Friday, February 22, 2013

My Life as a StepGILF

As many of my friends, family and readers know, I made the decision somewhere along the way to bypass motherhood. A large piece of that resolution stems from a childhood and young adult years spent as the caretaker of several key people in my life: parents, maternal grandparents, younger sister and to a more brief degree, oldest niece. There is a certain amount of resentment involved in being the forced custodian of adults who really should have been looking after me and my sibling, but we all have our juvenile crosses to bear and that was one of mine. Nevertheless, having to think strategically about the safety and security of others, before I was really ready for the job, left an aversion to the responsibility that comes with shepherding a child from womb to world.

There are certainly other factors that influenced the resolve: a sustained and deep-seated fear of the birthing process (that Miracle of Life video in my high school health class was no help at all), the selection of romantic partners during prime childbearing years who lacked the maturity to function as successful co-parents, and yes, I will admit it, the recognition of selfishness on a grand scale. It took me 29 years to finish my formal education, 30 to figure out what I had to do to earn my bread, 32 to actually start developing said career and nearly 34 years to find a man I could trust to do right by me and any child we might create. That’s a late start certainly, but compounding the ticking of the biological clock is a realized preference for my career and personal life over the 24/7 demands of motherhood.

I am a happy and devoted aunt to the children in my circle. My oldest niece and I share happy memories of sleepovers, trips to McDonald’s and many other activities throughout the years. She has also experienced the shame of enduring my tears of pride as she competed in beauty pageants, karate tournaments and school plays. First question when Aunt Becky is invited to an event: “Is she going to cry again?”

But I digress. Two paragraphs ago, and sprinkled throughout other written posts, are mentions of a special man with whom I entered into a committed relationship nearly 10 months ago. In March we will begin the process of looking for a new apartment – the first home we will share together. In ways too numerous to detail here, JC is the one. A lifetime pattern of self-doubt and second guessing has been completely upended by this alliance. As sure as I know the sun will keep rising, Taylor Swift can’t sing live and the U.S. Congress will leverage its inertia to run the nation into the ground, I know that my future lies with this man. How do I know? I just do. I don’t need to wonder – and that’s freaking refreshing.

Of many elements from our growing love and companionship to treasure, one in particular stands out today. Planning a life with JC involves immersing myself in the worlds of the two other most important people in his existence: his 22 year-old daughter and three year-old granddaughter. That’s right. For all intents and purposes, I am a stepmother and stepgrandmother.

JC’s daughter is a grown adult with a full and demanding life. She also has a mother with whom she enjoys a very close relationship. Our association thus far has been quite warm and open, and in time I hope that she’ll be able to look upon me as a trusted friend/older sister figure.

Ah but the little adorable granddaughter! I met her early last summer and I am pleased to report that it was mutual love at first sight. Precocious, loving and impossibly cute, I was responding to calls of “Grandma Becka!” before the first weekend of our acquaintance was out. I might also add she came up with that moniker of her own accord.

At first I reveled in the perverse delight of walking down the street, a 34 year-old white woman holding the hand of a small mixed-race darling who unironically addressed me as “Grandma.” But as the relationship grew, I found the role of granny to be rather a natural fit. I skipped right over the less glamorous aspects of parenthood (rule setter, disciplinarian, moral role model) to the fabulous privileges of grandparentdom. I never say “no” when I can possibly say “yes.” I coddle, spoil and indulge with the best of them. I think “Grandma Becka” is the role I was born to play.

As JC and I plan an out-of-state road trip this weekend to visit the girls, it occurs to me that circumstances have required me to walk unconventional and circuitous routes where interpersonal relationships are concerned. I have been the parent where I should have been allowed to be the dependent. I have been the mother where I might have preferred to be the sister (through no fault of my sibling). I’ve been the divorcee where I would have much rather remained the devoted wife. But this time idiosyncratic situations have yielded wonderful results. Though I never asked for or planned it, I am now a de facto stepmother and grandmother…and I’m overjoyed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Valentine's Day KISS Principle

It's 11:00 am on the morning of Valentine's Day 2013. Thus far I have suffered a nocturnal bite to the nose from my partner JC (an odd manifestation of some interesting dream) and have had bloodwork done to verify the proper function of my kidneys. Hardly the stuff of traditional romance, yet I've never felt happier or more loved than I do this Thursday.

The story of my life so far has taken some unbelievable and heartbreaking turns, yet this is the year I finally feel as though I'm coming into my own. No longer a confused stranger struggling to integrate my consciousness with the maps and scripts presented in girlhood, I reflect a confidence and security that I long believed impossible. Some of this evolution can be attributed to hard, painful personal and professional choices that brought me to the brink of what I thought I could survive. Other parts are owing to years of intensive psychotherapy with a trusted professional. The rest is self-reflection and the clarity of perspective that comes from silencing old, destructive voices. The dependable love of a man who really sees me and still likes the view certainly doesn't hurt.

St. Valentine's Day, from the traditional perspective of American consumerism, is a manufactured event with a definite marketing message: to love means to spend. It is only by lavishing trinkets, candies and expensive dinners in crowded restaurants upon our nearest and dearest that we can show the appreciation we are too busy or lazy to express the other 364 days of the year. But this year feels different and it's not just internally. Friends, colleagues and unknowns alike appear to be, for lack of a batter word, more grateful. Are the root causes grand and general, a sort of collective relief that we're all still here despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the paralyzed toxicity of the nation's governing processes and a post-9/11 awareness that our lives are no longer insulated from what happens "over there?" In an era of so many big, complex challenges that start from the moment we open our eyes each morning, is it that much easier to notice and appreciate the small things?

Whatever the dynamics, I've experienced no small amount of satisfaction today reading open expressions of love from corners often regarded as cynical and jaded. It's like an unwritten resolution was passed that, at least for today dammit, we're going to experience joy in the connections, labor and hobbies that make struggling tolerable. There's something poetic in that.

My contribution is to suspend examining the titular U.S. Navel of my personal blog and keep it simple. I love my life as it is today. I love my career and the direction in which it's traveling. I love my partner, the one who nourishes my body, mind and soul. I adore the friendships I have built and the reciprocal delights of those strong bonds. I cherish my family, diverse, untraditional and thus, completely perfect. There will be plenty of time for overthinking and strategizing tomorrow and the days to come. Today is about gratitude for where I am and what I experience - in this moment.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Migraine Season

This is the kind of winter that migraine sufferers dread. Take last week for example. Here in Chicago the temperature touched 61 degrees on Tuesday, the warmth punctuated by springlike showers. By Thursday morning, the mercury stopped climbing at 10 degrees with brutal winds and icy road conditions.

Remember when the El Nino weather pattern was the subject of much news coverage back in 1997 and 1998? Well as a native Chicagoan, I never saw what the fuss was about. It's El Nino here all year-round. Many times we cycle the four seasons all in the same Windy City day. As a child and young adult, the varying climate was either a fun adventure or a wardrobe challenge, but as I enter my mid-30s, in peak mental condition, but somewhat hobbled physically, the volatile elements have a similar effect on my temperament.

Back in November of 2012, on Election Day to be precise, I fractured my coccyx and sacrum in a bad judgment call involving L'il Red, a yellow light and an SUV. As an avid gym goer and infamous pain intolerant, the long recovery of this injury, aggravated by the bipolar nature of a Chicago winter, has left me rather short on patience - with myself and others. Midsummer last year I was also diagnosed with a debilitating cluster migraine condition that has been stubbornly difficult to regulate. The worst fate for a control freak is the body's capricious tendency to dive into a tailspin of throbbing pain and nausea that can endure for days. In the worst moments of these episodes, I cannot talk or write. The ability to communicate, an attribute I value so highly, drowns in suicidal levels of painful inertia. To look at my scientific, solutions-oriented partner in the eyes and see a helplessness I can't comfort may be the cruelest turn of all.

As I sit here typing these words, it's a manageable 32 degrees outside but freezing rain has been dropping in sheets since the middle of the night. I know this because I awoke with a dull pressure ache in my sinuses when the downpour began. My physician, the eminently patient and kind Dr. Gong, has theorized that the parts of my brain which trigger a migraine don't seem to know how or when to shut themselves off. This could explain why the headaches can last for days and are immune to all the usual remedies. My brain just ignores what's good for it. Wouldn't be the first time.

Throughout two years of recovery and convalescence, which began in early 2011 when I said goodbye to my ex-husband and our broken marriage, I was warned about the mind-body continuum. While I was in survival mode, on constant high alert, the ability to function without food, sleep or emotional balance was a phenomenon to be taken for granted. It was only paradoxically as I began to relax and morph into the new, less self-defeating person I am on the inside that the body started to give way: a battle with cervical cancer, the cluster migraines, alopecia, insomnia. If my psyche is in large degree healed, why can't my body get with the program? It seems it feels the need to follow the arc of this typical Chicago winter: up, down, all-around and completely outside my jurisdiction.