midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “relationships”

On Being Alone: An Unanticipated Thanksgiving

I had moved into my new apartment in Summerville, SC just five days before Thanksgiving and two weeks into a new job, which I took to start a new career in counseling, more than 500 miles from where I had called “home” for nearly three decades, Maryland. It was too soon to fly back to see family for the holiday, and too ominous to face the Thanksgiving Day and subsequent weekend travel frenzies. Besides, my kids were scattered – my daughter in France for her post-college job teaching English and my son visiting his mother in Texas.

So I resigned myself to that most melancholia of situations that Americans seek desperately to avoid – spending a hyped holiday alone. I was too new in my adopted hometown to be taken in as a Thanksgiving orphan – barely anybody even knew I existed here, save for my new work colleagues and one college alum.

I was destined to join those invisible people who had nowhere to go for a holiday that screamed Americana, with its pilgrim, culinary, family, togetherness and football customs, and nobody coming to visit them – the stereotypical widowers, spinsters, shut-ins, homeless, outcasts, infirm, aged, black sheep, oddballs, cat ladies, mountain men, lone wolves, eccentrics, hermits, hoarders , rejects and recluses.

I searched for a volunteer opportunity to serve meals to the less fortunate on Thanksgiving Day, but couldn’t find one. A big meal-serving charity in Charleston already was overloaded with volunteers and could accept no more, and other organizations needed help in the days before Thanksgiving. I settled on volunteering for the Turkey Day Run 5K in Charleston, SC, a big fund-raising event. That got me out at 6 a.m. and occupied me on a chilly, rainy day until 10:30 a.m.

For the preceding week, a common salutation with clients at work, exchanged both ways, was “Have a good Thanksgiving,” or, “So what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” constant reminders that I was doing nothing for Thanksgiving and that Thanksgiving, if I stayed strong mentally and emotionally, would be no worse than any other day, but certainly not “good” or “happy” in the traditional sense of celebrating a sacred time with friends and loved ones.

When I returned to my apartment, I did what anyone would do on a rainy day holiday

EmptyApt

My “chair” and “table” in my Spartan apartment

with nowhere to go and nobody to entertain – took a long nap to sleep some of the day away. If spending a uniquely American holiday alone was melancholy to begin with, it was amplified by my current Spartan living conditions. I have no furniture – none. My place is bare, except for the air mattress serving as my bed, a food cooler as my chair and a plastic container as my dining table. I could not fit any furniture in my car on the move down, and I won’t be returning “home” to retrieve furniture and pack a rental truck for another two weeks. Not even a TV or a stereo or Internet. Silence. Just me and books. On my Thanksgiving menu: catfish and frozen sweet potato fries.

When I awoke around 4, I decided to get out of my threadbare confines and bring my computer to the apartment complex’s clubhouse, where I could get Internet connection and watch the football games. I predicted I would have the place to myself, as other residents would be celebrating Thanksgiving with friends and family elsewhere. As I approached the clubhouse, I saw a bunch of people mingling inside.

Oh, great. Booked for a private party,” I thought. “Looks like back to my apartment for catfish and a book.”

But I decided to check to make sure.

“Is this a private party?” I asked the woman who greeted me at the door.
“No, come on in. We’re The Misfits,” she replied.

“Are you sure?” I asked, still feeling as though I was crashing a closed event. “I didn’t bring anything.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got plenty,” she replied.

I entered to find about 40 people, from toddlers to grandparents, celebrating around a veritable Thanksgiving buffet feast. Turns out, The Misfits were what my greeter called “implants” – well, she meant “transplants,” not people with dental work – people at the apartment complex and their friends who had moved to South Carolina from elsewhere and had no family nearby. They had been gathering for holidays and other events for several years.

I stayed for several hours, stuffing myself, watching football, and meeting friendly people in a festive environment. It sure beat being alone, and made for a surprising, grateful Thanksgiving.

That said, being alone is not dreadful. It does not equate to sadness, depression, or even necessarily loneliness. It’s not to be feared. I often embrace solitude, and have done and continue to do many things by myself, even though I enjoy social activities, spending time with friends and being a family man. Enjoying solitary pursuits and engaging in social endeavors are not mutually exclusive. I’m an introvert. I am often more inspired by things I do alone than energized by being around lots of people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like a good party or social outings.

Being alone is about being comfortable with the self, and knowing that it is a condition that one can change if desired. It is about finding things to do that one values and from which one derives pleasure when undertaken alone. It is about feeling worthy and valuable as a human being, even if one is alone, at least temporarily. It is about being comfortable turning inward and exploring the messages of one’s own soul – the often hidden wants as well as the often elusive sense of peace and acceptance, the true self – rather than constantly craving and responding to external stimuli. It is about having the chance to slow down, quiet the mind, reflect and recharge, and direct one’s energies toward passions, free from the pulls and distractions of others’ wants, needs, expectations and demands.

By twist of fate, my 2017 Thanksgiving combined both ends of the spectrum – aloneness and togetherness. I give thanks for both in my life.

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Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and presence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive:  I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications.  It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids. 

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane: No Failure to Launch

My daughter literally has launched herself into adulthood.

The cornerstone job as a parent is to help your kids launch themselves successfully into adulthood by fostering their independence, confidence, self-identity, decision-making ability, sense of responsibility and motivation – traits which they have to develop themselves but over which parents have a big influence.

I’m proud and excited to see my 21-year-old daughter Rebecca exhibiting these traits. She has jetted off for Toulon, France, on the Mediterranean coast, for an eight-month RebInFranceassignment teaching English in two French middle schools, her first professional job after graduating college. This will be her second tour abroad, following a semester in college in which she studied at the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, and traveled throughout Europe.

Rebecca landed in Toulon September 18, 2017, not knowing anyone, same as when she ventured to Lyon in a study group comprised of American students from across the country. She was anxious and excited, the eagerness and thrill of the adventure, opportunity, unknown and challenge far outweighing any fears and doubts. I congratulate Rebecca on her adventurous spirit and desire to explore the world.

No Failure to Launch here, unlike Matthew McConaughey’s 30-something character in the 2006 movie of that title, who resisted leaving the comforts of the cushy life provided by his parents until they hatched a plan to finally get him to launch out on his own.

Psychology Today labeled “failure to launch” as a syndrome characterized by the “difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Energy, desire and motivation are the necessary ingredients to fuel the launch and overcome fears and anxiety, and taking risks and actions comprise the launch process. Then, resilience and perseverance are required to overcome inevitable turbulence and continue progressing during this stage. Without those components, the post-adolescent risks becoming stuck and dependent.

Ultimately, says Psychology Today author and psychiatrist Robert Fischer, M.D., for a successful launch, a young adult “must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others.  There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart.”

I’m gratified that Rebecca is following her passion and desire by taking the risk and action to travel to France and to teach in foreign schools.

Rebecca is part of an age group that has been segmented recently from the broader adulthood category and coined “emerging adulthood” for its characteristics common to people in their late teens through their 20s. These are young people who feel like the knot in a tug-of-war rope, caught between breaking free of the challenges of adolescence yet often still maintaining close bonds with parents, family and the familiar trappings of youthful existence.

The psychologist who identified the new life-span development phase, Jeffrey Arnett, outlined five distinct features of emerging adulthood:

  • Identity exploration: Establishing one’s self-identity continues to evolve throughout the 20s, as young adults search for what brings satisfaction out of education, work, and relationships.
  • Instability: This group moves around a lot, among schools, jobs, locations and residences as they experiment with future paths, change their minds and directions and struggle to accumulate the resources to fuel their journeys.
  • Self-focus: Emerging adulthood is a time of intensive internal focus, as young adults explore their desires for work, living arrangements, experiences and relationships with a sense of broad possibilities and few encumbrances. It is an age when opportunities may seem limitless, before developments such as marriage, children, increased financial obligations and career choices inevitably pose constraints and redirect attention more outward.
  • Feeling in between: Emerging adults feel they are taking more responsibility for their own lives and decisions, yet still feel they have not completely broken free from some form of dependence and do not completely feel like an entirely self-sufficient, autonomous adult.
  • Age of possibilities: Optimism characterizes emerging adulthood. After taking a hard look at their parents’ lives, many believe they have a good chance to create a more rewarding and exciting life for themselves.

Another researcher sought to determine why some emerging adults thrive and why some struggle in establishing identities and independence. She found that the foundation for such progress or obstacles are established in childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents striking the right balance between providing support, limits and structure, and encouraging kids to pursue independence and make their own decisions.

One type of family dysfunction that inhibits emerging adults from becoming independent is “enmeshment,” when family members’ emotional lives are so intertwined that children have difficulty separating, becoming their own person, and accepting responsibility for their choices and lives. This is a dynamic I have observed often in counseling.

The signs are clear that my daughter is becoming the captain of her own jet. I feel rewarded as a father that I have contributed to the foundation of her launching pad.

Midlife Men and Divorce: Risky Business

For the capstone class – the 22nd! – of my 5 ½-year master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling, I had to choose a narrow “clinical population” for a research project. Somewhat shamelessly, self-servingly and unimaginatively, I essentially chose myself: a midlife man who has experienced divorce.

The findings were not pretty for the divorced midlife’s male’s future, though I acknowledge I intentionally selected research that highlighted why this population would be candidates for mental health treatment.DivorceHeartPhoto

Research has come to varying and sometimes contrasting conclusions on divorce and midlife men (roughly age 35 to 60), and mitigating factors are difficult to account for. However, numerous studies have shown that midlife men who have experienced marital breakdown have had greater propensity to become depressed, anxious or develop other psychiatric disorders; abuse alcohol or drugs; suffer from higher rates of illness, earlier death and suicide; harbor anger; live with loneliness and social phobia; qualify for work disability; and experience lower levels of physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and happiness and self-esteem.

And the majority of time, men aren’t the ones pulling the trigger on divorce, which studies show is one of the most psychologically distressing events in life. Research indicates that wives frustrated by an inability to improve their troubled marriages may be more likely to end them, with one study concluding that husbands initiate only a quarter to a third of marital separations.

These are research-based outcomes of divorce that pose challenges for the midlife man:

  • Recently divorced men were more likely than other groups to receive psychiatric treatment and be prescribed medication for mental health disorders. One study concluded that major depression was nine times higher among men who had been separated or divorced compared to stably married and single men.
  • Remarriage in midlife brings with it a whole new set of complications and negotiations that cause stress, indicating that marriage alone does not prevent mental and physical problems. One study found that remarriage was associated with an increased risk of depression compared with men who remained divorced.
  • Men often rely on their wives for their social lives and support for their health and emotional well-being, as women generally have stronger social support networks. Without their marriage, men can become prone to social isolation and loneliness.
  • A common dynamic of divorce is “non-acceptance” of marital dissolution. The ongoing feelings of attachment are associated with depression. The reality for some divorced fathers is continuing angry disagreements with and hostility toward their former wife a decade or more after breakup.
  • Once divorced, men’s physical health can decline, as wives often assume a role for monitoring and influencing their partner’s health behaviors.
  • While women experiencing divorce were at higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders, men were at higher risk for new substance abuse disorders. One study indicated that divorced 46-year-old men comprised a disproportionately higher share of binge and heavy drinkers compared to other groups of the same age.
  • The mortality risk for inconsistently married men (those who had divorced and remarried) was more than 40 percent greater than for consistently married men, and men who were currently separated or divorced had a mortality risk 2.5 times greater than consistently married men.
  • Men who had been divorced had a higher prevalence of work disability many years after the initial divorce.

As for me, I was the prototype of the midlife divorced male: separated at 42 and divorced at 45 in an action initiated by my ex-wife, with two pre-adolescent kids. I also have remarried, and while my wife Amy has been a wonderful social and emotional support, as the research indicated about wives, the second union has inevitably come with some stress due to new family dynamics and inter-relationships, financial complications and psychological adjustments.

I have avoided many of the pitfalls of the midlife divorced male, such as substance abuse or physical health decline, but did not escape divorce unscathed. When first threatened with divorce and teetering on the brink, I suffered from depression that affected my appetite, sleep, energy level and concentration. I struggled with non-acceptance when the reality of pending divorce flooded me like an unstoppable tidal wave. I lost a big chunk of my social connections and outlets. Worst of all, it was hard not to feel like a failure at something so important, and as a letdown to my kids.

Researchers have come to different conclusions over whether such a thing as a “midlife crisis” really exists, or whether it is a pop culture phenomenon, especially for men. But there’s no doubt that midlife is the time men walk through the landmines of marital upheaval, and when they are most prone to its potentially harmful and long-lasting mental health effects.

 

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

Overcoming Perils of Divorce

I’m a child of divorce who has wound up raising two children of divorce of my own.

Children of divorce face many more challenges in their development as kids and in adjustments to adult life and adult relationships than children from intact families, as found in Judith Wallerstein’s landmark 25-year study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.familyatthanksgiving2016

But so far, at least from what I can observe on the surface and by traditional markers of success, my kids Rebecca and Daniel are showing strong signs of overcoming the perils of divorce.

[Disclaimer: Father’s unabashed bragging on kids to follow.] Rebecca, 21, is set to graduate from the University of Maryland in May, with a 3.7 GPA and multiple honor roll appearances. She’s run marathons. She’s ventured into the world, spending a semester in France and traveling extensively throughout Europe. She has loads of friends, and has formed and maintained an intimate relationship, dating a solid young man for four years. She has an internship with the French Embassy and is planning to teach English in France after graduation.

Daniel, 18, earned straight As in his first semester at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), taking advanced courses in computer science, biology and math that would have pummeled me as a freshman. He earned multiple Advanced Placement (AP) college credits while in high school, setting him up to graduate college within three years. He has maintained and thrived in a job while attending college and just celebrated six months in a relationship with a lovely girlfriend.

Psychological, social or emotional problems connected to growing up in a divorced family could surface as they advance into young adulthood, progress deeper into their own relationships and reflect more on their childhood experiences. But to this point, I’m thrilled and grateful for their demonstrated resilience and ability to adapt, thrive and make good decisions.

I will also take some credit for their positive adjustments, and give a good deal to their mother Theresa (not the Mother Theresa), for making a commitment to positive, caring and mutually respectful and cooperative parenting, despite the challenges we each faced due to the dissolution of our marriage. Both step-parents, Amy and Bernard, also deserve credit for being consistent, stable and positive influences, in roles often fraught with conflict that can become destructive and divisive.

For half or more of their childhoods, the kids split their time – week on and week off – with each parent. There was unavoidable upheaval – my ex-wife and I each moved twice and sold the kids’ primary childhood home. But we never lived more than 10 minutes apart (until last year when Theresa moved to Texas), and the kids were able to continue attending school in their same district without disruption.

As parents, we cooperated in financial matters, and though we were weaker financially as separate entities, the kids weren’t deprived of things they wanted to do and didn’t suffer materially. We were each committed to continue saving for the kids’ college educations despite the split, and now that is paying off big-time.

I’m sure I said things I shouldn’t have and made mistakes, especially early in the breakup. Challenges arose throughout our co-parenting in relation to family gatherings, which became emotional and tense. We weathered them, though it may have left a mark on the kids. Overall, however, I strived to be respectful and positive about Theresa, and not pollute the kids’ minds or attempt to influence them negatively or turn them against their mother with whatever hard feelings I might have had. And for good reason, because I knew Theresa was a good mother, and the kids knew the same, and anything I did to tear her down would reflect badly upon me and prompt the kids to resent me. To my knowledge, Theresa behaved the same toward me, and I’m grateful for that.

I believe these efforts, which had to be conscious, thoughtful, consistent and enduring, have helped ameliorate the effects of divorce for Rebecca and Daniel. And those potential effects, according to Wallerstein’s 25-year study, are considerable and lasting:

  • A harder, unhappier and diminished childhood, including adjustments in contact with each parent, relocations, losses of friendships and activities, decreased influence of parenting, higher anxiety, and worry about one or both parents
  • More acting out and less protection during adolescence, a result largely of inconsistent and unenforced rules and standards, and assuming greater responsibilities for themselves
  • Higher chances of sexual promiscuity among female adolescents
  • A belief that personal relationships are unreliable, and even the closest family relationships can’t be expected to last
  • Observations of second parental marriages that typically proved less stable and enduring than the first
  • Feelings of loneliness, bewilderment and anger at parents
  • Scarring memories of witnessing violence during the breakup and aftermath, and repercussions of abandonment
  • Less planning for and lower chances of college enrollment, and inadequate financial support from parents once enrolled
  • Diminished capacity to love and to be loved within a lasting, committed relationship in adulthood, a fear of failure and feelings of pessimism based on their childhood experiences, and a desire to avoid the emotional pain

Though impacts are inevitable, I am hopeful that my kids will avoid or minimize these impacts through their own strengths and abilities to deal with their childhood divorce experience in healthy ways, and through the knowledge that their parents – all four of us now – care about them greatly and always will be there to support them. So far, it looks like that’s the track they are traveling, and I am confident that they have the tools and fortitude to stay that course. Hopefully, they will break the familial pattern both my ex-wife and I experienced as kids, and bestowed on our own.

Daddy-Daughter Day

adam-reb_foyeweddingWhat are the odds that a father and a daughter would graduate from different universities on the same day?

Infinitesimal. But that is what’s destined to take place for me and my daughter Rebecca on May 20, 2017, barring unforeseen circumstances.

We’re each about to start our final semesters. I’ll be graduating from the clinical mental health counseling master’s program at Loyola University-Maryland after a five-and-a-half-year marathon, while Rebecca will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Maryland.

It will be a proud day for the Sachs family. Unfortunately, though, I’ll have to make a choice, because the graduation ceremonies conflict. The choice is really no choice at all. As much as I would like to participate in my graduation to savor my accomplishment and sacrifice – and it really has been that, involving a career change, job loss, precipitous drop in income, scrambling to patch together part-time, temporary and seasonal employment, large tuition bills, attending evening classes after work, securing and working at two internships that have tested me, and a long-term commitment to finish rather than quit when feeling overwhelmed – the obvious choice is to attend my daughter’s graduation.

It’s not that I’m selfless. I’m not. I think a lot about myself. I’m all about me, a lot of the time. I’m not a huge giver. I might not give you the shirt off my back. But May 20 will be Rebecca’s time. It will be enough for me to know what I accomplished and that I persevered through obstacles, as much as I would like to share that moment with grad school colleagues who have done the same.

It will be more important to me that Rebecca knows and remembers that I was there, and to celebrate her achievement. I have tried to do that throughout her 21 years. There’s a quote you might know, often attributed to director Woody Allen, that “90 percent of life is showing up.” But apparently what Allen really said was, “80 percent of success is showing up.” So if I multiply a .90 show-up rate by a .80 success rate, I have a 72 percent chance of success by showing up at Rebecca’s graduation. I’ll take those odds.

Showing up always been a high priority for me as a parent, and a college graduation is no time to slack off. That simple feat – being present — was made more challenging over the years since I separated from Rebecca’s mother when she was only 9, but it was never an excuse.

We had hoped our graduations would be on different days on the same weekend. How cool would it be to attend each other’s graduations on successive days? I would like Rebecca to see a palpable example that learning, growth, striving and change can happen throughout a lifetime, by observing me graduate. But it wasn’t to be.

So I will do what I know in my gut is right and what all good parents should do – no awards or kudos needed – and put my child first.

The Art (and Practice) of Self-Promotion

I attended my 35th high school reunion last weekend – but not for the typical reasons of reconnecting with old friends or catching up with acquaintances. I knew none of the few people I still am in touch with from high school would be there, and that I wouldn’t recognize the vast majority of attendees, let alone have had even known them in high school.

I went primarily to practice self-promotion and marketing, tactics at which I am not highly proficient, but which I need to improve to raise awareness of and generate interest in my two new books published by Sirenian Publishing. These are skills which I also will sireniancardneed in the future, as I plan to launch an independent counseling practice. Having just obtained Sirenian Publishing business cards, I wanted to see if I could work the two books I have authored into conversations and grease some palms with the information.

I’ll call my endeavor a success, having talked about the books (the novel Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet about a rookie sportswriter in Florida and the nonfiction political memoir Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics) and given out cards to the eight or so classmates I spoke with at any length.

Sorry to sound so crass, Winston Churchill High School Class of 1981. However, it wasn’t completely an exercise in marketing, public relations and sales. I also attended to be social and with the thought of the possibility of meeting engaging people and establishing a new friendship or two.

It’s just that I know that I fall on the Introversion side of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory and that I don’t get energized by joining big crowds of people I don’t know in loud, cramped spaces. In fact, when I first walked into the reserved room at the restaurant and observed the scene of many strangers who 35 years ago had something in common with me engaged with each other in loud, animated conversation, my first instinct was to leave. I wouldn’t know anybody and I wouldn’t fit in, I thought. I walked straight past the crowd to the bathroom and then stopped at the far end of the bar and watched a football game on TV for a minute to compose myself, get in the spirit and prepare to plunge into the social melee.

It’s also that I associate high school with a difficult time of life that I never felt I could embrace – no fault of my high school classmates. Just before 9th grade, I moved, the result of my parents’ divorce years earlier and my mother’s struggles with her health and ability to function adequately as a single parent. I didn’t want to move to the new high school district, leaving the neighborhood and classmates I had known since kindergarten, and I resented it. It was difficult to adjust and break into cliques and friendships that had been established for years at the new school. I was an outsider and naturally quiet, and never really felt like my new high school or community were my places.

Luckily, just as I left my safe place at the bar to mill through the crowd and face my fear, I encountered a guy I recognized who was with his fiancé. We talked for 45 minutes while I drank a beer and they ate dinner. The ice was broken. That’s what it took to quell my anxiety, open up more, engage in the event and enjoy myself – while still subtly working on self-promotion (At least, I hope I wasn’t blatant. I think I had some tact.) All the classmates I met at reunion were exceedingly friendly and accepting, and I enjoyed conversations. I was grateful for that. As a former reporter, I asked people I met a lot of questions about themselves, so I wasn’t overly narcissistic about self-promotion.

The reunion was an event I wouldn’t have attended if I wasn’t an author. I just wouldn’t have been interested enough to make the effort. But the only way to become better known is to put yourself out there more, and when you do, good things you don’t expect and side benefits can happen.

I talked to a few people at reunion I would like to see again. They don’t even have to buy a book – but it would make me want to see them again more (final shameless plug)!

 

 

Going, Going, Gone!

A week ago I lugged my son Daniel’s mini-refrigerator and cartful of computer equipment to a cramped dorm room at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and officially became an empty nester. My daughter Rebecca left home for good later the same weekend to move into her new apartment at the University of Maryland.DanAdam2_PotomacHall

Since I’ve been gone all summer scraping together income to fuel my midlife career transition odyssey – except for one-day-per-month visits back home – teaching tennis at the Sea Colony Tennis resort in Bethany Beach, DE, the kids’ flight hasn’t fully registered with me yet. But when I return home for good on Labor Day night, I’ll be faced with the fact that my role as a parent has changed.

My kids have become so much more independent in the last year. Rebecca spent a semester in France and traveled throughout Europe. Daniel became more social, broadened his circle of friends, with whom he traveled to Ocean City, MD for Senior Week and California over the summer, connected with a steady girlfriend, got his first job at which he is advancing and earned college scholarship funds.

They’re becoming young adults, and our relationships will change. I am curious what those relationships will be like.

Since they are attending colleges nearby, they’ll be around on occasion, but now their college residences are their primary addresses. I am going to miss having one or both kids around the house on a regular basis.

I’m thinking the transition may be easier for me than for parents in an intact family. My kids lived with me only half the time for about half of their childhoods, since they were 9 and 7, because of my divorce. I always felt sad when I brought the kids back to their mom’s on Sunday evenings after a week with me, knowing I was going back to an emptier house and that I would likely only see them one time over the next week for dinner. The necessity to adjust to the back and forth, every other week arrangement I hope will help me adapt to this new transitional scenario.

Still, there’s nothing like your kids branching out on their own and establishing their independent lives to let you know you are advancing to new and later stages of life. I taught many kids tennis this summer and met their parents. I couldn’t help thinking those parents were me a decade ago, enjoying family vacations at the beach and doing fun kid things like walking the boardwalk at night and sliding the water park during the day. When I told tennis parent clients that I had kids also, though older at 20 and 18 and in college, I had a hard time believing it myself.

Rebecca has talked about becoming a teacher recently and of possibly following her boyfriend, a chemical engineering major, to some yet to be determined destination after college. Daniel will be pursuing studies in the computer science field at a university known for its strength in that area. They both have promising futures. I’m proud of how they have developed and the people they are. I hope I have had a positive influence on them and will remember some of dad’s “pearls of wisdom” that they probably didn’t want to hear when I offered. I implored both kids to take Spanish; they each took French. I think Daniel already may be happy that I highly recommended dorm life to him when he was considering other college living arrangements.

I look forward to developing and nurturing close and warm adult relationships with both kids. I hope it happens. It will be a two-way street from here on out. Both kids will have to desire that too and give our relationship love and care to help it grow as we all mature.

The kids are gone and one long and crucial part of my parenting journey is over. It’s been a challenge, a great learning experience, an honor and a joy, but also tinged with some tumult, sorrow and readjustment resulting from the family breakup and my second marriage. I am eager to see what the next phase will bring and know I will need to work at staying connected.

The kids are gone. In the coming weeks, I’ll learn how prepared I am to accept it.

5 Basic and Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned about Parenting

As the younger of my two children closes in on his 18th birthday, I offer five basic parenting principles that I view as important in raising well-adjusted, self-sufficient, industrious and confident children.

I didn’t invent them, and by no means was I always exemplary in following these practices — I had to learn, and still am learning, from my own mistakes and bad habits — nor are Parentsmy 20-year-old daughter and high school graduate son perfect or devoid of flaws or insecurities. Neither are your classic All-Americans or stereotypical overachievers. But they are on good tracks in their lives, have done quite well for themselves, and, importantly for me, rarely caused me any worry, grief or stress that more troubled children can cause parents.

I also have realized these aspects of positive parenting in my counseling masters’ program and associated internship, where I saw the havoc wreaked by destructive or neglectful parenting.

  1. Express caring, love and pride often. Parental expression of the positive emotions toward their children can have a lifelong impact on their self-esteem, self-image, confidence, security, well-being and overall feelings about themselves. As long as these expressions of positive emotions are genuine and backed up by actions, I don’t think you can overdo it. On the flip side, parents who frequently express destructive emotions and feelings, such as anger and disappointment, or who excessively criticize children through mocking, condescension, belittlement or other abusive behaviors, cause their children great damage that they invariably will carry into adulthood and will have tremendous difficulty in undoing.
  2. Promote independence; let children make their own choices within reason and accept responsibility and consequences. A relatively new phenomenon in parenting is the “helicopter parent” – those parents who hover over their children and try to protect them from any wrong move or negative consequence and cushion or fix any disappointment, failure or mistake. Kids aren’t fragile; they’re resilient. But when you hover too much, they don’t use their resiliency muscles and they atrophy. As a result, it seems there’s a trend toward a large generation of young adults that has trouble breaking away from the safe cocoon of over-protective or over-indulgent parents. The sooner kids are given responsibility for their decisions, the more they will take ownership over their own lives and the less they will blame others or external forces for whatever doesn’t go their way.
  3. Show up…and be present. There is no better way to let kids know you care about them, and to help them feel attached, secure and loved, than to show up all the time, every day, unless circumstances absolutely prevent it. Show up to elementary school concerts, dance recitals, athletic events, birthdays, sleepovers (not to stay overnight, but when pickup is needed), and all other activities important to your kids. When you show up, provide encouragement and positive feedback, even if you find fault with their “performance” or “effort.” Separate the child from the action. In other words, don’t let a child feel unworthy because he didn’t perform well. You can offer constructive criticism or advice after the positive words, lending your wisdom and experience to aid learning, but not to tear down or damage confidence. And when you do show up, do your best to be truly “present,” not distracted or off in your own distant world. Kids will know when you’re paying attention.
  4. Model good behavior and caring, respectful relationships. Kids will model what they observe in the most important relationships in their life – those with their parents. Their behavior, manners, work ethic, diligence, emotional regulation and respect for others likely will pattern after their parents’. If they see their parents treating each other and other family members poorly or disrespectfully, they likely will display aspects of that behavior themselves within the family and with others.
  5. Live a disciplined life. As psychiatrist and well-known author Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, undisciplined parents breed undisciplined children who carry bad habits and behaviors learned in childhood into adulthood. These problems stemming from a lack of discipline that are hard-wired during childhood often are extremely challenging to break and can dog individuals for a lifetime, causing dysfunction that can damage individuals’ self-functioning and ruin relationships. Undisciplined, out-of-control parents usually live chaotic lives in unstructured environments that rarely produce disciplined children.

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