Monday, August 29, 2011

Making Memories

In this economy, we all have to focus on the basics, but with children it is also important to make sure we allow for some special moments at amusement parks, beaches, spending time at the pool, going to sporting events, zoos, museums, and shows because those are the memories that kids (and their parents) will cherish forever.

Each year of my son's life, I have made him an album capturing some of our favorite moments. This year's album, however, is extra special for it is filled with faces of loved ones I had always longed for and wondered about, yet for over three decades I lived with only one photo of my father, and none of my extended family.

This past week, I took my son to visit our newly discovered relatives. Watching my son bond with everyone brought me more joy than I ever could have imagined, and finally having some one-on-one time with my long lost cousins is something I will always cherish, although the thought of all the years we lost does pain me.

I realize I will not always be here to remind my son about the entire story that has unfolded over the last seven months, but hopefully enough will be preserved of this beautiful home-coming story that all those involved can carry some piece of it to last a lifetime, and all those that watched it unfold will be inspired in their own lives to think about opening their hearts and minds with their own families.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parenting in Stages

Whether parents are living in one household, or two separate households, they need to work together as much as possible to provide their children with consistency and stability, especially during their formative years. Looking at parenting in 3 different stages may make the road ahead less daunting, so I encourage my clients to consider adopting the following attitude:

1) Ages 0-7 will be very tough-- these children are incredibly needy. The rely on their parents for almost everything-- they need help eating, going to the bathroom, bathing, getting dressed, etc. It takes twice as long to do anything, and the stress can be overwhelming at times, depending on the personalities involved. For those of us that are very schedule-oriented to be paired with a child that has no concept of time, learning patience will be a key survival skill. These years are also very expensvie for a family, as you deal with diapers, formula, baby food and child care expenses. Pre-schools in the DC Area can run $20,000-$30,000 for one child alone.

2) Ages 7-14, often referred to as the "Golden Years" hopefully will offer a lot of parents a much needed reprieve, both financially and in terms of workload. During these years, children are much more self sufficient, but usually not yet questioning authority. Their personalities shine and the conversations become so much more interesting. For those parents that opt for public school, this phase should offer a nice break from expensive preschools and nannies, so hopefully parents can set aside that same amount of money for college.

3) Ages 14-21, probably the most complicated phase in parenting-- children in high school and college are so eager to assert their independance, and yet they are completely economically dependant on their parents. These are incredibly expense years, and can be emotionally tense as well. Peer relations take on a far more important role than ever before, and many will start to experiment with sexual activity, drugs and/or alcohol. Being overly protective will drive kids away, but you also don't want to completely neglect them during this critical phase of their lives. It is not an easy time for parents, but if you can maintain a good bond during this last phase, I believe a parent's a hard work will be rewarded.

It is infinitely easier to get through these stages if you have a partner to tag-team with you along this challenging journey. For single parents, the best advice I can offer is to not try to do it all yourself. I used to pride myself on operating like a self-sufficient island, but as a single mother for over six years I have learned that I cannot do it all myself, and it is okay to be human and ask for help from family and friends. In fact, I actually think it is a great lesson to teach our kids at an early age-- we are not meant to be alone in life, we are social beings after all. We all have different strengths, and working together we can accomplish so much more, and live happier, less stressful lives.

Being a parent is definitely the most challenging job I have ever had, but it also the most rewarding experience. Children can teach us so much about life-- they challenge us to think about what really matters, what lessons we want to impart, which goals are worth pursuing, and which parts our lives we wish to change. In sharing stories of our past, we can learn much about ourselves and decide what we would like to do differently for our own children. In the end, as my favorite saying suggests, "good parents give their children roots and wings: Roots to know where home is, and wings to fly off and practice what has been taught to them."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Single Parenting

Being a single parent is not easy at any age, but definitely for people with children under 6, it is incredibly difficult to manage one's life while having to worry about a child's every move when they are with you. Dealing with children who cannot eat, go potty or entertain themselves without you is exhausting, and if you do not have a partner to tag-team with you, these duties can be overwhelming. After a child has gained the ability to be somewhat self-sufficient, life does get somewhat easier, but it makes all the difference in the world if you have understanding co-workers, friends, and family that can sympathize with the challenges of being a single parent.

As I look back at that last six years, I think organization was my salvation. Having plans provided us both with things to look forward to such as sporting events, the theater, museums, trips to the beach, amusement parks, New York City or Disney. The key is not to be too rigid with plans because things always come up with kids, and they actually need some down time. Everything is so new to them, and letting them process is important to avoid overload. It also takes the pressure off as a parent if you can allow yourself some unstructured time. Some of my best talks with my son have taken place at home, when we are not running around all over the place.

It is an intense relationship to be "on" all the time with your child, without anyone to relieve you for just an hour to go to the gym, especially when your child is your opposite. That said, I have learned a lot from being around my son, who often sees things quite differently than me. I have never seen my flaws and strengths as clearly before in my life, and I am grateful for the chance to have this insight with enough time (hopefully) to change the parts to my personality that could use some improvement. Perhaps in an intact household, I would not have been afforded such an opportunity.

For the first time in my life, walking away is not an option when things get rough, and so all those active listening and conflict resolution skills in my professional life have come in quite handy at home. By no means would I promote single-parenting, but my point is that it can be done, and it has been the most rewarding experience of a lifetime.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blended Family Dynamics

Normally, people have years to develop a rapport with their parents, siblings, and extended family. When couples divorce, however, and then re-marry others with children from previous relationships, they create what we call "blended family" situations. These are not easy, even under the best of circumstances, mainly because the stakes are high to make sure everyone gets along-- we cannot just walk away from these individuals that are now part of our family-- and we are forced to face some of our inner most fears: 1) fear of rejection, 2) fear of being misunderstood or 3) fear of not having our love reciprocated.

It takes time to develop an understanding of one another and find appropriate ways to communicate effectively and express our love for each other. While we process this information, it helps to have some quiet time to ourselves and space to decompress. Unfortunately, in most blended family situations, once the families merge, there may be very little time or space for processing. Especially when young children are involved, I urge people to move slowly and to take time out to help children express and understand their feelings. Normalizing the situation, without passing judgment on whatever they say will go a long way in helping them feel safe.

Dealing with various personalities at once can be overwhelming, even for adults, let alone children. In my particular case, where I have found my family after decades, there is much to rejoice, yet I know I have to proceed cautiously for my son's sake. As excited as we are to have all these wonderful new people in our lives, I have worked hard to pace the reunification process and give him time to take it all in slowly. I try to check in with him so he knows I care about his feelings, and that he is still my favorite little guy. We do not have an established history with the rest of the family, so we all need to work together to figure out our new family dynamics.

Navigating emotions is never easy, but the payoff can be great. Strangers may come and go throughout our lives, but a loving, supportive family is typically the key to raising healthy, well-adjusted children that will continue to come home for the holidays, etc. long after they have formed their own separate lives. Blended families are challenging, but also immensely rewarding-- not just for the children, but their parents, who no longer have to feel like they are shouldering the weight of the world all alone.

Blended families offer us all a second chance at finding true happiness through unconditional acceptance, understanding and love. Ties with anyone else can always be severed quite easily, but not family connections. The bonds that will last are the ones that are worth our time and attention, and true friends will understand this simple fact. These days, I am particularly grateful to my core group that has patiently allowed me to focus on that which matters to me most, and those that don't get it are simply a lost cause as far as I am concerned.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Adopting a Golfer's Attitude in Relationships

I am not much of a golfer, but I will admit that whenever I have gone to the driving range or played a round of golf, it is that one perfect "ping" sound that leads to a perfect shot that keeps me hooked. Talking to one of my married friends recently, he was lamenting about all of life's complications, especially with all the economic pressures these days added on to the already difficult balancing act between work, family and friends. Jokingly he said, "it's probably only really all good about 20% of the time, but boy do I live for that 20%." That is exactly the right attitude to carry you through married life!

Married life is so complicated-- you have two separate individuals, with different wants and needs, now trying to work together to build a home and family. We all have different triggers and cope with stress differently, but when you are under one roof, it is not so easy to walk away, find your own space, and get some alone time to decompress-- especially when you have kids that demand your attention once you get home from work. But we are all so good at putting on appearances, that whenever you run into other couples you think their life is so perfect, and you wonder what they are doing right versus what you are doing wrong. Here's an insiders tip: everything is NOT always as it appears.

Every couple has problems to deal with, some are just better at hiding them than others. It is one of life's greatest ironies that the things that bringest the greatest joys: our work, family and friends, can also bring us the greatest pain. Why? Because when you care about someone or something, you actually open yourself up to being vulnerable. Things will not always work out 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, but that doesn't mean we give up on these three parts of our life-- they are entirely what life is all about.

By no means am I suggesting that people should stay in bad relationships or put up with an unhealthy work environment. I think my track record shows that I have very little tolerance for that, but what I am proferring is that perhaps we all need to adjust our expectations-- we do not live in an ideal world, and it is unrealistic to expect everything and everyone to be perfect 100% of the time. Maybe we would all be far more able to roll with life's setbacks if we could embrace more of a golfer's attitude and live for that 20% of the time when the stars actually align and all the competing elements in our life happen to be copasetic.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

5 Healthy Tips for Dealing with Anxiety

These are very scary times-- very few people have job security anymore; the stock market keeps fluctuating; we hear about riots in London; and signs of an economic recovery anytime soon are not readily available to anyone. Particularly for those who like to plan, the chaos we are living with today can cause a lot of anxiety.

Some people internalize their anxiety, others lash out. In my cases, I see a lot of the negative behaviors people engage in to relieve stress, such as drugs, alcohol and extra-marital affairs. Instead, of making matters worse, I would like to remind people of some very healthy coping mechanisms available to help relieve stress:

1. go work out or take a walk outside;
2. talk with your friends/colleagues/family;
3. get a 1 hour massage or other spa treatment;
4. decompress for 2 hours by watching a movie or reading a book;
5. take a mini-vacation.

If you find that despite all efforts to deal with stress, you are having problems focusing, eating, sleeping, or that your moods are incredibly volatile, you may want to seek professional help. Talking to a therapist when these symptoms arise is critical to preventing a major problem later down the line.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Divorcing Parents Need to Make the Best of a Bad Situation

When I began practicing family law over a decade ago, my goal was to help others through a difficult time in their lives by zealously representing their interests. As time went on, however, I realized that sometimes what my clients needed most was a reality check– a voice of reason that would point out to them that some battles were not worth pursuing. The sad truth is that litigation is expensive, and sometimes fighting over principle bears a price tag that is just too great. Litigation also lessens the possibility of preserving any goodwill between the parties, something that is actually quite precious when you still have to co-parent with your ex-spouse after the divorce.

A few years ago, I went through my own divorce. As painful as that experience was, I know that I was quite fortunate compared to most. My ex-husband and I settled our issues quickly and amicably, and over time we have managed to rebuild our friendship. We share custody of our child, who is now 7, and by all accounts seems happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Many of my family members, friends and colleagues have asked me how I have accomplished this, and I have to admit it was not easy. It takes a commitment from both parents to work together, despite their differences, for the sake of their children in order to make the best of a bad situation.

The first thing I had to remind myself was that people’s roles change in a divorce. So, for example, even though I was the primary caregiver during my marriage, that did not mean it should remain my role going forward, especially if his father was interested in sharing custody. I also had to accept that there would have to be nights where I would no longer be able to kiss my child goodnight. In order for him to develop a strong relationship with his father, he would have to learn that his father was just as capable as me of feeding him, bathing him and putting him to sleep. So, rather than focusing on the loss of not having my child 100% of the time, I trained myself to see the benefits of having some time to myself. Overtime, I learned to enjoy my nights or weekends “off,” which have enabled me to visit with friends, work late, go to the movies, work out or pursue other interests, including even make time for some dates.

When we first separated, my ex-husband and I tried to minimize contact with one another while we learned to detach. During this time, I think we both really worked on getting past our anger, a normal part of the grieving process. I grieved the loss of many things, including our intact family, our home together, our love, and our dreams together. The sad reality that this was no longer going to be my life, and the scary proposition of moving forward alone, were incredibly difficult truths to accept. Ultimately, however, I had to acknowledge that staying in a bad or unhappy situation was no longer a viable option. The pivotal decision to be made then was whether I was going to remain stuck, dwelling in the past, or was I going to move forward and try to make the best of what was yet to come.

A few months after my separation, as my ex-husband and I became more established in our separate households and separate lives, we started to talk more, primarily about our child. Over the years, as we have successfully coordinated our efforts not just to make major decisions about his medical and education needs, but also to plan our son's birthdays, holidays, and other special events. Along the way, we have rebuilt a friendship, which has allowed us to share many holidays such as Easter and Christmas Eve together, even though it is not required per our Agreement. We have been flexible with the custody schedule to accomodate special events or circumstances. We even exchange cards and gifts for birthdays and holidays. Perhaps, despite all our differences, we have managed joint custody well because we can respect that our son will benefit most from having both his parents in his life.

Minimizing conflict around children is difficult, but it is essential in order to protect them and provide them with a sense of security despite the loss of an intact family. All children need regular, consistent contact with their parents and extended families, but more effort is required for separated couples to ensure they achieve this for their children.

A while back, after I had returned from a trip to Dutch Wonderland with my ex-husband and son, one of my colleagues asked me whether I was concerned about sending “the wrong message” to my child by creating false expectations that his parents might get back together. Honestly, I would be far more concerned with the impact it would have on his life if he never saw his parents getting along-- wouldn't he wonder why they ever got together and whether his existence was a mistake? My son knows that he was the result of a couple that was once in love, and it is very sad that the couple could not stay together, but both his parents continue to love him and as a result they do not regret their marriage.

I realize that not everyone is going to be capable or willing to build the kind of co-parenting relationship I have with my ex-husband. But, I share my own experience to point out an alternate possibility for divorced parents, and more importantly for their children. Just because a marriage ends does not mean that some semblance of a family cannot be salvaged for a child’s sake. Separated parents and divorced couples should feel free to think beyond the norms recommended by our legal system, which is mainly intended to dictate relationships when all else fails. We as individuals have the power to choose the relationships we are in, and how we end them. Sometimes, we are defined by the choices we make in life, and no where is that truer than in the choices we make in a divorce involving children. As a parent, I have chosen to ignore certain legal “norms” in order to minimize the loss to my child of his once intact family, and I truly hope others will be inspired to do the same for their children.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dealing with Holidays, Birthdays and Summers Post-Divorce

Once a couple separates and has a regular weekly schedule in place, most things do tend to fall into place, but I often have to warn people about the need to prepare for very conflicting feelings around the holidays, birthdays and vacations. When you do not have your children for holidays or birthdays, you need to make plans for yourself to avoid feeling too sad or lonely. It is very hard to have to plan your own birthday when you have not had to do so in years, not in terms of logistics, but rather in terms of emotions. Also, getting yourself holiday gifts, no matter how great they might be, simply will not compare to the thrill that someone else thought of you, what you might like, and went and bought you something as a token of his/her love.

When it comes to summers or other vacations, I always suggest that people try to coordinate trips with family or friends. I have to admit, however, that even when I have done this, I still have moments of longing as I see other couples together with their kids enjoying time on the beach, or amusement parks, etc. Not being part of an intact family is hard-- not just on the kids, but their parents as well. Many want to appear strong (especially men), and they won't really talk about these feelings with their family or friends, but being a single parent is not easy, and it is not only okay to ask for help, it is a necessity.

Having a core support group in life is critical, but especially for those recently separated or divorced, having a lifeline to help you get through special events and holidays will be key. Trying to do it all alone is not only exhausting, it simply is not healthy-- we need to let others into our lives to share in our joys and help with the sorrow , especially during special occassions when both feelings will be prevalent at the same time. In the end, all I can say to people is that this is normal, it is part of the process of getting divorced, and hopefully this too shall pass.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What's A Realistic Return on Love?

Any good financial advisor will have you fill out a questionnaire to determine your ability to withstand risk, and then s/he will sit down with you and go over what should expect as a realistic return on your investment. If only there were love advisors that could do the same thing!

There are many people that expect a lot out of their partners, perhaps more than their partners can realistically give in terms of time, attention or affection. We are not all built the same, and in relationships we have to respect each person's individual capabilities and accept one another's limitations. To expect more from someone than what they are capable of is a recipe for disaster-- the person with unrealistic expectations is going to be disappointed and frustrated, while the other person may wind up feeling totally dejected, or maybe even angry if s/he feels like s/he is constantly being set up to fail.

The other day, a friend said to me, "you can never expect a 100% return on your efforts in a relationship. You should do something because you want to do it, but never with the expectation that the favor will be returned to the same degree... Love cannot be measured, so as long as it is there, you need to be okay with that." She is totally right-- the investment we make with our friends, family and romantic interests cannot be quantified, and sometimes (like with children) it might take years to see a true return.

Ultimately, the question we should be asking ourselves is: can I live with how that other person loves me? Of course, with family we don't get to ask this question, we just have to accept our relatives as they are, but with friends or love interests if they cannot love you the way you want to be loved, then you need to be able to walk away. To stay in any relationship requires acceptance that the person will love you in his/her own way-- nothing more, nothing less than just that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Biggest Challenge for Modern Couples

Traditionally, men were primarily responsible for being good providers for their families, and women were tasked with everything else-- taking care of the kids, maintaining the home, and keeping family and friends connected. In the last 40 years, however, this traditional approach has become quite unsustainable for most American families. Women want intellectual stimulation and economic independance just as much as their male counterparts, and getting married is no longer a necessity but rather a voluntary choice that many will only exercise when a truly special person comes along.

The modern couple with two equally well-educated people that have similar earning capacities have to negotiate everything-- who will do the cooking, laundry, get groceries, take the kids to their doctor's appointments, soccer practice, etc. (assuming all these things are not delegated out to nannies). Men who grew up with fathers that only had to focus on work are in for a bit of a shock these days as their partners now expect them to multi-task--a skill that has been passed on for generations in women, but is a rather new requirement for a lot of their male counterparts. This problem is then compounded by the fact that many women, who grew up with moms that ruled the house, fail to communicate their dissapointment and frustration in a manner that inspires a change for most men.

Guys tend to avoid conflict at home, so if they feel there is trouble brewing with a spouse, they might purposefully stay late at the office or go grab a beer with the guys. Rather than lash out in response to this behavior, women may want to try more positive reinforcement of the behaviors they like for their partners to exhibit. For example: a guy goes MIA for a few days because he is focused on other things, then finally he calls his sister. If she jumps down his throat for not contacting her sooner, he is probably going to want to quickly get off the phone and be a lot less willing to call again. Meanwhile, if she starts by telling him how happy she is to hear from him, and later very gently lets him know that she was disappointed in the fact that he'd been radio silent for a few days, the chances are much higher that he won't disappear again for so long, and he will be more apt to call sooner.

We are all wired differently and cannot read each other's minds. I used to think that as long as we all lived by the Golden Rule everything would be fine, but I have come to realize that the way I might want someone to act towards me is not the way they would want me to act towards them. Some people might want daily contact, others would feel smothered by that, so we need to find the right balance in each relationship. We need to learn about each other's triggers, our differing needs for space versus contact, and try to respect one another's boundaries. Not easy stuff for sure, but it is what you do for those you love.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Managing Long Distance Relationships

Long distance relationships are becoming much more common these days, and they have become much easier to manage with modern technology. Back in the early 90's while I was living in DC but dating someone in New York, we did not have cell phones, email, text messaging, Facebook, or any of the other modern forms of communication that so many of us now take for granted. It was not easy, but we managed to talk regularly, write letters and at least once a month one of us would make the trip north or south to see the other. We looked forward to those weekends together, and the rest of the time, we focused on what we needed to do for work, school, etc. This went on for about two years, until it was time for one of us to either make a move or part ways. At the time, we were totally in love, and parting ways was not an option, so instead we got engaged and managed to stay together for 12 years. Ultimately, it did not work out, but at least we gave it a shot.

The biggest risk with long-distance relationships is that it can be very difficult to gauge what a person is really like-- when you don't see someone all the time in their daily routine, it is quite possible that they are hiding some of their nastiest habits. Almost anyone can be on his/her best behavior for short periods of time, and it is human nature to want to hide our greatest flaws when we want someone to like us, so it does not have to be some methodically thought-out plan to keep certain things secret, it could be quite subconscious. This is why I always caution people to proceed extra carefully when embarking on a long distance relationship.

Despite the complications of a long distance relationship, there are many benefits to having your own space in the beginning. After spending quality time together, it is nice to be able to decompress on your own and process your feelings. Too often, I see people that live in the same area get very close, very fast. Distance forces you to pace the relationship more, and it causes you to really think whether it is worth the investment of time and energy, versus sticking with something easy because it is so convenient.

To develop any relationship takes commitment by both parties, but long distance ones force this issue sooner rather than later. Assuming both parties are interested in working things out, I believe it is much easier these days to facilitate regular and quite affordable forms of communication, including email, text, Facebook, Skype and WhatsAp. Keep in mind, however, that any written form of communication can always be misconstrued because you can't hear someone's tone of voice, and very few people seem able to say, "hey you hurt my feelings by..." Instead, we tend to either lash back or withdraw, and neither one of these options is particularly healthy. When in doubt, I say pick up the phone-- nothing beats the sound of a loved one's voice, except obviously, seeing them in person.