for the single mothers.

July 16, 2011

sometimes the washing machine is broken and the pipes in the basement have decided to rain shitty water on the dirty clothes and who knows what else and the reality is that those clothes must get washed and dried by hand or we will have a Public Health Situation on our hands, or the car is doing that thing again where the engine just turns off and we’re in the middle of traffic and i remember why we went car-free for so long but the reality is that with my two kids and my girlfriend’s three kids and my girlfriend’s busy job and my sometimes desperate scramble for money anywhere i can find it, two single mothers sometimes need a car. even if one of them is opposed to cars and car culture and breathing exhaust (or making others breathe it) and a frenetic lifestyle…

sometimes other mothers laugh and say they would love the break from their kids and joint custody sounds about right to them but the reality is that even two days a week can be too much when you aren’t asking for it and it doesn’t come at the time that works for you or your kids and maybe you need childcare some other time and there’s this event you want to take your son to on the weekend but those are the two days a week the Powers-that-Be have you on record as agreeing to, and you wouldn’t want to seem uncooperative, now would you? no one likes an uncooperative single mother.

sometimes your friends see those two days a week (or one, or three, or a weekend a month, or whatever), and they say “wow, s/he is so involved, you are so lucky, isn’t it wonderful that he pays for that class, isn’t it wonderful that she took her to the park or that birthday party” and nobody says “oh, wow, you are so involved, yr ex is so lucky to know the kids are taken care of, you pay for all the basic needs and then some, isn’t it wonderful you go to the park so much and play seven rounds of chess and go to every birthday party humanly possible, even the ones at Flashing-Lights-Loud-Sounds-and-Animatronic-Monster-Animals-Pizzeria” because that’s just what you do. you are the single mother.

on the rare occasions someone does try to valorize you, to praise you, there will be a voice raised to remind everyone that you get help, “support,” breaks… whatever it is. the speaker doesn’t know: it could be $9.35 or it could be $0 or a trip to court and you’d better pay for and bring your own lawyer. never mind that if a storm comes and your roof caves in you handle it alone for your kids. never mind that if the car breaks down and your kid has school/a doctor’s appointment/a homeschooling playgroup it is you who figures out how to get there or how to break the news… on the weekend it is rarely time to say “i’m sorry, we can’t make it because of this problem or we can’t buy that because of a lack of money or our values around consumption.” weekends are for leisure and during the week shopping has been done, for necessities and for presents.

behind many a stand-up-guy there is a single mother being told to sit down or sitting herself down in order to assemble dollhouse furniture for $1 a perfectly completed piece. working from home means you are so lucky! you set your own hours, and there are a lot of them.

you will do what it takes because that is what you do, and sometimes people will see what you were willing to do and they will judge you from the comfort of their almost-totally-owned townhome with the two kids and the two parents and maybe a dog whose shit no one wants to pick up, but just keep on keeping on, girl… it’s just what you do.

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who’s in charge here?

June 29, 2011

i was once flexible.

my kiddo (yes, i only had one then) would ask to stay up late and go look at stars, or to have a midnight snack, or to stay at the friend’s house we were at longer than we had intended, and i didn’t exhaustedly, anxiously come up with a million reasons why we couldn’t; not always or even often.

even with kiddo#1 + a baby, i said yes to what the world offered us way more often than i said no. there was no reason we couldn’t get out all the paints or fill the water cooler with water so kiddo#1 could splash around in it out in front of our apartment complex.

i had more fun, being flexible. not being anxious. anxiety is horrible: it kills fun and joy and, within families, it is very contagious.

even when i first became a single parent, i could be so spontaneous and adventurous… we lived in a basement apartment and had no outside space, so at the drop of a hat the kids and i would be out in that Portland rain, at the park a few blocks away, getting covered in mud and grass, rolling down hills, sliding on waterproof pants down a wet slide, flying out the bottom, giggling… heading home filthy, i would carry the kids from our apartment door directly into the bath tub and go through a few changes of water, waiting for the moment when their bath water didn’t look like tea.

once the custody dispute happened and i felt real fear that i would lose most of my time with my kids, and unschooling (and by extension, stability for the kids, in terms of routine and money and lifestyle) was brought up as an issue, i started to feel like i needed to be in control… in control and perfect. and i felt tired and worried. i said no a lot, to variations from our schedule especially, and that was okay, i suppose… probably it was necessary to get through that time. saying no to everything kept me from losing it completely.

but things are pretty secure now, if not financially, at least in terms of my relationship to my kids. we are together five days a week. i have a relatively healthy working relationship with their other parent.

for a year or so my girlfriend has been pointing out that my kids are not so flexible. and our counselor has noticed it, too… so now i am trying to model flexibility, and especially taking things (and opportunities) as they come. it’s hard for me… i feel like i’ve fossilized in the last two years. but flexibility is my great goal… when we are capable of it, we will have conquered a lot of our anxiety.

on monday we went to the coast with my girlfriend and her kids, knowing that it was going to be hot in Portland. when we arrived, it was raining, windy, and about 60 degrees. of course, the two adult, the teenager, and the preteen realized that we should probably have stayed in Portland and had a water gun fight, but the three littlest kids (my two and her youngest)  didn’t care one bit for this reality… they had been in the car for two hours, so they were going to have fun immediately!

and they did! the two older kids went to the car after a short while, and the grownups huddled on the blanket, getting miserably wet, but the little ones were busy digging massive tunnel cities (they were overjoyed to strike water eventually!) and getting wet in the little inlet. my littlest one came over several times to ask me to join him, and at first i put him off, hoping, i suppose, that huddling grumpily on the blanket would somehow warm me.

at some point i realized that i could let go of my idealized version of the trip and enjoy what was possible, and that he would enjoy things more and for longer with my demonstrated willingness to dive into what we were being offered: a wet, gray, cold day at the ocean, which we could experience as we pleased.

the inlet wasn’t really that cold, and we found a lot of shells. the older kids’ tunnel cities were really quite amazing feats of engineering… and running around was warming me up almost as much as smiling at the kids was cheering me up.

after three hours or so, we left and went to the candy store. traditionally my role in the world of sweets is to remind everyone that they are going to have to brush their teeth right after and be a general killjoy… i managed to shut up and everyone had a great time figuring out how far they could stretch $1.30 (i have to vote for the teenager’s quarter pound of saltwater taffy as the best use of resources). i’m sure all of it will be remembered by everyone for a long time.

when we got back home, after eating dinner at their house, the kids said they wanted to ride bikes… seven o’clock is usually the beginning of our bedtime, but i was so busy being flexible that i said “yes!” we went to the park and played lava monsters and my littlest did some new tricks and my oldest rode two miles on his bike on the basketball court (he has an odometer). then we (yes) brushed our teeth and read and told a lot of stories before passing out, exhausted and happy.

i like our routine and i know the kids do, too, for the most part, but i’m really glad to be relearning how to be flexible… it feels good to be on an adventure, whether a literal beach-in-the-rain adventure or just the adventure of letting our family return to finding it’s rhythm on it’s own. it’s a rhythm that mostly follows our currently imposed schedule but is not ruled by it. our schedule is a tool, and i hope to be able soon to say honestly that it’s not in charge anymore!

(thanks, Ananda, for taking the picture… wish there were some of the rest of us!)

we are reading A Wrinkle in Time, by one of my favorite authors (I have gone far enough in my fandom for her to have read her essays on religion and her memoirs). it is the kids’ first time and we have to stop sometimes to talk about things. this book is a bouncy house for their minds… not that their minds needed a bouncy house to get jumping!

we get to this passage, the first time Meg, Calvin, and Charles are traveling by tesseract with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which:

She was completely alone.

She had lost the protection of Calvin’s hand. Charles was nowhere, either to save or to turn to. She was alone in a fragment of nothingness. No light, no sound, no feeling. Where was her body? She tried to move in her panic, but there was nothing to move. Just as light and sound had vanished, she was gone, too. The corporeal Meg simply was not.

my oldest one sits bolt upright and says, “i don’t think the part of you that is not your body can ever be destroyed.”

i ask, “what part of you is not your body?”

“not your mind, exactly, but the part of you that goes on thinking even when you are asleep. and the part of you that was there in the Big Bang and before.” his eyes are shining. he swipes his hair away from his eyes. “the part of you that has been part of a lot of different things before.”

it is late now; we have been reading for a few hours (we have had to start with the little one’s books in case he falls asleep during A Wrinkle in Time!). i am internally hemming and hawing about whether to encourage this intense philosophical discourse or to hurry things along towards a pre-11 pm bedtime so i can make the blueberry crumble i want to prepare tonight for breakfast tomorrow.

it really isn’t much of a debate; he has never expressed anything like this before: my most recent blog post highlights all of his rational, atheist leanings and pronouncements. i am anticipating the taste of crow. i am determined to listen for however long he has feelings and thoughts to share, and to answer what questions he may have and to share my own experiences when appropriate.

he continues, “i think that when you die, that part of you can’t see or hear but it is there and it is part of everything. it goes with the worms and the fungi that use your body. it can go where they go and it can go everywhere you’ve gone.”

“or, i don’t know… maybe it can see and it can see other things left from other people and animals and plants and spend time with them. i’m not sure. but i just don’t think it can ever be destroyed.” he lays his head on me and sighs.

i am about to say something when he says, “i want you to keep reading. but i have a lot more to say. for later.”

“okay. i love you, and i want to hear what you’ve been thinking about and feeling if you want to share.”

we continue reading and then we get to another paragraph that prompts him to speak. it is after Meg, Charles, and Calvin have been carried on the back of the transformed Mrs. Whatsit (she is positively angelic, for those who don’t remember the book that way) to a garden where many of her kind are singing a song that Charles and Mrs. Whatsit attempt to translate. Meg’s reaction to hearing it follows:

Throughout her entire body Meg felt a pulse of joy such as she had never known before. Calvin’s hand reached out; he did not clasp her hand in his; he moved his fingers so that they were barely touching hers, but joy flowed through them, back and forth between them, around them and about them and inside them.

he interruped only to say, “that’s just how i feel right now. keep reading.”

i figure i don’t have to worry anymore about him not feeling a sense of wonder in this life he is living.

but within a few paragraphs he was asleep, and so was his little brother (who had been strangely silent throughout this whole affair, little noisy mouse that he usually is).

oddly enough, i have a vivid memory of being moved by this exact same paragraph, as well as the song before it, as a child reading the book to myself. i had felt the same thing Meg was feeling and recognizing it set off ripples inside me.

sharing that with my son… now that’s magic.

rental gardening

April 27, 2011

we have had a lot of gardens over the years, some of them disasters of poor planning, lack of skill, and/or lack of time and some of them small, well-orchestrated and productive. we have never gardened in the same place for more than two years, and now that we approach our second summer in our current home, i wish so much that we knew we were staying somewhere.

last year i knew there was a chance we would move, so most of our gardening took place in pots on our porch (an excellent place to dump buckets of mildly grey water). we didn’t move, and we found some corn, squash, and eggplant starts on the side of the road with a little paper sign saying “plant me!” they looked just desperate and sad enough that we took pity on them, dug a very strange garden bed (mostly the kids dug it), and planted them.

and it hit me: planting things directly in the earth is special. it feels good, to me and to the kids. there is no internal dialogue of oh-please-don’t-slop-all-the-soil-over-the-side-of-the-pot as i watch the kids plant, as there is on the porch (i consider keeping this dialogue internal a testament to my commitment to raising kids who love to garden… i certainly don’t keep it internal because i love to see our porch awash in mud). and there is something magical about knowing your plant-friends’ roots can go down and spread out as much as they want, can grow around each other, can mingle with all kinds of buggies present in the soil (of course i do also picture those roots mingling with heavy metals).

and i wanted to plant our spring garden in the ground. but then it became obvious we were going to move again sometime before fall, and the work of making so many beds has seemed daunting and now that we are actually looking for a different house, it is harder than ever to get motivated, but thinking of the sad lack in our future garden as each planting date i was aiming for passes and we don’t even know where we are moving yet is very hard.

over the winter i got rid of a bunch of our pots (all the plastic cast offs we got from other people) and kept only the terra cotta pots that have travelled with us from Palo Alto to Oakland to Mendocino and through three moves here in Portland. we are going to plant in these pots (really there are a decent number of them, although nowhere near enough for all the seeds i got for our we-just-moved celebration garden) this week and next week and make the most of the spring.

i would plant a garden in the backyard, even with the work of making the beds, if i knew that new tenants were going to move in (i think several months could go by before the house will be both rentable and rented) and garden, or even if i just suspected strongly that a child would pick and eat our snap peas, strawberries, and cucumbers. that a little mouth would savor tomatoes planted as a hope of some green, growing joy.

i hope, at least, that the kids from next door will keep climbing our fence after we move and eat the cherries that grow abundantly in the backyard. and i hope i remember when we move that turning soil and preparing a garden to receive seed is more important than painting, more important than hanging pictures, more important than unpacking beyond essentials…

i swear to the Goddess that we have roots to put in the ground, even if we keep pulling them out. one of these days they’ll be held too strong to break loose and we won’t be able to move Home ever again. (i hope)

my littlest sweetie mumbles to me through a yawn, “i’m a country boy, mama…” and i can’t resist asking him what that means to him. he says “you know, horse riding, lassos, pretty much a cowboy but with an interest in all the wild creatures. for you i’ll add looking under logs for bugs.” this same boy frequently describes our neighborhood (a moderately busy one here in Portland, OR, but we have a big yard) as “smelly and loud.” if it weren’t for the fact that he likes to walk everywhere and completely detests spending time in the car, he would find nothing redeeming about our urban life.

i tell him i’m a country girl and a city girl, both, and that we are both a country family and a city family. once upon a time we lived in a little house in a meadow on the edge of a state forest. we are all marked forever by the year we spent there, messing about in creeks and on trails, building forts and listening to birds’ wings. i’d be lying if i didn’t say there was a sharp tug in my heart when we spend time hiking, which is fairly rare now that we don’t drive. seeing my children making their way through the muddy paths with their walking sticks (“i’m a gnome, mama!”), feeling the change in their demeanor after even just an hour out on the trail, i feel called to give them that again, the freedom to roam and the chance to experience the woods or the meadow not as a place you go but as a place you are…

and yet i would never live where we lived before again. 6000 people is too few for me to feel safe and loved and understood as a trans person. it is too few for us to have solid, long-lasting connections with other homeschoolers. and the drive to anywhere else when you live five hours from the nearest city of any size is depressing.

what i long for is present in so many books i read to the kids: the Moffats, Edward Eager’s books, Kiki’s Delivery Service (yes, the book!), and many others feature either country children who can readily walk to town or town children who can easily walk to the edge of their town and into the country. when i think of all the people in the communities around Portland who would like to live in Portland (if they could afford it), i’m very saddened thinking of how we could make room for them here in the city, how Portland could have a real edge and we could walk or bike there (if we didn’t use so much space for cars and their infrastructure).

or i imagine our neighborhoods having edges, like a more dense Hawthorne District opening up to a surrounding area with larger lots and open space on it’s edge that eventually grow smaller as you approach Foster-Powell’s dense neighborhood center, say…

In Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (if you only read one book i suggest ever in my entire life, let it be this one), one of the patterns is for City-Country Fingers, the idea being that city life only works for people when it’s vibrancy is complemented by access to open countryside, and, therefore, the city and the country should interlock with and penetrate each other in one mile (or so) wide bands, affording everyone in the region access to both. obviously, we are extremely far from this ideal here in Portland, even though we are very far ahead of many other cities in the country.

and meanwhile, my children grow, and my choice to do the ecologically responsible thing (as well as the thing best for mine and my children’s social, physical, and emotional health) and greatly minimize our car use is facilitated by our urban neighborhood while at the same time their access to the countryside is vastly limited by it.

i periodically look at listings of houses for sale (often in random places throughout the region or even the country). i recently saw one for a house on 14 acres with Columbia River frontage about an hour by car from Portland. i then went to walkscore.com and discovered that the library and grocery store (the town center) were less than a quarter mile from the edge of the property and i literally wept thinking of the ways that this kind of life is foreclosed for me and my children, by virtue of our society-wide planning and by virtue of my queerness (living an hour from Portland in a small town would likely be a bit awkward for me and my girlfriend and our five kids, even if i could sell my girlfriend and the charming teenager on the idea;), and the ways that it is foreclosed for the 70%+ of children in America growing up in cities.

and i know that if i lived in a place like that, i would come running back to the city faster than i left, because i do like the vitality and opportunities the city offers and because of my commitment to doing my part to save the world (which really has to mean making cities livable and sustainable). i just want my kids to lie in (or on the edge of) a meadow near our house (not a manicured lawn at the park) and watch butterflies and then pretend to be rabbits. i want Johnson Creek to be safe to play in (there are so many tempting places along Johnson Creek right here in the city), not filled with E. Coli, DDT, gasoline, and heavy metals. i would be fine living above a bakery in the center of our neighborhood (even with four floors above us) if countryside that was accessible to the public (like Europe’s picnicking rights) was a mile away or i would be happy to live in a country finger and share my slice of the country with the family that lives above the bakery so they could picnic all summer long.

interestingly enough, even the electronic distractions kids are sucked into more and more these days (not that i didn’t play my share of the Legend of Zelda) acknowledge the beauty of this possibility. my older son has a Pokemon video game, and he remarked that he’d really like to live in one of the towns in it. the main character in the game is a child who lives in town and can walk in a matter of minutes past all manner of shops and beckoning friends and be in fields, grasslands, or forest. there are bike/pedestrian corridors that take him to other towns where kids are able to do the same thing.

i want our neighborhood to be as enticing to him as his Pokemon town.

i have not changed; i am still that nineteen year old mama staying up nights, desperately tired but even more afraid that this fragile, magical baby entrusted to me could break or wind down or simply stop. the first thing i do when i wake in the night is place a hand on each of my children’s bellies and feel for the movement of their breath, listening hard in the still dark for the easy, slow wind that means everything in my shrunken night-time world is right.

i fear cars, both our occasional rides in them and the death that they deal to bicyclists, pedestrians, anyone breathing the outside air and working to get where they’re going (and so often children). i fear disease. most of all i fear sudden stillness, the unexplainable loss that is immediately known and unfathomable.

not always, believe me, i am not so far gone that i cringe and cower always… but enough. enough to sometimes think “how could i have doubled my risk of loss by having two children?” and to wonder if i may have more than doubled it, distractions being exponentially more common with two children involved.

and yet i want my children to feel none of this, and to be in the world not bravely but naturally, playing and free, seeing little of this mother-fear until they have their own children. and i want more for them: more adventure, more experience, more laughter, more friends, more siblings… more of everything, it seems, that comes with a greater risk of loss.

i pledge to myself to keep them safe and to let them go, in equal measure and as this life calls for. i can do no better than to know that they are already in the world and will now live in it.