Divorce & Separation

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Small Town Divorce

Small Town Divorce

A Road Map Through Devastation, Despair, and Drama
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Blissfully Blended Bullshit

Blissfully Blended Bullshit

The Uncomfortable Truth of Blending Families
also available: eBook
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Where the fuck is my confetti? Where is my celebratory dinner? Oh, right. I’ve forgotten about the less-than-thrilled response I received from some members of my blended family when I told them I’d signed a book deal. I suppose breaking the news that it was about them might have had something to do with that. They didn’t seem overjoyed that I was going to write about the cold, hard, uncomfortable truth of what really happens behind the closed doors of blended families. Welcome to my life. Even before I sat at my computer to compose my thoughts on what this book would look like, certain members of my blended family already had their backs up, wondering what the hell I would be writing about and, of course, how they would be perceived. It’s not that they weren’t happy that I’d got a book deal. They just weren’t exactly enamoured with what they thought, or assumed, I was going to share. They were anxious. And, honestly, they should be.

I was “gently” advised by my partner to “be cautious” when writing about all of us — all of us being myself, my partner and his two biological children, the son we have together, and my daughter from my first common-law marriage. One big happy-ish family! I felt like a child being told to think before I speak. I “gently” reminded him that I’m a grown woman. So, no, there was no dinner, no champagne toast, not even dying roses from a gas station in my honour when I got the go-ahead to tell my story about what it’s like to be in a blended family.

It’s a story worth telling. Holy shit, have my experiences opened my eyes, not just to the gargantuan reality of adjusting to life in a blended family, but also because of what I’ve learned about myself and relationships while blending. You kind of get a crash course in reality when trying to manage all the bullshit that comes along with this rapidly growing family dynamic.

Sometimes what happens in a blended family really is stranger than fiction. The fights and slights can be so ridiculous, I’m not sure anyone would actually believe me. Which is why I’ve never truly shared, nor have I found any book out there that can commiserate with me about what a shit show it is to be in a blended family.

This is not a memoir about being a step-parent or having stepchildren or the step-parent–stepchild relationship. Not that I don’t touch on it. But this is more my account of how blending families affects everyone, including people you’d never consider, like our exes, or our ex-in-laws, our new in-laws, and even the dog.

The truth about blending families can be fucking harsh. Those who haven’t gone through it and are dating others with children, are thinking about blending, are embarking on blending, or are just curious about what it’s like to blend families probably just figure it’s an … adjustment? Perhaps a process to learn, a path to travel, a mountain to climb, a field to plant, a knot to unravel, a Coen brothers movie to fully understand. In other words, a difficult but seemingly surmountable challenge.

Ha! Challenge. Living it, I’d probably use a much different word. Every single one of us in my blended family has our own perception of our roles in each other’s lives and in our blended household. We may all live under the same roof, but our experiences are totally different and can even be contrasting at times. Our truths may have discrepancies and may even have zero basis in reality. Everyone else’s sense about what it’s been like for them to blend is a reflection of them, just as my reactions while blending reveal a lot about me.

My family — the kids, the grandparents, the Boyfriend, and the exes — know that honesty and candour are my MO. This memoir is my truth, and, unfortunately, truth can sound an awful lot like criticism. Some people — yep, I’m gonna go there — can’t handle the truth. Or, at the very least, they would prefer to ignore it than to admit and confront it. Believe me, I’ve been on that side, too. But I know my truth from talking to others in blended families — some successful, some not so much, some not at all — and comparing notes to see if I’m just batshit crazy, or if they could relate to a lot of the bullshit I’ve found comes along with blending. I mostly know about the bullshit of blending from living it, from being honest about the way I feel in certain situations and the way I think everyone else feels in my blended family, and, also, from the hundreds of texts and email exchanges over the years with the cast of characters in my blended family. Thank you, iCloud!

So, yeah — blah, blah, blah — the truth will set us free. But first it will piss someone, or everyone, off. Or, who knows? Maybe everyone in my blended family will let out a huge sigh of relief that it’s not just us who thinks navigating our new roles is a bit of a shit show. Maybe they’ll even have a good giggle. What screws most of us up is a picture or the fantasy in our heads of how a family is supposed to be, how we are supposed to treat each other, and how we are supposed to look. I hope that when my family looks back on the most difficult times, we’ll also remember the awesome memories we’ve created and continue to create. I know I will. Even for all of our scars and bumps and bruises and imperfections and missteps, it hasn’t all been all bad.

There is one thing I’m pretty sure we’d all agree on, though — and I do mean just one! The process of blending families comes with a considerable amount of bullshit.

Still, knowing that the people who have been in my life now for years — the family I’ve gained after blending and as we continue to blend — are, for lack of a better word, perturbed over what I’m going to write kind of stings. I’m not going to lie. I’m legit hurt by their lack of enthusiasm.

So, okay, I don’t exactly have a cheering section. There is no confetti. No bouquet — flower, fruit, balloon, or otherwise — in my future. But maybe, just maybe, this book will be like blending families: completely unexpected, with some WTF, but also a whole lot of, “Oh, really? I hadn’t thought of it that way!” My family need not fear that they will come off looking like assholes while I come across all roses and rainbows. Quite the opposite, actually. Many times I’m the one who comes across as the schmuck. Many, many times, my dark, jealous, resentful side surfaces, and often my feelings are completely irrational and immature, to the point that it horrifies even me.

But I’m not one to shy away from sharing my account of the hard truths, the less-than-ideal realities, and all the bullshit I was completely unprepared for by blending. I wouldn’t be me if I held back. So I don’t plan to.

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Do You Ever Cry, Dad?

Do You Ever Cry, Dad?

A Father's Guide to Surviving Family Breakup
also available: Paperback
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In the first year after my split, I encountered two individuals whom I now think of as my guardian angels. Both were police officers. I met them eight months apart.

The first meeting occurred about three months after my ex and I told our three kids we were breaking up, which was, needless to say, the worst moment of my life. At that point I was, to put it mildly, a complete mess. I’d been attempting to manage the few parts of my life I felt I could control: the quality of my work, the state of my body, the way I treated others. But those were the things on the outside. The part inside, my heart, well, I had only so much control over that, and the pain it was trying to contain was overwhelming.

I had just spent the evening with Dustin, Cory, and Alisha, then dropped them back “home” with their mom and drove away. It hurts to even write “drove away.” Those words make me want to cry, as do any words that describe the action of physically leaving my kids. Typically, after parting ways, I would drive a few blocks, pull over, and cry. Those tears expressed a lot of complicated emotions, but mostly just unmitigated pain. Often I would think about when my kids were born: the pure love and instinctive connection I’d felt. What I was experiencing after the breakup felt in many ways opposite — the emptiness of saying goodbye to them, the feeling of detachment instead of connection. The first time I had to leave them after the split, I felt like the pain might kill me.

At some point after stopping the car, I would pull myself together and drive back “home” (my parents’ apartment). Then I would try to do something productive: exercise, write, correspond with people important to me, read, spend time talking to my mom and dad. On this particular evening, after the cry had exhausted itself and I started driving home, almost immediately I saw flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I pulled over impassively. The cop, an older guy who looked like he’d been on the force for a long time — thinning hairline, gray at the temples, bit of a paunch — walked toward me and I lowered the window, getting ready to hand over my licence and registration. He was in cop mode, serious and authoritative, flipping open his pad and clicking his pen.

When he looked up and saw my face, he paused for a long moment. I was holding out my documents, but he didn’t take them. He seemed frozen, as though he wasn’t looking at a person, but a ghost. After what felt like a long time, he spoke. “Sir,” he said, in a quiet voice, “I don’t know what’s happening in your life right now, but I need you to do something. I need you to promise me you’re going to drive home, and then I need you to promise me you aren’t going to get behind the wheel again when you feel like this. This is a school zone, sir, and you were going fast enough to do something really dangerous. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” He was speaking very slowly and carefully. “Sir?”

“Um, yes,” I said. “Sorry. Yes. Thank you.”

“Do you want to wait a while, or do you feel you’re okay to drive home?”

“I’m okay,” I said.

“All right,” he said. “Straight home, then.”

I saw my hand go out and grasp his. I heard myself say something about his being a good cop, or maybe a good man. While he walked back to his cruiser, I tilted down the mirror to look at myself. What I saw reminded me of a day soon after Dustin was born, when I’d gone into work feeling exhausted, but thinking I could fool people for one day. Ten minutes in, someone had walked by, done a double take, and said to me, “Wow, you look so tired.” We can fool people sometimes, but not when the fatigue, or the pain, is blindingly obvious to them (even if it may not be to us). Now, looking at myself in the rear-view, I was stunned at how I looked. Maybe the best way to say it is I was there, but barely looked like I was. I am forever grateful to that cop not only for his humanity, but also for alerting me to the fact that I was in a far worse state than I’d recognized.

Eight months later, after having again said good night to my kids, again detesting the moment of walking away, again feeling despair at not seeing them in their pyjamas in the morning, I was driving down the same street as before. Again I saw flashing lights and heard a siren. This time I felt the same righteous indignation most of us feel in such a moment (right before you start to admit you might have actually done something wrong). This time as the cop approached my door, I didn’t reach for my licence and registration, because I remembered what had happened before and assumed it would happen again. I even worked to achieve the same kind of look of desolation I’d had the previous time, just to make sure I would get out of this ticket too.

The officer, younger and more trim than the one who had pulled me over months before, looked at me and asked for my documents. Nothing in his demeanour changed; he started cop and stayed cop. I told him I was going through a split and having a rough day. He said, “I understand. Licence and registration, please.” I hadn’t been going very fast this time — just fast enough to merit a ticket. But if there was ever a positive ticket to get, this was it. Because what this cop saw was a man who was present, aware, and, all other things being equal, normal. What the other cop had seen was a man hardly there, obliviously driving a two-ton weapon through a school zone.

Some eleven months after my breakup, I was still in tremendous pain. I was still burdened by a sorrow I’d never known, still just trying to, as Tom Hanks’s widower character Sam Baldwin puts it in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, “get out of bed every morning, breathe in and out all day long.” But that ticket, although aggravating in the way any ticket is, was also the first sign that things might get better.

In the months before, during, and after my split, I’d spoken to dozens of friends and others who had gone through divorce, either as the parents doing the splitting or as the children of those parents. They’d all had useful and compassionate things to say. But the advice of one person stood out, and it was those words I thought about as I drove away, ticket in hand. He’d said, “Look, I.J., there’s no way to make it go faster or make it hurt less. But eventually, it changes. It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad, and then one day, it’s good.” What I was feeling by then, nearly a year in, couldn’t have been remotely described as “good,” but the fact that the second cop recognized me as a person conscious enough to deserve the ticket signalled that I was starting to come back into myself, even if only a tiny bit. I still found it a monumental effort to remain functional and positive from one day to the next, but at least I was starting to reawaken.

Those two men were my guardian angels because they represented two essential parts of my journey: the pain that cannot be bypassed or rushed, and the first small moments that indicate things might be okay, if not today, then maybe tomorrow. The first angel let me know that I was in a really dark place and not entirely aware of my actions. The second let me know that I was starting to become whole again.

Before, between, and since these two encounters, my kids have gone through a bracing series of ups and downs, each in their own way and according to their personality. During their collective and individual passages, certain moments have made me want to cry, scream, or both. There was the time, just weeks after the split, when I tried to do something normal: take them tobogganing. Rather than being a fun event, this ended up instead with everyone’s tension spilling over, me yelling insanely at the winter sky, and the kids looking on horrified as though I was going crazy, which I pretty much was. There was the moment when I walked into Dustin’s room one evening to find all of the poems and stories I had written for him over ten years torn apart and littering his floor. There was the bedtime cuddle with Alisha when I thought she had fallen asleep on my chest but then heard her sniffling. She asked, “Are you and Mommy ever getting back together?” and I had to say, “No, honey, we’re not.”

But the worst moment happened one evening when Cory, wise beyond his years, said to me, “Do you ever cry, Dad?” The question left me dumbstruck, because just about all I’d done for months was cry, at least when alone. I’d come to be surprised on any morning when my eyes looked mostly normal instead of red and puffy. But when Cory asked this question, I realized he hadn’t seen me cry, not even once, perhaps, in all the time since his mom and I had split. No, there was one time, I realized. I’d been with the kids in the car, listening to music. In my car we listen to music all the time, because, well, I love music, and so do the kids. We have a wide range of artists on rotation constantly, representing all eras and genres, from Bruce Springsteen to ABBA, Count Basie to KISS.

On this day, Billy Joel was on: “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” which he wrote for his daughter, Alexa. It’s a gorgeous heart-ripper of a song. You might find, as I did during my breakup, that your cry impulse is right near the surface all the time. Sometimes you can keep it at bay, while at other times you’re helpless to do so. The song came on, I glimpsed Alisha in the back seat doing nothing but looking innocent and perfect, and I broke. Cory was in the back as well, Dustin up front with me. I tried to look out the window as my tears started to surge, but there was no way to stop them. (Damn you, Billy. Not really, though. Love you, Billy.) I felt bad for my kids because I didn’t want them to have to deal with the weirdness of their big old dad weeping like a baby.

Trying to hide my emotions from them was the wrong decision — then, now, and at any time. When Cory asked me whether I ever cried, I understood that I must have at some point decided that, since my ex was crying a lot, it was up to me to be the strong one. I’d clenched my jaw and hidden my sadness and decided I would be their rock in the storm. But Cory obviously wasn’t seeing me as strong; he was seeing me as unfeeling. Not only had I destroyed the world he’d known, but, far worse, I had been acting, in his eyes, indifferent toward having done so.

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