Coffee, Angels, & Hope

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Two Cups is my metaphor for life. One cup overflows with gratitude for all the blessings I’ve come upon as I’ve walked the path only I could walk—infinite, really. The other cup, only filled partway right now, are heartaches I’ve collected along my almost fifty years of living in this crazy world. It feels like a healthy balance to have so much goodness and a few hardships too. Perfectly imperfect. It’s kept me shooting for the stars while remaining grounded in real life too.

I’m extra grateful this year as I’m still here, sitting on my couch with a book about Christmas, Paris, love, and the heartache of loss. My cat is curled next to me whistling in her sleep, the fire crackles below four Christmas stockings my grandmother made for me and my three girls. The darkening sky above the bay is a soft grey, one that whispers words of serenity and peace.

This summer while on a vacation in Peru, my girls and I were in an accident where I was directly hit by a boat while we were motoring back to our cabin in the middle of the Amazon at night. I blacked out but heard the sound of a fishing boat hitting ours and then me. It took another two to four days before I realized I had bruises on my arm, dislocated ribs, and a head injury that has a 60-90 percent mortality rate. After the accident, my girls and I were taken by a different boat to the third-world-strip-mall, urgent care to have my lip sewn back together. Novocain was injected, but I wasn’t numb to the needle and thread pulled in and out of my gums in a hallway surrounded by the soundtrack of devastation. Nine stitches, mostly on the inside, answered my prayer that it would be “better than I think it will be.”

The next morning I drank more coffee than I usually do because I had a Seattle-sized tumbler with a lid for my swollen lip covered in a bandage. And, perhaps, I was in shock and kept sipping, reliving the events of the previous night. “What the hell? It’s a family vacation!” What was happening inside my head was the bleeding veins between my skull and brain on my left side were being constricted by the extra caffeine. It only took a half hour for the bleeding to stop before my body encapsulated the blood like a blood blister and pushed my brain over just enough to give me a freight-train headache through the center of my being. This headache was enough to get us out of the jungle and back to civilization where there is migraine medicine, a real hospital, and people who could help me and my three kids get out of the country. We got our two weeks worth of clothes and souvenirs packed and back on the long, narrow boat for the 45 minute ride to the tiny airport and then to Cuzco at 12,000 feet where we spent the afternoon waiting for our flight to Lima. It just so happens that altitude is also a blood vessel constrictor. Lucky for me.

But for the Starbucks mug I got in Lima at the beginning of the trip, drinking too much coffee, and having lunch at 12,000 feet, I might not be here this Christmas. I would have stayed for another day and a half in the humid jungle where blood vessels remain in full dilation. I would have thought my headache was a regular migraine with the added benefit of being hit in the mouth and this would have caused me to continue to bleed until it was too late. I may have been on the airplane with my three kids heading back the next day. I may have had to have surgery in Peru to relieve the pressure of two days of bleeding inside my skull. If I would have made it through, only 30 percent make a full recovery after surgery when bleeding is undetected for too long. This is what makes subdural hematomas the most severe of head injuries—you don’t know it’s serious until it’s almost too late.

Angels were in the Amazon. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. The first being, our group of eleven didn’t get thrown into the murky water where caiman (alligator family) and other terrifying creatures live. There were five kids on board… Just the trauma of being thrown into that water in the dark… I believe my angels were my four grandparents I’ve lost in the last handful of years – Elwyn and Shirley, and Alice and John. I was protected in the Amazon until we were able to get all the way back to Seattle where I realized I might have a severe concussion. Yep, and then some. And, I was protected at home when I sent a prayer request because the hematomas got bigger and surgery was a real possibility. Hundreds of Facebook friends responded. I was sent to a different doctor at the last minute and he said we would wait despite the CT scan. After two weeks of excruciating headaches, they stopped completely with the prayer, thoughts, and love that were sent my way—the very next day. Gone.

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Four months later, I’m doing so much better. Christmas is busy always, but it’s seemed like a little extra overload this year. Cookies didn’t get baked and not enough holiday movies watched from the couch all together. We had to get two Christmas trees because the first one was picked out in haste during a homework break at dusk. It was too small, “just not right.” Not to mention two sets of cards because there was a typo on the first set. Once again, life moving too fast.

The moments though… We had the best time shopping for each other in Seattle. We saw Annie: The Musical at the 5thAvenue Theater. We watched a couple movies and got to sleep in a few days. My family, aunts, uncles, and cousins came over for Christmas Eve. It was magical. Our morning was lovely too – matching pajamas, Christmas music, the fire flickering, twinkling lights on the tree and mantel, presents opened, and pumpkin pie and homemade whipping cream for breakfast. Around noon I helped my girls put all their things in Ellie’s car and off they went to celebrate the holidays with their dad and his family.

The house is peacefully silent now. I’m still in my pajamas and the filtered sun won’t shine again until tomorrow. It’s not picture-perfect, but it’s been a beautiful day. I’m surrounded by love and grace. My girls gave me the softest blanket I’ve ever touched (ever), photographs of my girls with Santa through the years sit on the table behind the couch, a nativity scene on the piano, a “perfect” (second) Christmas tree with ornaments I’ve collected since I was young, art, flowers, and even my cat and dog, surround me as a reflect on where I’ve been, how blessed I am to get to live this life of mine, and what’s ahead in the new year.

We all have moments of absolute magic and moments of deep grief for what was lost or what will never come to be. Me, too. I’ve decided I’m going to live for the magic, the connections to others whether minutes or a lifetime, and, most importantly, for the love I can give to those in my circle and their love given right back.

This is life. It’s two cups at the same time. Sometimes one cup is overflowing like a Starbucks cup from Peru. It’s easy to keep refilling until you have to get out of the jungle—right now. The cups are not always marked clearly. The cup of heartache just might turn into the cup that saves you, but patience is required. It’s happened over and over for me.

The only thing I need to remember is to accept whatever comes, have faith I will be okay no matter what, and hold onto the hope that is infused in both cups. I’ve learned that everything in this beautiful, messy life is meant for me. I get to decide the narrative, even when it’s as crazy as a rogue fishing boat hitting me in the middle of Peru on our family vacation.

There is always, always something to be thankful for… Today, I am thankful for every single thing because I almost lost this life. This Christmas I was given perspective and that grace surrounds me like the softest blanket I’ve ever been wrapped in.

May you also know for sure that no matter what, life is so, so good. Love and grace are protecting you too. xo

Please Hold On To Me: Introduction

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Divorce is the tragedy that sits far too close, like a high bank waterfront house at the edge of a cliff. We can see what could happen with enough weather, but turn our heads to enjoy the exquisite view instead.

“The divorce rate is still fifty percent, yet I can’t think of one couple we know who looks to be at risk,” I said to my husband a year before I found out it was us, that we were the ones about to collapse under the weight of a beautiful life and smash into the rocks below. We never think the list of terrible things that happen to other people could actually happen to us. Just in case though, it’s sensible to properly insure ourselves against the most common things like losing a job without prospects for a new one, or our health, safety, or home. It’s not easy to live with the uncertainty of real life, but we do our best to insulate ourselves and our families by doing things like going to college, exercising and eating well, we keep batteries in the smoke detectors, and teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street, to not put random things in one’s mouth.

It feels like divorce is different, that we have less control in one of the most common and devastating life-altering events, after all it takes two willing hearts to hold a marriage together. You could follow all the rules, do everything in your power and your spouse could decide they want something different. What? And, of course, we could have a change of heart too. It’s much better for our peace of mind to not look too closely. And if there are children, the heart-wrenching threat of losing your marriage is compounded by what we know or learned about what happens to kids when a family splits apart.

For me, because I experienced my parent’s divorce and subsequent remarriages, I learned what divorce was before I learned to count, and in my mind divorce meant death — that’s what my nervous system told me. It meant the end of a happy childhood and my three kids were right in the middle of theirs at the ages of six, nine, and eleven.

Although I couldn’t prevent the divorce, I could look back to understand what happened, what I could have done differently, and take responsibility for my life and my kids’ childhoods going forward. I could sift through what happened to my original family in order to understand how to get my kids back on course. Most importantly, get my kids back to being kids, allowing them to grow and flourish just as they would have if their mom and dad stayed together.

My most vital questions were, “Will divorce ruin my kids’ childhood, thus setting them up for a life less than their potential?” And, “Is there anything I can do to make sure they are protected from the statistics that follow kids who grow up in divorced families?”

Based on my own childhood growing up with my dad through three divorces and a funeral, things looked bleak. I could see the ribbons of smoke and ashes drifting and following them throughout their most formative years. In fact, my experiences growing up and the idea that my girls’ lives would be turned upside down forever caused me PTSD during and after my husband and I ended our marriage.

For me, learning more is always the first step in understanding myself and others, including why people do the things they do and act in the ways they act. Books have always been where I’ve found the answers to my most heartfelt questions and so, I set out to understand the threats to my children, assimilating the lessons I learned growing up, and what I can do to make the impact of our family transition the least traumatic for my kids as I could.

 

This story begins with the generational times and its effects on how we live and what we expect from a good life. My parents grew up in an idyllic part of our history where the dad went to work, mom stayed home, and the kids were either in school or playing outside in the freshly mowed grass, wandering through the trees watching butterflies land on wildflowers. Things were peaceful until the 1960s, when a simple life turned tumultuous. Divorce was just one social change that would forever alter the nuclear family. The big change came in 1969, when the Divorce Reform Act was passed, allowing couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years (or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce.) A marriage could be ended if it was irretrievably broken, without either partner having to prove fault.

When Ronald Reagan signed the first No Fault Divorce Law for the State of California in September of that year, with most states following in the next handful of years, it was meant to help struggling couples and families in traumatic circumstances. But, it proved to be the last barrier in the dam holding back the social changes of the past decade. A couple no longer needed proof of a broken marriage, such as infidelity, addiction, mental health issues, or violence, and so moving on to someone new may have seemed easier than saying “I do” in the first place.

It didn’t take long to understand you can only see the top of the proverbial iceberg from the surface of the ocean. Instincts come from the depths of our origins to fight to stay in the tribe or fight against our enemy, even if they used to be a part of you. Divorce is difficult, stressful, and traumatic and that is especially true for children. The Seventies and Eighties became known as the Age of Divorce where over a million kids a year found themselves living in two homes in the best case scenario. Maybe they moved to new neighborhood, had their own keys because mom was now working long hours. Maybe they hardly saw their dads. Many of the statistics from the Seventies and Eighties are still true today, yet we do know more based on research and, sadly, experience.

Even though the divorce rate has declined slightly since the mid-Nineties, still over a million kids a year are expelled from their lives with two parents in the same home, to a life that looks vastly different. Three quarters of kids from divorced families live with their mother and almost a third are living below the poverty line. In the New York Times Bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein, Julie Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee documented the lives of 131 children and adolescents from sixty families living in Marin County, California whose parents separated or divorced in 1971. It is a landmark study that followed children in divorcing families, both parents, as well as a comparison group of twenty-seven families in the same middle to upper-middle socioeconomic status, kids from the same neighborhoods and schools. The children selected for the study had to be developmentally on track, never having been referred for emotional or developmental problems. These kids and families were the same as you and me.

Each child, 59 mothers, and 47 fathers were extensively studied the initial six weeks, and then at eighteen months, five years, and ten years post separation. A subset were interviewed after fifteen years and then a formal follow-up of forty-eight of the original 60 families was completed after twenty-five years.

Although once silent, these children of divorce are now adults, some in relationships, single, married, divorced, and some with families of their own and can now give a voice to the effects of what many didn’t want to believe. And that is, divorce is emotionally traumatic for children and adolescents and the stress, uncertainty, and damage doesn’t necessarily end when the financial and parenting plans are signed, when most adults feel initially freed from the ugliness of the process.

Some, like many in the study, would say that is where the trauma begins and a carefree childhood ends. Like the shot of a gun, chronic, unpredictable stress starts when one parent moves out of the family home and then it continues while the family is plunged into grief for what could have been, regardless of who initiated the ending. Even if life gets back to peaceful, the stress starts again when new relationships begin, when parents get remarried, when stepsiblings are introduced, when those marriages fail (because they are more likely to,) and the single parent starts the healing process once again. Half of American children will witness their parents divorce and half of those will also witness a parent’s second marriage end. The divorce rate for first marriages is closer to forty percent, second marriages is sixty percent, and third marriages have a seventy-three percent chance of failure.

The complexities of life do not get easier in a new marriage. It becomes much more difficult, especially when children are involved and the natural alignment of life is thrown into disarray. For most kids in the study, now adults, life was forever altered when their family split apart. The ramifications coming to full fruition in their adult lives, when they have difficulties in their own relationships whether a partner they truly love never materialized, they were petrified their marriage would fail, or it did fail and they are picking up the pieces, trying their best to hold their children above the raging rivers of life not going as planned.

As a kid, divorce is a Before and After, much like when Pearl Harbor was bombed or John F. Kennedy assassinated for our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, or when the Twin Towers collapsed on that crystal blue Tuesday morning in New York City. For me, it wasn’t my parent’s “Divorce” that was so terrible, it was the severing of my connection to my mom when she moved away, and then the slow poisoning of my attachment to my dad as he put life back together three more times.

Looking back on my childhood, it was like falling out of the nest over and over, with a lack of protection that cannot be seen, only felt by a child without words beyond their basic needs. For so many of my generation, divorce represents isolation, emptiness, and overwhelming grief throughout childhood and beyond for what was forever lost: a heart connection to one or both parents. Yet, as a child you don’t have the awareness of your own emotions so you make modifications to adapt to your surroundings, your patterns of how to love and be loved get solidified as the foundations of who you are setting you up for relationship problems later in life.

Like so many whose childhood has a before and after, the seeds of heartache were planted deep in the underground of my psyche. One of those seeds is that children who go through divorce are more likely to have relationship difficulties and to get divorced, despite it being the one thing they swear they will never do. How does this happen? There isn’t a statistic I wanted less to do with than this one, and in fact, I thought I had outrun that one in my thirteen year marriage that had all the right ingredients for success. The nuances of our relationship patterns are buried deep and no one wants to get the shovel out unless that’s the only option. I certainly didn’t.

But, you can’t will the seed of sunflower to grow tall and strong with exquisite petals, just as you can’t will the roots of a dandelion to wither and die without digging into the depths of the soil and remove it from the base. We can’t fix a problem unless we know it exists. Awareness is the first step and that is the basis of this book by example of my childhood growing up in the Age of Divorce. My experiences laid the foundation for me to know what to do for my girls when our life took a turn — despite all instincts that go along with being plunged into your worst nightmare.

When parents decide to part ways, it can be a single emotional trauma within a childhood or it can be the beginning of a cascade of adverse childhood experiences that cause lifelong emotional and physical consequences.

It’s about chronic emotional stress caused by the threat of a parent not being as available as they have been in the past either physically or emotionally — and both cause a child distress in a range of severity depending on the age of the child, temperament and other factors that can be out of the control of parents. For example, when a non-custodial parent (usually the dad) remarries their visitations drop in half the first year. Their kids from the failed marriage slowly lose their connection physically and emotionally to their father. The most devastating statistic of divorce is that twenty-eight percent of children in our country are being raised without their father in their life at all — they lost a parent to divorce whether the parents were married or not.

In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study called The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that looked at 17,421 child and adolescent histories of middle-aged, successful adults enrolled in Kaiser-Permanente for their healthcare. In this landmark study, The Center of Disease Control and Prevention compared the emotional childhood experiences of this mostly white, almost three-quarters college educated group to their later adult health records and found that nearly two-thirds had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) or chronic, unpredictable, and traumatic period of stress. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse. The researchers identified ten areas of childhood chronic stress and trauma that point to family dysfunction and proved to be overwhelmingly correlated with adult disease.

The study found that children who are exposed to chaos, uncertainty, chronic stress, violence, loss, emotional/physical neglect, and abuse have significant increases in the biggest disease states as adults such as cardiovascular disease, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancer, stroke, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicide. The reason is chronic, unpredictable toxic stress rewires the brain and nervous system to be more susceptible to all stress for a lifetime and stress is deadly.

When you have children, more is required of you. When you have children and you get divorced, an extraordinary amount is required. The stress for everyone in the family is overwhelming, instincts and fears rule behavior for the adults and their kids. Our world narrows to what is needed for surviving the day, the past and future nonexistent. Kids will reach out in tears, anger, needs for attention or behavior problems, and then they will shut down all feelings to survive the heartache of losing a parent. This is what overwhelming stress and trauma looks like for a child.

It is imperative for your child’s long-term health to limit that stress as much as possible, so they can go back to being a kid, worrying about where they will sit at lunch, games to play at recess, who their best friends are from year to year, working hard to make the basketball team, and not, what’s going to happen to their family or if and when they will see their parent again.

Divorce can be a minor emotional trauma in the lives of our children or it can be the beginning of a spiral of adverse childhood experiences with lifelong ramifications. Yes, even well-meaning, educated parents and families can harm their children — by having limited involvement in their child’s lives, emotionally harming their child’s other parent, or poisoning their child against the other parent — it happens every day, even when we know better.

There is nothing more important to a kid or teen than to be inextricably connected to the adults in their lives. Losing a secure emotional connection to an adult to whom a child has attached to causes real trauma. Sometimes this cannot be helped but to the degree that it can be, as is the case for so many couples going through a divorce, it is a parent’s absolute responsibility to foster the continuous loving connection first for the child to themselves and then to the other parent, even if it’s only in the kid’s mind and heart by speaking about the other parent with compassion.

Parents are supposed to hold the safety ropes, be the child’s witness through all their trials and tribulations, allow them to develop confidence to step out into the world, reflect the essence of their child. Kids are supposed to be the explorers, learning how things work, trusting the people in their lives will be there for them, eventually becoming a person who knows what it feels like to be loved so deeply they can feel their soul and in turn, they learn how to love themselves and others. This is what it means to grow a healthy, happy child into an adult who will attract kindness, compassion, understanding, success, and love. A child who is held onto by both parents, even in stressful times, will not become a negative statistic or repeat family traumas.

Despite our intentions, divorce cuts these healthy roots unless parents are purposeful in cultivating forgiveness and compassion for each other in marriage and in divorce. Kids can become defended and self-sufficient beyond their true self. Their emotional growth can be stunted and they become hardened to hurt much like an alpine tree weathered from winds and freezing temperatures. A child cannot grow as they are supposed to grow if they are continuously going through the storms of emotional trauma.

There are many ways children can lose their heart connection or secure attachment with their parents over the course of childhood, but divorce detonates the explosives setting the avalanche in motion, even if all other conditions are optimal. Divorce makes being a parent harder, much harder because you can no longer let the natural order of things carry your children down the trail, with the dad leading and the mom following, now you have to forge a new path to get them back to solid ground. And, although not intuitive, parents have to do this together, despite their feelings about each other. Holding on to your children through divorce is a hero’s journey that requires courage, fortitude, and forgiveness of yourself and your child’s other parent, so that they can become who they were meant to become.

What I didn’t know when my marriage unraveled is that divorce doesn’t ruin kids or childhoods, it’s the loss of a child’s attachment relationship with their parents. This means that even if your marriage cannot survive, your children can continue to thrive in a new family structure and will go on to become their best selves with the added character skills of authenticity, empathy, and resilience among others. This will require more understanding, communication, kindness, support, emotional maturity, compassion than probably occurred in the best of times in the marriage.

Family is the ecosystem in which children grow. Happy, healthy parents parent happy, healthy children and it goes the other way as well. You cannot have peaceful, content children who show up to learn at school, make and keep friendships, grow in their talents and gifts if one parent thrives and the other withers, it’s not possible. And it’s also not possible for a child to thrive without both parents in their lives on a regular basis. There will be consequences for everyone, including the parents — both of them. Growing up in a happy home (or homes as is the case post-divorce) protects children from mental, physical, educational, and social problems. We are forever connected by our beautiful children. Kindness, compassion and understanding matter.

As Jacquelyn Kennedy has been quoted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” We have a choice: hold on to our kids and get them safely through a stressful time for the whole family together or allow sadness, grief, anger, guilt, blame, or even entitlement to a better life with a new partner to arrest the healthy development of our kids in body, mind and spirit. This is my story of choosing my kids based on what I learned from losing my parents to divorce.

Maya Angelou said it best when she said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

 

 

 

Divorce and Childhood Trauma

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When we think of childhood trauma, we think of poor neighborhoods, inner cities, desolate rural areas, or other economically disadvantaged countries. Trauma sounds extremist. But, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not those other people, they were us. Researchers looked at 17,421 middle-aged adults with jobs and good healthcare living in California; seventy-four percent were college educated.

Divorce can and does set the stage for children and adolescents to experience chronic, unpredictable toxic stress, otherwise known as childhood trauma. And, divorce happens every day, it is ubiquitous it sometimes seems. It can be the loophole kids fall through even when they have good, healthy, loving, responsible parents. The stress caused by a family splitting can last a short time and cause one adverse childhood experience or it can set the stage for a cascade of negative experiences that change a child’s ability to deal with stress for a lifetime, setting them up for both immediate learning and psycho-social consequences, as well as chronic physical and emotional health conditions later in life.

It’s losing a parent in body, mind, and/or spirit. It’s being split between loyalties to one parent against the other, essentially handicapping their mind, psyche, and emotions. It’s trying to carry on as you always have when the world as you’ve known it collapses and everyone says, “They will be fine. Kids are resilient.” It can come from the parent introducing a new significant other and just moving on like nothing has happened. It can come from one or both parents being devastated and just barely making it through the day.

The good news is it’s not divorce, per se, that can cause real harm to our kids; it’s losing their secure attachment to one or both parents that can cause the real damage. The single greatest thing you can do for your kids if you are getting a divorce is to keep them connected to you (stay close even if you are the one to move) and to help them stay connected to their other parent too. This means fostering the attachment to the other parent. Yes, the one who is hurting you more than you thought possible or you are so angry at that you can’t look in their general direction.

The second most important thing you can do for your kids is to be kind, supportive, and compassionate to their other parent. Healthy, happy parents parent healthy, happy kids. The more turmoil, stress, hardship you cause for the other parent, the more of all of that you will cause your child. This is the case even if it looks as though your child is happy when they are with you. They will be their best self for a while, until the threat of you leaving subsides. Helping them deal with their sadness, anger, locked down emotions will bring the whole family out of the abyss and back into the sunshine of life. This is good for your kids and consequently is good for you too.

“Together, the two discoveries – the epidemiology of the ACE Study and the brain research — reveal a story too compelling to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-ellen-stevens/the-adverse-childhood-exp_7_b_1944199.html

What’s on Your Cape?

What are your superpowers? What an absolutely perfect question in every situation. And, our superpowers come from our trials and tribulations, the situations we’ve encountered where we had to pull from that place in the deepest cauldrons of who we are. Instead of framing these experiences as our broken places, we can turn them around to be where we were our most heroic. Of course… xo

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I had a wonderful conversation with my friend the other day. She had engaged in a playful exchange with a new friend and was asked, “Do you have any powers?” It was a wonderful question! What a cool way to find out about a person. Rather than the usual laundry list that doesn’t usually divulge who we really are, like where do you work, or what do you like to do? This was a non-threatening way to decide how much to reveal (or not to reveal) about her authentic self.

After my friend responded to the question, she asked her new friend, “What’s on Your Cape?  As she and I continued our conversation, before hanging up, she asked me the same question. I told her I knew what many of my super-powers were and that I would draw her a picture and send it to her the next morning.

Before I went to sleep…

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“This story changes everything…” ~Oprah

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“This story is so important to me and our culture. It has changed all the philanthropic efforts I’m involved in… This story is the story of our time… Listen to me!” ~Oprah

The research on adverse childhood experiences is what she is referring to. Children who are exposed to chaos, uncertainty, chronic stress, violence, loss, emotional/physical neglect, and abuse have significant increases in the biggest disease states as adults, including anxiety, depression, and suicide.The reason is chronic, unpredictable toxic stress rewires the brain to be more susceptible to all stress for a lifetime and stress is deadly. This research changes the question we ask about kids. It changes from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened?” Until we fix the “hole in the souls” of our young people, where the wounds started, we will be ineffective in all efforts to help that child — body, mind, and spirit.

The overarching thesis of my memoir is that divorce can be a minor emotional trauma in the lives of our children or it can be the beginning of a spiral of adverse childhood experiences with lifelong ramifications. Yes, even well-meaning, educated, loving parents and families can harm their children. There is nothing more important to a child than to be inextricably connected to the adults in their lives. Losing a secure emotional connection to an adult to whom a child has attached to causes real trauma. Sometimes this cannot be helped but to the degree that it can be, as is the case for so many divorces, it is a parent’s absolute responsibility to foster the continuous loving connection to the child’s other parent.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 10) “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”

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I have gone way beyond what they wanted to know. Since their dad left, I hold nothing back. I’ve promised them to answer their questions as truthfully (and age appropriately) as I can. This was never so poignant as to when, after a hectic day and barely getting my girls into bed, Ryanne asked the question I’d been avoiding, “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?” It’s only been a month after Santa delivered presents that filled their stockings, five months after their dad moved out. Gut punch!

I never ever wanted to have this conversation with my kids—no one does. I never believed there was a chance this would happen—until it did. I used to tell them to give grace to kids whose families were in transition. We talked about how hard that was for those friends and that maybe that hardness is a reason they could have said or done things that were out of character. We were supposed to be the ones offering compassion and understanding. Never did any of us think it could happen in our family.

I called Kellie into Ryanne and Alex’s room. We all piled on Alex’s white, twin bed like getting into a magic sleigh in another world. “Ryanne asked me a question and I’ve told you that I will always answer you the best I can with what I know to be true. She asked me if your dad and I are getting divorced.” I pause to let us all take in that ugly word. I try to take a deep breath, but my lungs only go halfway. It’s all I can do to look at my three precious daughters without falling into the deep crevasse I’ve spent my life climbing out of.

Here we go… the nightmare has come true. Three pairs of big eyes implore me to tell them this is not what is happening to our family, that their dad will be back when he’s feeling more like himself, that life will go back to soccer games and birthday parties and weekends at our vacation house on the Peninsula. But, I can’t do that. I have to tell them the truth. Once again, I’m the one standing in the room delivering the devastating news. This makes me so, so sad and enraged simultaneously.

I pause like I’m looking over the cliff I’m about to jump off of into frigid waters below. “The answer is yes, we are getting a divorce.” I whisper the nonsensical words strung together referring to my marriage with their father. I can feel my whole body contract awaiting the fallout of such awful news. For every action there is a reaction and, unlike my five-year-old self who couldn’t take it in, my girls buckle from this news. Tears well and stream down their cheeks. We are in a pile on the baby blue, flowered duvet, all sobbing from me voicing what I thought they might have already known. They didn’t.

“You said you weren’t getting a divorce! You said he was just moving out for awhile,” one voice says in disbelief, desperate for this to have been only a very bad dream. Their dad has always traveled so much that it’s easy for them to forget what was happening when it’s the four of us.

I take a deep breath, try to collect myself. “I know I did, honey. I said that this summer and it was true at the time. There had been no discussions; your dad was just going to move to the condo so he could feel better. I’ve only known a handful of weeks and it was Christmas. We were going to Hawaii. I hoped it would change…”

“Why? Why can’t we go back to like it was before we lived in Sun Valley?” a sad voice says.

“I wish we could go back to the way it was. I had hoped that we could.”

“He broke his promise! All he does is work! I hate his job! He’s always gone and even when he’s home he just stays in his office,” an angry voice says.

“Yes, he did. Sometimes people break their promises even when that wasn’t their intention. He’s doing the best he can. A divorce is just the paperwork that your dad and I will take care of. This part doesn’t have anything to do with you girls. Things will look like it does right now. We live here, you’ll go to your school, you have your friends, play soccer and basketball and dance, you’ll go to you’re dad’s on weekends.” They are quiet looking down, at each other, and back at me, tears stream through lashes. “Things will be just as they are now. It’s going to be okay. We already have done the hard part. It’s only the paperwork .”

I will repeat this a hundred times before we get to the finish line of our family transition. They need to know what is coming in the future and that the past was absolutely real. This reminder helps my psyche as well. It’s one step at a time out of the darkness.

“And you know what?” I gather my resolve to stick up for the dad they love despite wanting to scratch his eyes out. “Your dad works really hard. His job pays for all of the things you get to do. His job allows us to live in this beautiful house, go on fun vacations like Hawaii, it pays for all your activities and your school. Most importantly, his job allows me to stay home with you so that I can pick you up and help you with homework and drive you to all the fun things you get to do. You don’t have to have a babysitter or go to after-school care. When I get to do those things for you, your dad is there with me. He loves you very much and this is hard for him too. It’s never what anyone wants, but it happens and you move forward.”

“I don’t want things to be different. I liked it how it was before. This…sucks!” a truthful voice says.

“You are absolutely right! Yes, THIS does suck. This right here, all of us crying on your bed in the dark because our family has changed, SUCKS! I think we need to say that as loud as we can. Ready?” Two sets of blue eyes the same color as their dad’s and one set of light brown eyes like mine look at each other, look at me. “Let’s say it together. Okay? On the count of three: One…Two…Three…THIS SUCKS!” We all scream this word I don’t let them say. It feels like balm to my soul. It is so very hard but it’s authentic and real. Finally, the storm clouds part for a moment. We all smile in spite of ourselves. They look at each other; giggle at hearing me say a “bad word.” It feels good to scream what we think about this outrageous situation. Acknowledging the truth directly, no matter how hard, feels far better than running from it, hiding from it, railing against it.

“This is not what’s supposed to happen, but it happens more than anyone would like it to. No one wants their family to live in two houses. But, families look different. We are a family still. We are a family with a mom, a dad, and three kids.”

“And a dog and a cat.”

“Yes, and a dog and a cat. That has not changed. Our family is going to look a little different than it did before. Life is just like that. Sometimes things are amazing and sometimes they are awful. You can feel angry and sad and want things to go back to the way they were, but at some point you realize you’re okay, pick yourself back up, and start again. We are okay. We are more than okay actually. We have a beautiful life here together. We will continue to have a beautiful life together.” I pull them all in for a silent family hug. I breathe in the love I have for my girls, breathe out a lifetime of heartache caused by divorce.

The conversation was terrible, but it actually wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. The anticipation of their reaction was far worse than when we faced it together, cried and laughed. It shined a light on what had been complete darkness for them. Kids know the truth whether it’s spoken or not. We may as well allow what is true and real be what binds us. And, feeling loved really is what holds families together, holds kids together. They need to know without any doubt they are absolutely loved and cherished by both their dad and me. I have the responsibility to fill in the cracks and crevices caused by their dad moving away, at least until life is back to peaceful. When they are okay, I am okay and when I am okay, they are okay. We walk out of the dark together. We are connected still—even after the D word was spoken in our home.

Divorce, Kids, and Stress

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I am writing a book about the impact of divorce on kids. When parents decide to part ways, it can be a single emotional trauma within a childhood or it can be the beginning of a cascade of adverse childhood experiences that cause lifelong emotional and physical consequences. It’s about chronic emotional stress, it’s about how a child’s brain and emotional system get wired, it’s about teaching our children how to live a purposeful, peaceful, connected life with others.

When you have children, more is required of you than ever. When you have children and you’re going through a divorce, an extraordinary amount is required. Your family now looks different than it did, but make no mistake you are one ecosystem. Happy parents parent happy kids and happy kids are parented by happy parents. It’s no longer about you. Your children need both parents. They need parents who put their own heartache aside and take the high road.

Life in this world is stressful enough for everyone. Be kind. Go out of your way to be kind to your child’s other parent. Understand that your kids need you both and they need you both healthy, happy, and successful in life.

Well-meaning, good people cause their ex-husband or wife chronic heartache. Do they know what they are doing to their children?

“In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study that probed the child and adolescent histories of 17,000 subjects, comparing their childhood experiences to their later adult health records. The results were shocking: Nearly two-thirds of individuals had encountered one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a term Felitti and Anda coined to encompass the chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events that some children face. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse.”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-last-best-cure/201508/7-ways-childhood-adversity-can-change-your-brain#_=_