Friday, May 9, 2014

Time for Mother's Day

 This one is from the reminds me how grateful I am to be where I am and have the friends and family who make up my life. Have a beautiful day all you Moms and children of Moms! xo

One Mother’s Day morning a few years back, I went outside on my sunny back porch to write in my journal. I hadn’t made an effort to do that that in a while and it felt good to get back to some “me” time. I began to write the words, “My life is in pretty good shape right now…” when suddenly the image of one of our former clients popped into my head. Along with her image, sitting on the brown leather sofa in our office expectantly awaiting the arrival of her two young children, came a flood of thoughts about spending so much time writing--and examining--my life.  Layered on top of the thoughts about how much time I am able to spend processing the thoughts and events that make up my life was the question about whether or not this woman did the same thing. At all. Ever. 

I am a visitation supervisor. I spend hours with each of the families that the Connecticut Judicial Department’s Family Services division refers to us for visitation. These families are in the throes of custodial and familial turmoil and one of the parents has been deemed unfit to spend time with his or her children alone. The reasons are many; drug abuse, neglect, prison time, abandonment, alleged sexual molestation or a mere “he said-she said” dispute. The visiting and custodial parents are rarely amicable, always defensive and just as likely to be a visiting mom as a visiting dad. Regardless of the circumstances, the clear and unavoidable losers in all of these cases are the children. It takes from just a few visits to up to a year of weekly, one-hour visits to settle these cases and our work with the families is just one component of all the issues that are finally (and hopefully) settled by a judge.

The young woman who popped into my thoughts that morning had been one of our visiting moms. I first met her on a cold, dark day in November and as I walked into the waiting room to ask her in, I was met by a wave of pungent odor, the kind of odor one might find in a VW van at an outdoor rock concert. She looked nervous, albeit calm; due possibly to the obvious self-medication right before her arrival. Our typical intake involves getting a history of the client and as she spoke, I heard of her struggles with drug dependence, a series of failed visitation experiences, a history of her own childhood neglect and an overall suspicion of the program she was being asked to begin. I tried to allay her fears, be understanding about her concerns and at the end of it all, assure her that our program has had lots of success with visitations and I was sure that her experience would be no different. After she left, my husband, Angelo (with whom I work) and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, “How is this woman ever going to manage this?” But we set up appointments, met her children (a 6 year old girl and a 4 year old boy) and put the process in motion.

The first thing that struck me about this woman was that she was a month younger than my own daughter. I could be her mother. I could be a grandmother, as she already had four children under the age of ten. The other two were from two other separate relationships and they didn’t live with her, either. The two she was going to visit with in our program were from her latest marriage, now dissolved. She worked two jobs, lived with yet another man and although she initially expressed doubt and distrust about the success of “this time” she showed up on time each week for her hour-long visit, carrying a bag from the dollar store with an activity or craft for the kids. Her manner was coarse, but her love genuine as she spent 55 minutes greeting, catching up with and “parenting” her children. At times, after the visit, I would ask her to stay and debrief--how did she feel it was going? Were there any concerns? Did she have any questions? Most of the time these sessions ended with her bursting into tears, complaining about her fate at the hands of a diabolical ex-husband and storming off with little hope of it ever working out.

And yet, she came back. Week after week, month after month. With her bags and snacks and juice boxes and encouragement, despite her own skepticism and the roadblocks put up by her ex. (For example, Dad would insist that the daughter’s homework be done during the visit because she was doing poorly at school--which took about half of the visit time and required Mom’s focus solely on the daughter, while the son had to busy himself with one or another of the toys in the room. Unfair? Certainly. But she did it anyway.) After the first meeting, the only pungent odor I ever noticed was that of hours-old grease from the diner grill where she worked five days a week. One time, she missed the visit completely. The dad was there with the kids, but no mom. This was unusual because she was always at least 10 minutes early. We called the only number we had for her--her current boyfriend’s cell phone. He said she was on her way for her six o’clock visit, but the visit this week had been at five o’clock. I told Dad he had the option of waiting so the kids could have a shortened visit, which I often recommend as the best option because of the disappointment experienced by the kids, but he chose to leave. When Mom showed up, Angelo and I braced for the maelstrom--anticipating a flood of protestations about how it must have been everyone else’s fault but her own. 
But that didn’t happen. She came in and sat down on the sofa and said, “I can’t believe I messed this up. I put it down on my calendar wrong.” I suggested that we place a phone call to the kids and she agreed. I put the call on the speaker (required) and let Mom explain to them what happened. I almost cried at the way she spoke soothingly to her children, explaining that she had made a mistake and understood if they were disappointed in her. The kids seemed glad to have been able to speak to her and when they hung up, she was visibly upset. But upset in a way that she knew that she was at fault and that she had done the best she could to address the issue. I was astounded. And so happy that she was able to deal with this in such a mature and responsible way--and both Angelo and I told her so. She left then and we hoped that this wouldn’t send her back to her old ways of dealing with slip-ups, but she was back the next week with the supplies for a tea party and a make-a-frame activity for the kids to do.

And so I wondered, on that quiet Mother’s Day morning with a few hours to myself, my kids off on an errand and a Mimosa at my fingertips, did that Mom have the luxury of reflection? Socrates said that a life unexamined is not worth living and until I met this woman, and so many others like her, I might have agreed. For her--and them--too much examination might be just too painful. How much time can she ruminate on her life and the choices she’s made without going crazy? Can she only put one foot in front of the other, day in and day out, hoping for the best, expecting the worst? Leaving work, dashing into the Dollar Store, making a 45 minute trip to an office where she can see her kids for a lousy hour, only to get back into the car for a return trip back to work or making arrangements to see her other kids or finally falling exhausted into bed? I can’t imagine what Mother’s Days for her are like; does she get to see her kids after an exhaustive negotiation with their fathers or does she instead spend the day numbing herself, avoiding the tented flower stands and ads for champagne brunches and the picked over greeting card display at the grocery store. The only way I can process my life is to spend time with my thoughts and sometimes that isn’t even enough. In addition, I am lucky to have countless other resources in my life to keep me going, to feel supported, to feel loved. So on Mother’s Day, I try to remember that. I count my blessings and put in writing that I am grateful for a life full of opportunities.  I am lucky for the people in my life who force me to examine my life. And make it worth living.

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