ORPHAN


girl at side of the road“Not belonging is a terrible feeling. It feels awkward and it hurts, as if you were wearing someone else’s shoes.” – Phoebe Stone

I have been pondering a conundrum all day today. Technically, by definition, I would be considered an orphan. Both my parents are dead and the dictionary defines an orphan as “…a child who has lost both parents through death…” Despite the fact that I am an adult, I am also still someone’s child so the definition applies to me. The puzzling part for me is  how I might have defined myself before my parents died. Could I still be an orphan with two parents very much alive but whom had emotionally abandoned me? Upon further investigation, orphan is also defined as “…a person or thing that is without protective affiliation; not authorized, supported, or funded; not part of a system; isolated; abandoned…” Those words certainly apply to my life. Yet, I struggle to consider myself an orphan because I worked hard to mask it all and lived a pretend life that seemed just fine to those on the outside. From the looks of things, all was normal. I had my own room, food, some clothes and was able to bathe daily and show up at school presentable. I was not the rough, scruffy, debilitated child we all think about when we think of orphans – at least not on the outside.

My family life was challenged.  Despite having two siblings, we never really lived in the house together.  My sister, significantly older than me, was sent away to live with my aunt and uncle shortly after I was born.  My brother, five years older than me, was deeply troubled and he dropped out of school and left home at 16. I was too young to understand anything they were enduring or to recognize how truly dysfunctional this was. So, I was alone and had to brave my own path. I studied hard and focused on going to college. My objective was to stick it out in my house, a place where my father had left then returned multiple times but was a complete stranger to me. And my mother often regarded me as an intruder – an interloper into the life she wanted, a burden she reluctantly carried. With all the chaos around me, I fantasized about my escape and finally packed up my car and left for college armed with my milk crates full of my vinyl record albums and boxes bursting with cherished books. I imagined driving off into my future where I would be liberated of all the painful memories and embark upon a new journey filled with freedom and serenity. But, of course, I failed to understand that, in fact, I was an orphan for whom such fairy tales don’t come true. Orphaned children don’t have the anchors tethering them and, instead, they fear that they might simply drift away, lost forever. Orphaned children don’t enjoy the luxury of being loved and nurtured and, instead, struggle to find pride and confidence to carry them through their lives. Orphaned children are stressed and overwhelmed. They have attachment issues – they attach too much or never at all. They do not have the skills to navigate the complexities of relationships because the only thing they understand is abandonment. They are alone and they are scared every single day.

It has been nearly 30 years since I left my home in Queens, NY to go away to college in upstate New York. I left home foolishly believing that I was leaving all of the pain behind me and would have the opportunity to start a new life for myself. Escaping the abuse from my mother, who had long since emotionally abandoned me, seemed like the clear pathway to emotional salvation. I recognized that very first time I defied my mother – the day I looked at her and began to peel away the mask and illusion of the loving woman only to find a hard, cold, sad and broken cadaver – was the day my mother disengaged and left me at the side of the road. Like an unwanted animal, she practically tossed me from her car and drove off, never looking back. Metaphorically, of course. Time and again, as we battled and brawled, I was left feeling that young girl sitting on the grass alongside the road, confused and afraid, wondering what would become of her. The pain my mother inflicted brought me back to see that scared girl, desperate for someone to come to pick her up. Then I realized that no one ever would.  For, she was invisible. She was voiceless. Her cries were only heard inside her head. She had no way of letting anyone know that she needed help, that she needed to be rescued, that she had been orphaned and was destined to sit beside that road until, possibly, her legs were strong enough to allow her to walk the long distance to find shelter. The masks hid her fears and pain. The veneer covered the fact that she was all alone so that nobody could lend her a hand. I watched her over my shoulder each time we drove by that road, through the arguments and the rejection and the silent treatment when I had committed some unknown crime for which the punishment was isolation in the hole. I was relegated to walk around my house being ignored by own mother, having her pretend that I simply did not exist. And it was always my fault. It was always my doing. It was always deserved. I made her behave that way. I brought it upon myself. I was made to see that little girl, scared and alone while my mother laughed and drove by even faster.

Ironically, when I packed my bags to finally leave for school, I had to listen to my mother’s sobs, her relentless reminders about how she was being abandoned and being forced to worry about how she might get on without me. At the time, I did not realize that she had secretly tucked away, underneath the books and the vinyl, a set of knives that would jut out when I was not looking. Randomly, I would feel the stabs and watch the blood flow but never truly understood where it was coming from. I struggled to understand why I couldn’t fit in with the other girls who were rushing sororities and going to parties and falling in love. Unbeknownst to me, they could see the blood dripping from my hands and ran away, not wanting to take on the task of bandaging me up and nursing me back to health. Who would? I was unaware that others could so clearly see carnage of little girl who had been run over one too many times by 18-wheelers who swerved a little too close to the shoulder when she stepped out in the darkness of night to see if, perhaps, today might be the day that she would be rescued. Others were afraid of me. They didn’t exactly know why. My masks were transparent.

Fortunately, I grew up and the wounds began to heal. When I was ready, I disconnected from my mother to try to break the cycle of abuse. Slowly but surely, the little girl shirked off into the woods where I could no longer see her when I drove down the highway but, of course, I knew she was still there. Every now and again, I tried to find her, ready to offer her a soft bed, a cup of tea, a pair of slippers to warm her feet. I looked and looked. Sometimes I would wander through the woods, getting nicked by the prickly bushes but I would not give up. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of her but she would run away, afraid to reveal herself – worried that her scars were too gruesome. She was afraid that her pain was too deep. She had lost her words. She had lost her sense. She would run away and I would return to my car and drive off, hoping that the next time she would feel more safe and come out to let me help her.

So, I guess, there really is no question, no mystery, no puzzle to solve. I am an orphan. For both my mother and my father could not provide the love and care that is required when you choose to bring a child into the world. They were not suited for the battlefields of parenting. They were not capable of loving something other than themselves. They were not even able to love themselves. Perhaps, in their own way, they too were orphans. Perhaps their souls were lost in the woods and they walked through life as zombies, searching for brains to nourish themselves to regain the strength to become human.

I still feel that little girl inside of me. Some days she is screaming so loud, begging to be rescued. Occasionally, I will see her and she reminds me through her strong gaze, through her longing looks, of her pain. She shows me that she is broken and she pleads with me to fix her. I have lots of tools and I have lots of love. But, I do need reinforcements and I am still trying to pull together my team to go into that forest and find her. I want to heal her. Right now, it is still mostly a solo mission. Every once in a while I let someone else sit in the front seat while I pull over and head out on my search. I let them see that there is a little girl lost in the woods. But, one day, I will let them see her face.

NEAR MISS


not pregnantI had a near-miss this month.

A possible uh-oh, an almost oops, a potential accident.

Anyone of child-bearing age can probably relate to this. A spontaneous moment that makes you start counting days and wondering if you just changed the course of destiny for yourself. I am 45 years old – far too old, in my life, to be having babies. Well beyond the days of diapers and strollers and pack-n-plays and God knows what other devices they have invented in the near decade since I had my last (and final) child.

I patiently held out the requisite amount of time, waiting for evidence that no such miracle defying my advanced age, broken down eggs and single fallopian tube had actually transpired.

I waited.

And I waited.

And I waited.

My bestie encouraged me from the first possible moment to take a test and end the mystery. I resisted. My husband laughed and refused to even consider such a crazy notion. But, I know my body. Things were not going down the way they were supposed to. Granted, I am a woman of a certain age (45 – yeah, I gave up the ghost on that one already) and am approaching menopause so all kinds of crazy things go on. Frankly, my body is not my own. Right now it feels like it is inhabited by aliens half the time. Someone else is controlling my inner thermostat, cranking it up at very inopportune times (client meetings, store dressing rooms, airplanes) and leaving me shivering with coats and blankets to warm me in July.

For more than 2 weeks I contemplated the potential outcome of my poor decision-making (well, actually it was my husband’s doing but whatevs). I considered all of my options and mapped out strategies. I made jokes to my business partners. I noticed every upset tummy, every ache, all of my exhaustion. I tracked every unusual pattern with my body trying to stitch together a clear answer to my predicament.

But I refused to take a test.

Nowadays, you can take pregnancy tests just about five minutes after you have conceived and you will get a pretty accurate response. I know this. I am an educated consumer. I see that all of the angst I suffered through with my pregnancies, dying to know at the first possible moment if I had achieved success, would have been far easier in the new era of technology that practically has the stick talking to you. However, unlike my younger days when I was desperate to know, this time I really didn’t want to. This time, despite my absolute certainty that I did not want – nor could ever possibly imagine – another child, I was not ready to know my fate. I was not prepared to put a period at the end of the sentence that so comfortably held a question mark. I was not ready to resign my fate as that of a middle-aged woman whose life no longer really held such miraculous surprises.

And yet, I was nervous. I was anxious. I was also a teeny-weeny bit expectant. (Not in that way though.)

I finally broke down today. My bestie laid out his case to me. The suspense was killing him and he needed to know if plane arrangements were necessary to console me as I worked through some tough decisions. After all, just last week I had been out drinking tequila and wine and all sorts of fetus-screwing-up intoxicants. What would be the fate of this unexpected and truly unwanted baby after I had imbibed a few too many cocktails? In my earlier attempts at getting pregnant, I was pristine. I took prenatal vitamins while I was trying. No alcohol passed my lips for months before and afterwards. I was not one of those women who had a drunken date night only to forget to use protection and, yay, nine months later our perfect child entered into the world. I had to work hard for my babies. I had all kinds of intervention. I had blocked tubes, irregular cycles. I used drugs and needles (the good kind). I tracked and monitored and knew, from the first possible moment, when my beautiful, precious little lives were blossoming within my womb. There were no surprises, no unexpected expectations. There were plans, calculations and wonderful anticipations. We were blessed but never surprised.

I finally took the test. At the drugstore I felt something like a teenage boy buying condoms. I was certain the clerk at the store was looking at me funny and I nearly offered up “It’s for my daughter.” But that would have been a lie. On my way home I considered my possible outcomes. Not a whole lot to consider, of course.

Either I am or I am not.

Neither seemed like a very good option. Neither comforted me. Neither gave me a sense of relief. Both made me really uncomfortable.

I went home, did the test. You know how it goes.

Not Pregnant.

Hmmmm. Not feeling awash with gratitude. Not feeling like I dodged a bullet. Not feeling much of anything, in fact.

Was I looking for a plus sign? Did I secretly hope for two matching lines instead of one facing the wrong direction? What was going on?

I made the decision not to tell my husband until I knew my fate. I didn’t want to screw up what was already a pretty crappy day for him. I did not want to give him anything else to stress over unless we really had something to stress over. My ever-faithful bestie was my confidante for this ride. I immediately texted him to let him know that there was no bun in the oven. There would be no baby bump as I laid on the beach in Florida in a few weeks. There would be no shopping trips for maternity clothes or baby gear. There would be no discussions with my doctor to consider my options. There were no options. My fate was sealed. The decision was made.

He hoorayed and hurrahed and cheered and did virtual high fives. I sat pensively at my desk and wondered why I still felt anxious. I should feel relieved. I dodged a bullet. I escaped an impossible situation. I narrowly avoided a massive accident.

I guess it was the finality of it. The knowledge that what could have been – albeit in some other reality – wasn’t. It was the option that never existed. It was the decision I never had. It was the expectation I never expected. It was the anticipation that would not be anticipated. There would be no baby. Hooray! Hooray.

That ship has sailed into the sunset.

MEN’S LIBERATION?


This morning I stumbled upon a piece I had written last year about gender stereotypes.  I spent a good portion of my time last year studying this topic through the lens of how it impacts children – particularly girls.  Being a lifelong feminist, I have always been out front supporting women’s issues and have believed that, as a woman, it is my obligation, to help advance the causes that help advance the women’s movement.  So, working on gender stereotypes as they relate to young girls was not a far leap for me.  Interestingly, what I found so surprising about this work is the sympathy for men that began to emerge when I started to study gender from both perspectives.

Uniting my professional areas of interest, I began looking at the stereotypes that men struggle with when it comes to finding some equilibrium with their life and work.  Naturally, we often think that men have it easy because they are always up for the stretch assignment and they are always in the pipeline for the C-Suite jobs.  Men have the advantage of being invited to the golf outings and cigar bars and can seamlessly maneuver their way into the inner circle.  But, this assumes that every man wants to be in the pipeline or that every man wants the stretch assignment or that every man wants to be at the golf outing or inside the inner circle.  We so often hear about women who have opted out of their careers in order to stay home with their kids or have a less stressful lifestyle where they can find more balance between work and family.  How often do we hear the same about men?

The Great Recession has shifted the balance of power in most families and this should be changing the equation for men.  When The Shriver Report was published last summer, there was so much press and buzz about how women were finally equal to men in the workforce with women representing 49.9% (compared to 35.5% a generation ago in 1969).  This, of course, is all great news for both men and women and corporate America.  There is so much evidence that women in the workplace – particularly mothers – increases productivity and, ultimately bottom-line performance.  And, while women are making 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, the gap continues to close and, perhaps, in my lifetime or my children’s, that margin will narrow even further.  So, what does all this mean for men?  A USA Today article in January 2009 reported that men were facing unemployment at much greater rates than women because of the industries in which they work.  Construction and manufacturing, heavily populated by men, were the hardest hit by the recession while healthcare and education had a bit more stability – industries where women represent nearly three quarters of the workforce.

So, going back to my original points, what does any of this have to do with how gender stereotypes impact men?

The reality for men is that they are equally – if not more so – impacted by the stereotypes imposed on them by our culture.  While many will agree that the role that men play as husbands and fathers has evolved significantly over the past several decades, it is still not unusual to hear – particularly in suburban communities – about the families where the dad works and the mom stays home to raise the kids.  In many of these communities, it would be highly unusual to see a dad at the playground during the day or a dad at pick-up after school.  Similarly, the men that work in more corporate environments tend to be more significantly impacted by stigmas about taking advantage of work/life offerings.  The stigmas, while different than the ones women face, are very difficult for dads to overcome.

Now, the question I ponder in 2010 versus when I originally started writing about the cement floor for men that affixes them to being in the role of breadwinner for the family, is whether or not this new normal created by the Recession will change the assumptions and expectations we, as a society have in regards to the roles men and women play both in the workplace and at home.  Sue Shellenbarger wrote a great piece in her column last week about the imbalance of benefits for dads vs moms and questioned whether men are discriminated against when it comes to work/family benefits and policies.  I would argue that men are absolutely discriminated against.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Employee Benefits Report, only 15% of companies offer paid paternity leave.  The rest expect men to use sick leave or vacation time to be able to spend time with their new child and assist their wife or partner with the care of this child.  Shellenbarger reports in her column that the number of complaints coming from men about the availability of flex and family programs is increasing and that men are generally dissatisfied with how they are being treated in regards to these programs.

Fundamentally, I believe we have deep-rooted issues in the way we treat employees in general when it comes to strategies for helping them manage the multiple demands coming from their professional and personal lives.  And, as I have stated before, those companies that can make some headway in this area will have an enormous advantage over those that are stuck with their heads in the sand.  That being said, I also believe that we need to overcome our own struggles with stereotypical expectations that run along gender lines.  All the talk about the mommy wars – where are the daddy wars?  Why aren’t we more concerned about giving men the options they clearly crave to have choices when it comes to how they work.  The pressure on men to continue to conform to outdated models is still quite great – almost as great as the pressure on women to break through the glass ceiling.  We are getting more used to seeing men in caretaking roles simply because so many of them are out of work but it needs to become the new normal for men to be in those roles.

Tell me what you think about this topic.  Do you or your male spouse/partner have experiences you want to share?  Let’s see if there is any truth to all the hype.