Darla Carmichael’s Blogger Space

Darla Carmichael is a fellow Open Salon blogger who blogs incisively and sardonically — in only 20 or 30 minutes!! — about surviving her traumatic past here. Check out her Blogger Space below.

In my office suite with other dutiful professionals – no one seems to take the mornings seriously. Everyone sits at the computer with a hot cup of coffee, or a lukewarm diet Dr. Pepper , in my particular case, looking at Facebook, Twitter, Word with Friends or just plain ole Solitaire. But, the first thing I do, after looking at my Outlook calendar and email, is open a Word document.

I start writing. Sometimes it has to do with a conversation my husband and I had the night before or just something I was thinking about on the way to work, but there is always something. As soon as I see the end of the first page nearing, I wrap things up, trying to tie it in a nice bow. And, within seconds, I open my blog page and hit “new post.” I copy. I paste. I hit “publish.” After a few minutes, I go back and edit. All in all, it takes about 20-30 minutes from start to finish.

Once everything is out of my head, I am free to go about my day, writing grants, policies and other materials on topics from donor privacy to creating a health care system for South Sudan to well… just about anything. But, I love starting off the day by doing something just for me. It’s my selfish pleasure.

There is nothing really special about my office. There are no windows and not much on the walls.  I’ve got a Buddha and I have a couple family pictures  behind me as well as a pastel drawing my husband made for me. The minimal décor is green, bronzish-brown and yellow.  I have my dry erase board in front of me with all the things that are essential for this month or quarter. For the most part, it is utterly uninspiring.

While this is the place that I type up my post and publish them, it is not where I feel I write them. My husband might argue that I write them in bits with pen scribbled on my hands. But, I feel like I write them driving in my car on the way to and from work, passing the grain silos…

…wandering western characters…

…and driving the final stretch of nothingness right before my house.

I write them and craft the language, trying new openings and mulling through which part of me I’d like to share, while smoking a cigarette on the front porch with my husband, listening to music with my family in the living room, or (more often than not) taking a hot shower (with or without my husband). It is both the playful bantering and dealing with painful moments from the past and present together that push me to write thoughtfully and without censor.

I wrote my first short story in 4th grade, took my first creative writing class in 7th grade and was determined to write a book of poetry by the time I was 18. I got my bachelor’s degree in a mix of creative writing and art history. I stuck to the creative non-fiction classes in college, loving the response I would get from the class and instructor when I would read it aloud. Although I was writing, I always feel like it is a type of performance art, akin to Allen Ginsburg or Anne Waldman’s beat poetry. I found I was good at taking the worst situations in real life, and turning them around to be humorous or at least introspective without being pious.

Gradually, things in real life got worse and worse. When, I found myself in therapy at a domestic violence shelter a few years back, I was encouraged to use writing as therapy. And, for the most part, it worked. As soon as I got it on paper, I was able to push it off as something that never happened to me, but to some character that was like me.

I started writing on Open Salon in March of 2011 with a purely selfish purpose. I wanted to write a piece for Salon. It become a goal that I strove for. I was shocked and encouraged when my first post became and editor’s pick. And, then, my second one, too.  At that point, I told my husband about my blog. And, it’s been a new tool in our relationship, bringing us together and tackling some issues that were hard to initially broach in real life. It’s been great. Well, I finally got a cross-over post on Salon, but still I love the good, the bad and the ugly of the blogging community and can never stay away for long.

So, here I am, with my luke-warm diet Dr. Pepper, writing away. Thanks for visiting my blogging space!

Blogger Space is a series devoted to showcasing the places that bloggers choose to write. Wanna show off your digs? Send a photo of your space, a blurb about why you write where you do, and a link to your blog to divorcedpauline@aol.com.

Posted in Blogger Space | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Memoirs of a Single Dad Sent My Traffic Through the Roof

Last year I responded to a tweet from blogger and SEO guru Daniel Ruyter, creator of Memoirs of a Single Dad.

Daniel Ruyter aka Memoirs of a Single Dad

Daniel was offering free SEO advice to the first five bloggers who contacted him. I tweeted him back right away and several days later he e-mailed me an in-depth SEO analysis of my blog, complete with Excel spreadsheets.

He spent an hour on the phone with me, patiently and gingerly explaining why my Google Page Rank sucked. He talked about mysterious things like PRO links and back links and social bookmarking, and how I needed to futz with my on-page SEO keywords in six categories.

By the end of the conversation, I came away knowing there were things I should do, but still not knowing exactly what. This was no fault of Daniel’s, but solely due to the fact that I am an entrenched luddite who is never sure that I have properly backed up the files on my external hard drive.

What I managed to distill from his eloquent analysis was this: choose keywords that will make blog posts appear at the top of a Google search. Keywords like “divorced mom,” “divorced writer.” It would really help, he said, if I used these keywords in my post titles.

Did I heed his advice? No. I was a snob, fond of  literary titles like “Tender Green Shoots of Hope,” titles which sounded slightly poetic but gave the reader only a fuzzy sense of what the post was about. “Tender Green Shoots of Hope,” for instance, was a post about the friendship between two girls, but could just as easily have been a post about curing cancer with organic vegetables.

So my traffic stayed the same: an average of 200 page hits on any given day.

Then, in January of this year, I noticed a phrase that kept appearing on my site stats page: “dooce divorce.” I couldn’t figure out why these terms were leading to my site — until I remembered a post I had written about Mommy Bloggers in which I had referenced that almighty Mommy Blogger Dooce and used “dooce” and “divorce” as keyword tags.

When I googled “dooce divorce” I was surprised to spot my blog link high up on the page, along with links to other blogs speculating that there was trouble in Dooceland.

And everyday, for about two weeks, I noticed more and more “dooce divorce” terms in my search engine referral stats. But as far as I knew, Dooce and her husband, who goes by the blogger handle Blurb, were still together.

Until January 17th, when Dooce and Blurb announced on their respective web sites that they were, indeed, embarking on a trial separation.

On that day I noticed that my traffic increased slightly, due to the “dooce divorce” search referrals.

So I retrieved Daniel’s SEO analysis from my meticulously organized blogger space…

Pauline's Blogger's Space

…and re-read the section on putting keywords in the title, keywords that were clear indicators of what the post was about and would increase traffic to my site.

I wrote a post called Dooce Divorce. The post was about how this search engine referral had led to my site for several weeks before the rumor proved true. It was also about some other stuff, like the mostly supportive comments on Dooce and Blurb’s sites, and the ramifications of blogging non-anonymously about one’s divorce-in-progress. I wrote the piece quickly, as I wanted to be all Erin Burnett about it and get out in front of the copious commentaries on the break-up that were sure to rattle the blogosphere. On January 19th, two days after the news broke — and indeed, set the internet ablaze — I posted Dooce Divorce.

And my traffic went through the roof.

It increased over ten-fold.

It was higher than the days I had pieces running in Babble, Salon and Mamapedia.

Other sites re-posted my post or referenced it in their stories about the impact of Dooce’s separation on her mental health, her children, and her blogging empire.

Which then increased my traffic even more.

One month later, my traffic is on average four times higher than before I wrote Dooce Divorce. All kinds of Dooce-related search engine referrals — why did dooce and blurb separate? is dooce bipolar? did blurb have an affair? — lead to my site everyday.

Now a keyword-in-the-title convert, I wrote a post soon after Demi Moore’s unfortunate breakdown. I speculated on how her divorce, and her imminent 50th birthday, might have contributed to her spinning out of control. I used the keywords “Demi Moore” and “50” in the title.

The next day, I googled those keywords, just to see if my blog would appear at the top of a Google search. And I noticed, much to my surprise and tickled-pinkness, that Huffington Post had picked up the piece that I had also posted on my Open Salon blog, and ran it in their divorce section.

Several HuffPo bloggers tweeted about the Demi Moore piece and a couple days later I was invited by the editor of the Huffington Post Divorce section to blog for them.

I almost keeled over from the thrill. One of my professional bloggy dreams was to write for that section. And as anyone who has attempted to query Huffington Post Divorce can tell you, locating submissions guidelines is like searching for the lost city of Atlantis. It is nearly impossible to get published in HuffPost Divorce unless you know someone, or are invited.

My first piece on Huffington Post ran on February 11th. Using Daniel’s keyword strategy, I titled it Why I’m Glad I Gave My Ex Custody of Our Son. I suspected “custody” was a lightning-rod word, and it sure proved to be: the piece garnered over 1600 comments and was featured on the AOL home page.

If I hadn’t finally utilized Daniel’s simplest tip — using descriptive keywords in titles — my traffic would be a fraction of what it is today. My Demi Moore piece might have gotten lost in the bloggy morass. And I might not have been invited to blog for HuffPost Divorce.

So, thank you, Memoirs of a Single Dad, for helping me create the kind of traffic all bloggers hope to be stuck in.

Posted in Blogging | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

A Different Kind of Mommy Group

The main thing I noticed during the Parent Workshop at Luca’s boarding school last weekend was how respectable the parents appeared. For instance, Julia from Seattle, with her chic bob and hand-knit poncho, you just would not have expected her to utter with a resigned shrug, “Dylan held a knife to my throat. Twice.”

And Beth, the elegant blonde from Savannah with the unlined face, this was not a woman you would have imagined admitting that her son sat across from her at the kitchen island, watching porn on his laptop.

And Paola, whose husband, it was rumored, owned a lot of Spain. Who would have thought this mother would not be able to get her son to go to school for six months?

For four days, I sat in rooms with parents of the forty boys, aged ten to 14, who attend Luca’s therapeutic boarding school. We had flown in from all over the country, and in Paola’s case from out of the country, to a state that few of us would have had occasion to visit if our sons’ school hadn’t sat nestled there in a rarely-traveled canyon.

In those rooms, therapists taught us how to turn our Hearts of War into Hearts of Peace, and the benefit this could have on those around us, even ragingly non-compliant teenagers. The school psychiatrist answered questions about ADHD, why he thinks pediatric bipolar disorder is overdiagnosed, and his judicious approach to medication. Teachers explained not only the curriculum, but the accomodations they made for sensory-overloaded kids.

During the Parent Support Group, we sat in a circle and shared where we were on the continuum of raising challenging children. One mother burst into tears, confessing that she was afraid her son would never be able to come home.

One mother stated, dry-eyed, that she did not want her son to come home.

Two single mothers of only children described what it was like to have all their maternal eggs in one basket, to grieve the loss of the child who had been their “everything,” to avoid church functions and family reunions because they couldn’t bear being around families who looked the way they had dreamt theirs would.

One gray-haired father leaned back in his chair and said he didn’t give a shit what anyone thought anymore.

My own husband, Luca’s stepfather, raised the issue of parental trauma: the physical and psychological impact of years spent trying to raise children who refused to be parented.

Thirteen years ago, when Luca was a golden-haired toddler who giggled and cuddled and slept through the night, I attended a different kind of mommy group. While our children played with wooden toys and chewed on Goldfish and Cheerios, we basking-in-the-glow-of-new-motherhood moms traded stories of toilet-training, preschool applications, who was vaccinating and who wasn’t.

During one playgroup, a boy hurled a truck at Luca, barely missing his head. As I wrapped my arms around my son, I glared at the boy’s mother, who, I thought, did not demonstrate an appropriately chagrined reaction.

All manner of judgments raced through my mind. The boys’ parents were too permissive. They argued in front of their kid. Perhaps they hit each other! The boy, age three, showed no remorse for almost decapitating Luca. This was an ominous sign, a sure prediction of this boy’s future as a teenage hoodlum.

And now, what seems like eons later, I am that parent who is the recipient of Mother Blame, the societal finger-pointing at parents, but mothers especially, who clearly must have done something to mess up their kids.

Shame was the theme that bubbled up and coalesced during the Parent Support Group. Everyone seemed to have a story of being blamed for their child’s behavior problems: by their own parents, by siblings, by neighbors, by spouses.

Shame was the thread that bound us together; but seeing ourselves reflected in others let us toss off the albatross that is blame, if only for a weekend.

In the evenings, the moms congregated by the fireplace in the hotel lobby, drinking wine and exchanging “why is your kid here?” tales. Save for the fact that I was the lone middle-class parent (the dire economy apparently had leapfrogged over these folks, who, like my ex-husband, were shelling out ten grand a month to keep their boys at this school), I nestled in the comfort of being with mothers like me.

One night, I got into it with Luca. Feeling rejected by a group of boys who did not want to hang out with him, he had vehemently argued with me when I told him he could not run around the hotel unsupervised. Back in our hotel room, I finally made Luca draw a “card” for arguing, with instructions for a positive behavior replacement on the back. I left him in the room stewing while I slogged down to the lobby and collapsed onto a couch next to some other mothers.

“I listened to him beat you down for an hour,” one said.

“You should have given him that card an hour ago,” said another, directly, without a smidgen of judgment.

“I know,” I sighed. “But we were standing in front of everyone, and I guess…I don’t know, I was afraid if I gave him a card, he would make a scene.”

Cackles erupted.

“Are you kidding?” said Julia, the mom whose twelve-year-old had held a kitchen knife to her throat. “Do you think any of us in this room would have thought less of you if Luca tore up the lobby?”

And in that moment, my self-judgments — I screwed up my kid because I got divorced, work full-time, got remarried, was too lax, too reactive, too tired, too, too, too — melted away with a few sips of robust Cabernet and the metaphorical embrace of mothers who knew:

Some children cannot be raised at home.

Sending your kid to residential placement is usually a symbol of commitment, not rejection.

There are nurturing residential placements out there; research, and the aid of a qualified educational consultant, will steer parents clear of facilities that utilize harsh discipline.

At the end of the workshop, when I drove Luca up the long, winding hillside that crested to reveal several ski-lodge type dwellings that comprise his boarding school, I inventoried the events of the weekend.

One blow-up. No skirmishes with Luca and his stepdad. The fear on my 7-year-old stepson’s face when he first saw Luca at the airport subsiding, replaced by smiles and laughter. Franny hugging Luca goodbye.

“What was the workshop like for you, Luca?” I asked.

He didn’t even hesitate.

“Fun,” he nodded. “I liked it.”

So did I.

Luca and me, at the Parent Workshop

Posted in Special Needs Children | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s Blogger Space

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is a seasoned writer and creator of The Beheld, a smart, post-modern blog devoted to deconstructing beauty: its conventional notions, its impact on us, and “how our appearance affects the way we move through the world.” Check out her Blogger Space below.

I wanted a standing desk for some rather prosaic reasons: back pain, ergonomics, the news that we’re all going to die from sitting, etc. My boyfriend assembled it for me (I may be a feminist blogger, but I have exactly zero problems letting him do the “man work”), and afterward said, “You’re like those people who read early reports about smoking in the ‘50s and thought, Wait, putting this shit into your lungs can’t be good for you, and I’m going to do something about it.”

I’m self-congratulatory about my standing desk, and evangelical too. After standing for eight hours my feet may be tired and my legs may ache a tad, but I have more energy than I do after sitting for the same length of time. My back pain is gone, and I find it easier to take actual breaks; instead of “taking a break” by looking at Twitter, I take a break by sitting down, giving myself a chance to actually recharge instead of staying glued to the glowing box.

But here’s what I am loath to admit: I cannot write from my standing desk. I can blog just fine at it, sure. I can look at links, curate them, write up my two-second thoughts on, say, the share prices of Estee Lauder or the labor of modeling. Blogging and standing are compatible. Writing and standing are not. Writing requires not quick mental reflexes and immediate connections, but a willingness and ability to dive beneath. The reflexes of blogging may be the entryway to that deeper thinking, but they’re not the same thing.

When I write, I need a space of meditation that is incompatible with standing. Standing requires muscles to be at attention; the meditative space of writing requires muscles to sometimes be at attention, sometimes to be relaxed, sometimes to be in motion. It requires as much physical variety and flexibility as it does mental acrobatics.

Blogging may be mentally acrobatic as well, but it’s so immediate that there’s not really time to stretch as you must with writing. Blogging is social, the cyberequivalent of standing in the kitchen during a party–and who minds standing in such times, as long as the beer keeps flowing? Writing, for me, is not social; it’s hermit-like, even if my isolation lasts only for the 20 minutes it might take me to get to the truth of what I’m attempting to articulate. Perhaps other writer-hermits stand? I wouldn’t know. They’re reclusive for a reason.

So my blogger space is here, and I’ll happily share it. As for my writer’s space? I couldn’t show it to you if I wanted to. It’s a bucket seat on the subway, or a long walk along the river, or my seafoam green Ikea recliner that’s just comfortable enough to let me relax but not comfortable enough to allow me to sleep. It’s curled up on the couch, laptop precariously balanced on my hip; it’s at a crowded restaurant, wincing to my dinner partners and asking them to hold that thought so I can jot it down in my steno pad for a later meditation.

I’m trying to change this, for when I’m in long stretches of writing I want to feel as physically astute as I do after working at my standing desk for a spell. I’d like to find a way to harness my writing space and make it compatible with my standing desk, but for now it eludes me. Of course, two years ago the mere process of hammering out words on a daily basis eluded me: Every day, my goal was to write something, anything; today, hardly a day goes by that I’m not either writing or blogging. Writing evolves, and the process can too. At least, for the sake of my lower back, I hope it can.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano's Blogger Space

Blogger Space is a series devoted to showcasing the places bloggers in which bloggers choose to write. Wanna show off your digs? Send a photo of your space, a blurb about why you write where you do, and a link to your blog to divorcedpauline@aol.com.

Posted in Blogger Space | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

My First Piece on Huffington Post: Shameless Self-Promotion

Please allow me this bit of shameless self-promotion.

After my Demi Moore piece was picked up by the Huffington Post Divorce section, I was officially inivited to become a blogger for HuffPo Divorce. This was a thrill, since trying to elbow one’s way into that section is a little like trying to get an invite to a White House dinner.

My first piece ran on Saturday, got upwards of 1500 comments, and made it onto the AOL home page. The piece was on why I gave up custody of my son, so many of the comments were brutal, but the good news is so far, I have received no death threats!

Check it out, if you’re so inclined.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Ingrid Ricks’ Blogger Space

My Open Salon compadre Ingrid Ricks has turned the hardscrabble narrative of her childhood — poverty; an abusive Mormon stepfather; a catch-as-catch-can relationship with her salesman dad — into the fiercely inspiring memoir, Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story. She has since teamed with an English teacher at Scriber Lake High School, an alternative high school in Seattle, to teach at-risk teens how to turn their own painful memories into empowering narratives. Check out her Blogger Space below.

I’m not the most prolific blogger.

But when I post, it’s always about one of three things: Embracing life and those in it, overcoming adversity, and going after dreams.

Ok…and it’s also about my evolving journey with Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story, my recently published memoir, and the amazing doors that are opening up along the way.

After a year of being with an agent and navigating the traditional publishing world, I’m so thrilled to have chosen the self-publishing route. The control it allows is amazing. I set the price and change it as I see fit for occasional promotions or experimentation. I’ve been able to quickly make minor edits as typos have been caught, and have even been able to add epilogue info to address readers’ questions about what everyone is doing now. And it’s given me the freedom to go after opportunities I would otherwise be restricted from doing.

By far the most rewarding experience to date has been my recent author partnership with Scriber Lake High School, an alternative high school located in a suburb outside of Seattle.

When English teacher Marjie Bowker first contacted me in early December, neither of us understood what an author partnership even  meant. But we both knew we wanted to figure it out. So on a whim, we started brainstorming and Marjie was soon crafting a curriculum that focuses on Hippie Boy as a guide to help her students claim their power by sharing their own stories in a narrative format.

Our month-long curriculum kicked off January 4th. And magic has been happening ever since. These juniors and seniors, more than forty in all, have endured the kind of heartache and tragedy that most of us can’t even fathom. They’ve experienced gang life and drug overdoses, and have lost loved ones to prison, murder and suicide. Some have been shuffled from house to house without ever having a safe place to call home. Some have been battered and abused and neglected. A few have resorted to stealing food because they didn’t have enough to eat.

These students have every right to be angry and hardened. Instead, they are some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. And they are STRONG. I felt a connection with them the first day I met them. They are me when I was their age and thanks to the power of the story, we share a common understanding. Using Hippie Boy and the writing exercises Marjie crafted for them as their guide, they spent the month working to bring their own stories to life and, in the process, they have found their voice and are taking back their power. On February 1st, we hosted a celebration and all-day reading so the students could share their life scenes. Their stories were mind-blowing. And they were so charged up by the power they had found within themselves that nine of them stayed after school for nearly three hours to share their stories with a producer from our local public radio station.

We’ve hit on something powerful and have made such a connection that I’m working with these students later this spring — when we plan to publish their life stories in an eBook that will carry their powerful words out into the universe.

I’m not sure where this journey will lead. But I know that I want to keep working with at-risk teens — helping them to claim their power by finding their voice and sharing their stories. If you want to learn more about the Scriber writing program or the fundraiser now underway, click on this story by The Weekly Herald.

As for where I write, I’ve got plenty of choices. If it’s early morning, you’ll find me in my home office, scrambling to get in a few words before it’s time to get my daughters up and off to school. Later morning writing is usually done from my reserved corner spot in my husband’s two-room law office.

At the law office

And weekend mornings, like now, I write at an ice rink where my daughter plays hockey.

At the hockey rink

But my favorite place to write is at Aster Coffee Lounge.

At Aster Coffee Lounge

I order my double shot soy mocha, settle into my favorite bench table, open my  laptop, and lose myself in words. I’m there so often the staff jokes that they ought to have a table reserved for me like Hemingway once did at his favorite spot. There’s even a house copy of Hippie Boy at Aster.

Though I’ve gotten away from it for awhile, I love spotlighting people who have turned their dreams into reality. So if you’ve been on a dream journey and want to share it, please stop by my blog: www.ingridricks.com/blog and drop me a note. I hope to hear from you.

Blogger Space is a series devoted to showcasing the places bloggers choose to write. Wanna show off your digs? Send a photo of your space, a blurb about why you write where you do, and a link to your blog to divorcedpauline@aol.com.

Posted in Blogger Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Breaking Up is Weird to Do: A Guest Post by Janice Harper

Janice Harper is an anthropologist, blogger, and all-around smart cookie. I first discovered her on Open Salon, when I read her incredibly honest and insightful piece about her previous life in the 1%. Then I read her really funny Huff Po piece about her post-1% life and how buying Bob Dylan paintings kept her from despair. By this point I was completely enamored with her writing and asked her to contribute a Blogger Space piece. She said she’d rather do a guest post about her stint working for a divorce attorney, so I said fine. If you don’t know her work, you should. Visit her at Huffington Post, her chocolate blog, and her personal web site.

Shortly after my parents separated when I was a teenager, I asked my mom if she and my dad planned to get a divorce. “Oh no!” she assured me, “that’s not necessary.” I felt a momentary sense of relief before she added, “We divorced years ago, right after the war.”

“The war,” for that generation, being the Second World War, which is to say, back in the forties. Long before I was born.

The startling revelation that my parents had divorced decades prior and that my own birth was somewhat less legitimate left me rather astounded. I had just always assumed that my parents were married, given that they lived together, had four children and called each other husband and wife, albeit not always in a nice way.

“What do you mean you were divorced in the forties?” I asked. “You can’t be serious!”

“Oh, yes, I divorced him all right, and he had it coming, let me tell you. We just couldn’t agree on anything, not even who would move out of the house. So neither of us did.”

I wasn’t sure if that answer explained an awful lot, or made their marriage (and divorce) all the more confusing. In the end, I just decided to consider it pretty funny.

But I had no idea what funny could be when it comes to marriage and divorce, until I went to work for a divorce attorney. As the humorist Jean Kerr once said, no lawyer is ever really happy with a friendly divorce. It’s like a mortician finishing up the job only to have the corpse sit up on the table. And I happened to be working for a very good attorney, the kind who could sever conjoined twins and make sure his client got the only liver. So as you can imagine, I saw some real unfriendly divorces.

Now, I know that people are never at their best whenever they put their lives in the hands of an attorney, which as far as I’m concerned is as it should be. Attorneys are, after all, professional troublemakers with shatterproof hearts; at least we hope that to be the case for what they cost us. The last thing anyone needs is a nice attorney. It’s like hiring a Canadian hit man. They’re bound to end up shaking hands and apologizing for the gun, once it occurs to them how impolite it is to execute a person.

But I discovered fairly quickly that not even Alley McBeal would have had the patience to endure the emotions of her clients had she specialized in what is so wrongly termed, “Family Law.” Nothing brings out the underbelly of our souls than breaking up with someone we once swore only death would part from us.

There I was, about two days out of college, happily employed as a legal secretary. My job was to greet the aggrieved, take their calls and type up legal briefs — on this amazing new machine called a word processor — when I began to learn what divorce does to otherwise sane people once their private lives are turned into public records.

There was the couple who fought — endlessly and at hundreds of dollars an hour — over who would get the table lamps and the duck decoys. By the time the matter was settled, they could each have purchased their own well-lit hunting lodges for what they paid to squabble over their knick-knack duck collection. That was a couple, I concluded, that didn’t really want to divorce but once they got started thought they had to see it through.

Then there was the woman who arrived in a state of absolute panic. Her husband had come home with muddy footprints in his underwear and could not explain the grass stains. Turns out he was frolicking with his mistress on the school playground very late one night and the Fruit of his Looms got trampled.

“And now he wants a divorce!” our client wailed, flaying her hands all over the place and blubbering like a toddler. “I can’t get a divorce — I’m Catholic! If he divorces me I’ll never go to heaven!” She spent weeks frantically trying to stop the divorce to save her soul, and found little solace in the fact that she had a good attorney and would get the house and then some. “Please don’t let him get away with this!” she cried, “I’ll do anything to keep him!”

Then one day she arrived for her appointment looking like an entirely different woman. She was dressed impeccably if not just a touch provocatively, her skin was tanned, her hair cut, styled and lightened and her gnawed-off fingernails perfectly manicured and conspicuously missing the wedding ring she’d vowed would get her into heaven. She’d never been so calm or self-assured, as she took a seat with the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the smile of a saucy vamp who’d just done the dirty with the handyman and found his work had met her satisfaction.

“Do you think we can get this divorce settled soon?” she asked, as if making small talk. “I just can’t wait for this whole thing to be over,” she said half to herself as she admired her shiny nails.

It seems a relative had died and left her loads and loads of money. His relative, to make it even better. So much for an eternity in Hades; she’d found heaven here on Earth and there’d be no more dirty underwear hung out to dry in her most comfortable future.

Then there was the client with multiple personalities who was hoping each could get alimony, and the embattled drug dealers who lived in a storybook mansion that looked like something out of a Disneyland exhibit and didn’t fight over where they’d live, but whether they’d live and which one got sent to prison.

Or the client who was in his seventies and had been married for nearly fifty years, but just decided he wanted to die single and was willing to leave his wife alone and broke for the opportunity to do so. Strangely, he was murdered shortly after in a drive-by shooting; who’d have ever seen it coming?

Each client came with a story, a story that spoke of tragedy, comedy and drama in every frantic phone call. For many, divorce stripped them of the camoflauge of social pretense and they came to us in all their gory glory — angry, self-righteous, unconcerned about anyone but themselves, and least of all their children.

But for most, divorce had yanked their future out from under them, stripped them of their identities, their homes, their families and their pride. They arrived in our offices traumatized and confused, seeking only peace and finding only combat. With only children, money and material possessions to argue over, since matters of the heart matter little to the law, divorce transforms relationships to resources, with battles over duck decoys somehow feeling worth the hatred.

My own parents finally got back together again, once they found a house big enough to house them separately and peacefully, and they lived oddly ever after.

And I finally got fired from the divorce attorney, when one of the partners caught me playing Yer Cheatin’ Heart on the Dictaphone equipment (he had issues). You just never know what might get you tossed out the door, whether it’s country western music or trampled underwear. And once it happens, there’s no telling what’s in store.

But whatever comes your way, just take a deep breath and remember, the other guy gets the table lamps and decoys. You go for your future.

Posted in Divorce, Custody, and Parental Alienation | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Mother Blame, and the Special Needs Child

One afternoon several years ago my normally happy-camper daughter had a meltdown of epic proportions at preschool. One minute she was fine, and the next minute she was possessed by the devil. Shrieking till she was red in the face at an unholy decible level. Shaking, flailing, back-arching, freaky gutteral noises.

Not quite three, she was unable to tell me why she was so upset, plus she was practically hyperventilating. I held her in my lap while the teacher, a child psychologist, explained to the other children, who were saucer-eyed and frozen, “Franny is having a hard time. She’s going through something, but her mother is holding her and she’s going to be okay.”

It was just a year after my ex-husband and I had separated. My son Luca, then seven, was regularly exploding at home and at school. My ex-husband was also regularly exploding. Both of them blamed me for the problems Luca was having and I had come to believe them, that I was, as Prince opined in bold font with lots of exclamation marks in his daily e-mail tirades, “an unfit mother!!!!”

Except when it came to Franny. Franny was a resilient, joie-de-vivre kind of kid, generally easy to soothe after standard-issue toddler upsets. I was not an unfit mother when it came to Franny, I convinced myself.

Until that day when she needed an exorcism.

I started babbling to the teacher about the divorce, and her brother, and how maybe I hadn’t recognized that she too was irrevocably damaged. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me. Something about divorce trauma. He trained at a therapeutic preschool, he said, where he had seen “this kind of thing” all the time. He was going to stay with me and help me “support Franny,” he said. He had a very somber look on his face. This is bad, I thought.

He said puzzles were good for helping kids calm down and suggested I do one with her. This did not strike me as a puzzle moment, but he had a PhD and I didn’t so I figured he must know what to do. I put a puzzle in front of Franny. She hurled the pieces at the wall. The teacher’s aide promptly removed the other children from the room.

*          *         *

A half hour later, Franny was her old self. I stood on the playground watching her chat up a preschool homie in the sandbox. I, on the other hand, felt like a wrung-out dishtowel. I turned to the co-director of the preschool, a stout, unflappable woman who was not a child psychologist but who had been working with kids for about ninety years.

I told her what had happened. I rambled on about the divorce trauma, and how my son was a mess, and now maybe Franny was going to be a mess too. Neither kid seemed to get upset with their dad, I said, because this is what he told me. I asked her why she thought this was. She paused. I waited for her to give me an in-depth explanation of my parental failings, complete with sobering statistics and references to Alice Miller.

Finally, she shrugged and said: “Mothers are just the crap-catchers. I don’t know why that is, but it always seems to be that way. My kids blamed everything on me too.”

*          *          *

Now, seven years later, Franny’s meltdown is just an inexplicable sepia-toned blip in the development of a 99% of the time easy-to-parent kid.

Her brother’s meltdowns, however, never subsided. As is the case with many special-needs kids, the meltdowns were particularly spectacular in situations where we were on a tight schedule (driving to school) or in public places (grocery stores, social gatherings, movie theaters).

The mothering experience I had envisioned — cheering with other moms on the sidelines at soccer games; carpooling; arranging playdates and hosting birthday parties — was something I watched slip further away the older Luca got and the more his reputation grew into the “problem kid.” I became that mother from whom other mothers kept a polite distance on the schoolyard. Calls for playdates went unanswered. Birthday parties were canceled because everyone was “busy.”

Once when Luca was in 3rd grade, his dad told me “Jonah” wanted him to come over. I approached Jonah’s mom at school and relayed Prince’s message, that Jonah really wanted a playdate with Luca. She eyed me with something that seemed very much like contempt and replied, “No Luca’s dad asked if Luca could have a playdate with Jonah. So I said okay. Sure,” she said, dripping with insincerity, “he can come over.”

I did not take her up on her invitation.

*          *          *

I think it was the fourth therapist we took Luca to who blamed my son’s problems on the fact that he was not “securely attached” to me. He did not seem to feel that the relentless bad-mouthing of me by his father had anything to do with that. No, he said, after inspecting Luca’s bedroom during a home visit, it was because Luca’s bedroom was upstairs, too far away from me.

“You have him upstairs, where it’s Father-Sky. He is not ready to be Father-Sky, he needs to be next to Mother-Earth.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You need to build a room for him outside your bedroom door.”

Mind, you, we lived in a tiny house and outside the bedroom door was the living room. When you entered the house, you stepped directly into the living room, which the therapist was now suggesting should no longer be a living room, but a boy-cave.

“Drape a canopy over a couple of bookshelves, line the floor with cushions, and let him sleep in there. This is how he’ll form an attachment to you.”

I protested. I said I did not believe Luca’s behavioral problems would be solved by setting up a metaphorical womb outside my bedroom. I also wanted to know why the therapist had not visited my ex-husband’s home as he had visited mine. This seemed, I said, rather biased.

The therapist said nothing, but sighed, resigned, at the news that I would not be building a shrine for my son outside my bedroom door. He didn’t have to say it, I could tell by the look on his face.

I was to blame for Luca’s problems.

*          *          *

“Refrigerator Mother” was a term used in the 1950s to describe mothers of children with autism and schizophrenia. Psychologists believed that children suffering from these disorders did so because their mothers were cold and distant. Never mind how cold and distant the father might be. Never mind Aunt Jane who never spoke or Grandpa Bob who heard voices. Nope. A child became autistic or schizophrenic solely because his mother was aloof.

Since the era of the Refrigerator Mother, we have developed space travel, eradicated many deadly diseases through vaccination, and created social media so powerful that millions of protesters can effect healthcare change in a matter of days.

Yet having a special needs child still is too often perceived as a shameful thing, and mothers still are too often blamed for their children’s issues.

When I flew to wilderness camp to visit Luca, I sat glued to my seat, unable to put down my iBook copy of Live Through This, a brutally honest memoir written by a divorced mother whose two daughters derailed during adolescence, leaving their middle-class home to become drug-addicted runaways.

Debra Gwartney‘s account of her daughters’ spiral into mental illness felt freakishly like my own. She was a single mother whose every effort to help her children proved fruitless (now in their 20s, her daughters did indeed live through this and are fine). Her description of isolating herself during school functions because she felt such intense shame about her home life was an experience I had lived for years, but hadn’t realized was shared by other moms.

I e-mailed Debra and asked her about her own experience with Mother Blame. This is what she wrote:

“This idea that there are some who are intent on blaming mothers for pretty much all the ills of society struck me after my daughters and I appeared on a segment for This American Life. Most of the letters about the program were inquisitive, positive, supportive, but there were a few people who were determined to make our problems all about the bad mother. And with such vehemence! I was amazed at the vitriol in those postage messages–and later, after the book came out, on other internet sites that mentioned the book or ran an interview. Of course they’re all anonymous, as such attacks seem possible only under the cloak of anonymity. I also noted that most of these people admitted they hadn’t read the book, whipped up into a fury merely at the mention of a mother writing about the troubles in her family.”

Blogger Gabi Coatsworth, who writes about her sons’ struggles with bipolar disorder, said Mother Blame “made me think for many years that my sons’ mental health issues were because of the way I’d raised them. And so it delayed a proper diagnosis and treatment, and made their lives a lot harder. My daughter (now diagnosed as ADHD) was doing badly in High school (aptly named) and wanted to go to a boarding school. The counselor we hired to help place her told me I was a lousy mother and that’s why she was out of control. And we PAID him! Actually, my second (and current) husband more or less agreed with the counselor.”

Missy Boyter, co-founder of LAMomsDig, a blog with a section featuring resources for L.A.-area special needs kids, has two children on the autism spectrum. She says she feels less blamed by others, and more by  herself — and on occasion her husband:

“Most everything we’ve done has been wonderful and the kids have made HUGE progress. Maybe I’m lucky, but I haven’t ever been blamed for their delays – at least not to my face. The issue that my husband and I deal with is more of a self blame thing. We ask ourselves what did we do wrong? Or was it our ‘faulty’ genes that are to blame? Who knows.

I do resent my husband pointing the blame finger at me. It makes me feel like I’m slacking when it comes to taking care of my kids. We argue about it and I usually tell him to stuff it and then he quits – until we have a new obstacle to overcome.”

*          *          *

After Luca, now 14, went to live with his dad full-time and went completely off the rails, after umpteen diagnoses and medication trials and more ineffectual therapists, after I relented and let Prince make all decisions for Luca, after Prince sent Luca to wilderness camp and a residential treatment center, prompting my son to beg me to get custody back because now I was suddenly the Good Parent — after all this, I finally stopped blaming myself for all of Luca’s problems.

There are too many factors that go into making up a Special Needs Child — psychiatric conditions; developmental delays; unforeseen situational circumstances; co-parenting conflicts — to point the finger at any one culprit.

Pointing fingers never helps. Understanding does. So does empathy.

So the next time you pass that mother trying to scoop her tantrumming child from the floor of the cereal aisle, consider that the problem may not be her indulgence, but her child’s sensory integration deficits, or generalized anxiety disorder, or clinical depression masquerading as brattiness.

And if you notice the mom of “that out-of-control kid” hanging out on the margins of the Third Grade Parent Mixer, go stand next to her. Find something positive to say about her child. Ask her if she’d like to set up a playdate.

And know that there but for the grace of having a neurotypical child, you’d be the target of Mother Blame too.

Posted in Special Needs Children | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Two Brilliant Documentary Filmmakers Need Your Help!

Doug Blush and Lisa Klein are a husband-and-wife documentary filmmaking team who are raising funds to complete OF TWO MINDS, a documentary about the challenges of living with bipolar disorder.

Doug is a producer/editor who has worked on such acclaimed documentaries as WORDPLAY, IOUSA, FREAKONOMICS, and AN INVISIBLE WAR, which just won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Lisa’s attachment to this project is personal: her older sister Tina was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 80s and died in 1994.  The film is made in Tina’s honor, “in the hope that many will feel both empowered and less alone in dealing with bipolar after watching.”

Doug and Lisa have launched a Kickstarter Campaign to raise the money needed to complete the film. Of the $32,400 required, they have raised to date almost $11,000. If you or anyone close to you is affected by mood disorders, please consider donating to the Kickstarter Campaign — even as little as $5 helps.

Full disclosure, and another reason you should donate: Doug and Lisa are two of my smartest, funniest, biggest-heartiest, and most talented friends. I’ve seen footage from the film and IT ROCKS!! (You can see footage as well on the Kickstarter page). Please give what you can and let’s get this puppy on a screen near you.

OF TWO MINDS Kickstarter Campaign

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Turning 50 with Demi Moore, and Figuring Out What Matters

I first “met” her when my boyfriend showed me a copy of Oui Magazine. She was a virtually unknown pin-up girl and she graced the cover, her first ever. My boyfriend had picked up the magazine because the brown-haired, olive-skinned teenager on the front reminded him of me.

Demi Moore, 1981

She reminded me of me too. This girl and I had similar coloring and bone structure. We were the same height and the same age (just two months apart, in fact). At the time–my freshman year in college–I painstakingly blew straight my naturally wavy dark hair and wore purple almost everyday. I even had a lilac cardigan, although I usually wore something underneath it.

Blonde equaled beauty back in the early 80s. It was unusual to spot a dark-haired model, so seeing “my” image gazing at me from a magazine cover was almost startling. There was something else conveyed in that shot, something I couldn’t quite grasp until ten years later, after Demi Moore had morphed from a pin-up girl to perhaps the most powerful actress in Hollywood.

Stretched out on my green corduroy chaise, the first adult piece of furniture I bought for my one-bedroom apartment, I held the 1991 Vanity Fair issue in which Demi Moore posed nude and pregnant. This infamous Annie Leibovitz shot would become the template for every other look-at-me-I’m-knocked-up-but-still-so-hot celebrity pregnancy photo to follow.

Demi Moore, 1991

Lying on my chaise, I read about her upbringing: abandoned by her dad, subjected to boozy, violent arguments between her mother and stepfather. How she moved forty times while her often unemployed stepfather — who ultimately committed suicide — ricocheted from  job to job. At 16, Demi dropped out of high school to become a pin-up girl and, not too many years later blossomed into Hollywood’s darling.

And then I identified the feeling that had emanated from that Oui cover ten years before: vulnerability. Wasn’t it the real, raw, vulnerable parts of Demi that shone through her green eyes and pulled us towards her in movies like About Last Night, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Ghost? And was her attraction to movies like GI Jane (about a woman who defies expectations when she becomes a Navy Seal) and Disclosure (about a female sexual predator) an attempt to conquer the vulnerability that had been dogging her since her traumatic, impoverished childhood?

Perhaps it was her sense of herself as a young survivor that led her to name her daughter — still in utero on the Vanity Fair cover — Scout, after the plucky 6-year-old heroine in To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember reading at some point about her attempts to better herself intellectually, via nerdy reading glasses and giving her kids bookish monikers (Rumer is named after a British novelist).

Until her recent descent into aging-in-the-public-eye hell — shamed by a philandering, younger spouse; allegedly overdosing on substances favored by teenagers, whip-its and synthetic pot; headed for rehab — her life was the stuff of legend. It is a testament to her strength and resolve that, given her abysmal childhood, she didn’t end up plowing through a soul-crushing series of minimum-wage jobs and abusive men, losing babies to the foster care system.

How could you not feel compassion and awe for someone who rose out of such wretched ashes?

Demi’s very public crash-and-burning has eclipsed a recent, similar mid-life implosion by Heather Locklear, who at 50 is just one year older than Demi. While I feel sad for Heather, I don’t feel the same pathos that I feel for my girl Demi. Heather always struck me as a spoiled California blonde whose rise to Hollywood TV fame had more to do with her ambition and beach-girl looks than with thespian substance.

Although my ex-husband didn’t leave me, he has certainly made it difficult for me to go on with my life. The aftermath of my divorce has been exhausting and destabilizing beyond anything I could have imagined. And while I never used drugs to buffer the pain of a mangled life narrative, I know what it’s like to buckle under the deluge of crushing stress, to be unable to sleep or eat, to watch the face I imagined would be forever youthful face turn gaunt, drained of spark.

Demi Moore, 2012

Demi and I will both turn fifty at the end of this year. Because women’s currency historically has been based on their looks and their fertility, it can be quite a kick in the pants for many of us when we realize that our days of inspiring male rubber-necking have run out, Botox or not.

Last week, I sat with my pretty 20something co-worker in our boss’s office. My dewy-skinned colleague confided that a male staff member had asked her out and she was struggling with how to decline his invitation politely.

I laughed with her and my boss at this cliched scenario until I felt kind of a “huh?” As in, that’s-so-weird-that-he-didn’t-hit-on-me! And then it full-body-slammed me, that somehow, without my realizing it, I am no longer perceived as a pursuable woman (except by my husband, thank the Lord), despite the fact that I still feel that way inside.

As world-altering as that moment was for me, Demi has it about a zillion times worse. She has spent most of her life in front of the cameras, her every public excursion, be it to Starbucks or to a red-carpet event, photographed and critiqued on the basis of her appearance. Look how skinny she is! Has she had plastic surgery? Are those veneers on her teeth?

Add on the part about her marriage to her way-younger husband ending after his public dalliances with a stream of perky groupies, the fact that her other ex-husband just had a baby with his wife who looks like Demi 15 years ago, the likelihood that her copious body-grooming and enhancing has cloaked her fear that she is not “worthy of love,” and that all this has been played out in front of the masses — well, who could blame her for cracking up?

It’s just a shame that Demi can’t crack up without everyone tweeting and TMZing about it. Was is really necessary for the media to release the recording of the 911 call when she overdosed? This event was devastating enough for her and her daughters — at least one of whom was present — without the whole world learning about its lurid details.

Of course, Demi could stand to make some different choices. Stop partying with your children, girlfriend. Find the company of a mature man who will find you lovable when you’re eighty.  And as my friend Laura Silverman, blogger behind Glutton for Life, suggested on her Facebook page, “please move back to Idaho and take those daughters with you.”

My best friend from college threw herself a 50th birthday bash last weekend. Not normally one to fete herself, she decided to do so this year because now that she has officially reached midlife, as she says, “I want to know that I matter.”

We all want that, don’t we? It’s just that what matters changes over time. If, at 50, you have found meaning in your relationships, in raising children if you have them, in work and activities that you enjoy, you will probably feel that your life has been worth something. I realized, after mulling over the Demi Situation, that I have a lot of work to do on reconfiguring my psychological hard drive. In part because I assign way too much value on whether or not I can still fit in my size 4 pants, and in part because of the damage done by my horrific divorce.

For (straight) women whose self-worth is still tied up in their looks and in the amount of male attention they attract, whose currency comes mainly from externals, turning 50 can feel like death.

And it is, in a sense. It is the end of an era, yet it also marks the passage into a phase of life that is potentially richer and deeper — as long as we stop chasing what we see in the rearview mirror.

What about you, mid-lifers? Do you find yourself wading into your past or are you content in your present?

Has what matters to you changed as you’ve gotten older? What matters less and what matters more?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments