped present hiding way up high in the closet, but you don’t know it exists. It only becomes exciting when you know it’s there and you have the chance to tear it open. The good news is it’s never too late to find them, we just need to open our minds to another way of seeing things.

My hope is that through this series of dysfunctional, crazy, funny, challenging and sometimes embarrassing glances into my life, you will learn to spot the silver linings in your life, unveiling these precious gems that have the power to bring you freedom and peace of mind.

I’m going to tell you some very personal details about my life and you will likely have thoughts of judgment, maybe anger at some point, but don’t stress out, just breathe. I forgive you. Xo

 

Papa Sam

Papa Sam had a very distinct teaching style. I think Nike’s “just do it” sums it up. When I learned to ride a bike, Papa Sam held on to the back of my bike running with me, for about three seconds, and then he pushed my down the hill. Trust me when I tell you I learned how to ride a bike right then and there. The same thing took place when I learned to swim and dive. He picked me up at three years old, threw me in the pool and somehow knew I would survive. No fear.

There was nothing but faith in my Papa Sam’s eyes – he knew that I would succeed. While I wouldn’t take this approach in teaching my own children, I value the beauty in his methods. He taught me to relentlessly face my fears. This came rushing back to me as I was at the top of a ropes course having to jump from one plank to another in mid-air while grabbing a rope 100 feet or more off the ground to get to the other side. It was scary as hell, but somewhere deep down I was prepared for that day because of my Papa.

He also taught me to allow my children to face their fears while letting go and allowing them to experience their lives. This is amazing because I have a son who loves to jump and flip and fly through the air as often as possible, just like I used to.

Despite Papa Sam’s unorthodox style of teaching, I felt nothing but love and a sense of comfort from him. He was an extraordinarily loving man, who thankfully did not pass fear on to me.

The Free School #3

The greatest gifts in my life have come in the form of breast cancer, foreclosure, my drug and sex addicted father, who passed away when I was ten years old, my ex-husband, my children, Jake and Jonah, and their sister, Sydnee, who died two days shy of her due date.

One might smallest just breathe logoask how losing a father at a young age, getting divorced, losing a child or having cancer could possibly be considered gifts. There is no doubt that these were very challenging times in my life, but once the dust settled, and maybe even during some of the later experiences, I was able to see the gift in each and every experience in my life.

Within each of our not-so-normal lives, we are faced with challenges along the way, nobody is exempt. These challenges show up for us to help us grow. Each and every one of those experiences leaves us with a “gift”. The catch is, we don’t actually get the gift until we are aware it’s there for us. Imagine a beautifully wrapped present hiding way up high in the closet, but you don’t know it exists. It only becomes exciting when you know it’s there and you have the chance to tear it open. The good news is it’s never too late to find them, we just need to open our minds to another way of seeing things.

My hope is that through this series of dysfunctional, crazy, funny, challenging and sometimes embarrassing glances into my life, you will learn to spot the silver linings in your life, unveiling these precious gems that have the power to bring you freedom and peace of mind.

I’m going to tell you some very personal details about my life and you will likely have thoughts of judgment, maybe anger at some point, but don’t stress out, just breathe. I forgive you. Xo

 

The Free School

I was in the third grade at Middlebelt Elementary School, a public school, when my father apparently had a disagreement with the principal and the principal told him he was crazy. This was not the first time somebody called my dad crazy, by the way, but this time the situation got heated and my father told the principal that he would be removing his children from school. So, what is a hippie dad to do – take his kids to “the Free School”, of course.

The Free School was a school that basically didn’t have any teachers, per se, but definitely had a few adults roaming around keeping an eye on things. There was also no teaching going on, there was just this honor system type style of “teaching”. They gave me a math book and told me to complete the pages when I felt moved to do so and then I was to place a check mark on the board when it was complete. Thank goodness for the check marks because the inner pleaser in me had to know that somebody knew I was doing the right thing.

I don’t recall any art or music classes, but we did swim once a week in the city pool and watch movies. And then there was that one “naked massage” class where two naked hippies walked into the room with a massage table and told us they were going to “teach” us how to do massage – now they decide to teach us something! They asked for volunteers and my siblings and I, with wide-eyes, declined.

I don’t recall why we left the Free School, but I am fairly certain it had nothing to do with the naked massage lesson. Looking back, I don’t think we even told our parents. We went back to public school and were understandably behind and a little embarrassed, but like every experience there is a gift.

I learned to trust my instincts when I was not comfortable in the massage class. This was one of my first memorable experiences of feeling my instincts deep inside my gut and trusting it.

I learned self-reliance while taking it upon myself to learn math even though I did it to please others, another lesson I learned over and over later in life. I needed to know how to rely upon myself just two years later when my father passed away, and so the Free School was simply the practice I needed for “the big show”.

Finally, I learned that there are all types of people living in all types of situations and one is not better than the next, just different. This lesson prepared me for having to go to ten different schools with a generous mix of cultures in each. As a result, I generally feel pretty comfortable talking to just about anybody. I’m grateful.