Today is the second anniversary of the day I met my boyfriend. At my age, the idea of a “boyfriend” is a little ridiculous, but nobody has come up with a term I like better, so . . . Next weekend is the fifteenth anniversary of the day I met my ex-husband; this juxtaposition of events has caused some rumination. So, in the spirit of Mama Mac’s post this week, I’m doing a “don’t make the same mistakes I made” post.
Mountain Mama told me something that struck me as interesting this week. She is fascinated by my “other life” — besides the one as a special needs mama, of course. You see, I’m a real live actor (the unions do not distinguish between male and female actors), a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the stage actors union, for the past 25 years. And my incredibly awesome boyfriend, despite his IT management day job, is a very talented and prolific painter. He also has a 21-year-old wheelchair-bound daughter with cerebral palsy. Mountain Mama marveled at how I’ve managed to keep the things that make me “me,” even while parenting kids with special needs.
An example of the boyfriend’s work.
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I loved the sentiment, but the truth is that I haven’t managed it. Not entirely.
I recently did a play reading at Hunter College for a friend who is doing a graduate program in play writing with award-winning playwright Tina Howe. It was the first time I had set foot on a stage since 2004. It felt like coming home. The theater was exactly the kind of quirky black box that thrills my heart. The character I was doing was tricky, hard to do properly without verging on caricature, and I relished the opportunity. When the reading was over, I was approached by a tall, distinguished couple in white linen, who exclaimed, “This was the nun!” (Yes, that’s right; I played a nun, Sr. Mary Jude.) The man told me that he loved my work and wished he could study with me. He said that my character – despite her reputation for “meanness” – was deeply forgiving and that could only have been so convincing because it was a part of me. The couple were Tina Howe and her husband, Norman Levy. He paid me what may have been the nicest compliment I’ve ever received as an actor.
I also happen to be a very talented computer programmer, but it’s been 14 years since I was paid to do that. I need a job now, and it’s positively galling to have to convince people that I am still the same person who got 800s on the math and logic sections of the GRE. I recently taught myself C# and made a working version of the 80s video game classic, Space Invaders.
So, yeah, the parts of me that make me “me” are still there, and in good working condition, but they are well and truly out of practice. I am slowly going about the business of picking up the pieces of me that got left behind when the going got tough.
Until a few years ago, I was married to a man I loved and considered the soulmate I would live with for the rest of my life. He was making a lot of money, but he was spending most of his time and energy at work, while I was trying to compensate with the kids at home. That might have worked if both of us really saw it as a partnership: that each was doing what the other couldn’t for the health of the family as a whole. Unfortunately, he resented the fact that I spent almost all my time at home, and I resented the fact that he spent almost all his time at work. Instead of discussing this openly and figuring out a solution that could work for both of us, he let his resentment grow to the point where he stopped talking to me about anything important. He stopped listening to me, too, because all I talked about were ways to help our son overcome apraxia, and our daughter conquer ADHD so their lives could be as full as possible. He went from thinking, “I can’t wait to see what she does next,” to not being the least bit interested in seeing what I did next. I went from “fascinating” to “boring” in a few short years.
Possibly the most galling aspect of it all was that we had already been through so much together. We had a baby who died when he was two days old from a freak strep A infection. Both of us blamed ourselves — as is almost universal when a child dies — but he couldn’t let go of the guilt. (I honestly think sometimes people hold onto the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” because it feels like doing something in a situation where there really is nothing to do.) After about a year and a half, he got so depressed he was suicidal. He asked me for help then, and I told him to go see my old therapist. I was pretty sure he could help. Well, he did. In a few months, he was completely turned around.
Unfortunately, soon after that I had a devastating miscarriage – all over California. (I was visiting a friend whose baby had been stillborn. Yep, that sort of irony is a hallmark of my life.) It seemed that my last possible chance of having another child had blown up in my face. I went back to the therapist, too, and got help to deal with all the pent-up pain. That spring we went to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and, for the first time in a long time, felt like just a “family on vacation” rather than a “grieving family on vacation.” That fall we gave it one last shot, using our one insurance-covered IVF cycle the month before the coverage ran out. Our son, Bryce (that’s not his real name, but it was a top contender, along with Zion) was born nine months later.
Bryce had undiagnosed apraxia, and from the time he was 19 months old, there was a whirlwind of evaluations, therapy, and biomedical supplements. In the meantime, I also found things that might help our daughter who was having a hard time with ADHD. My husband found a 25-year-old actress who reminded him of me. One who had no pesky distractions like kids, let alone kids with special needs, to get in the way of her determination to succeed. Of course, the relationship didn’t last, but it did manage to destroy our marriage.
Since that time my ex and I have both done a lot of soul searching. He came to me and apologized for the way it all went down. He realized that, even though he couldn’t see it at the time, there were so many other ways we could have done things if we’d only managed to communicate better along the way. Both of us were making assumptions about what the other was thinking that were monumentally incorrect. And probably my biggest mistake was in not making sure I did some of the things that brought me unadulterated joy — the things that made me “me.” I had let my life get seriously out of balance out of fear of rocking the boat. And the result? The boat capsized, nearly drowning all aboard.
So now, as a single special-needs mom in a terrific relationship with a fabulous well-balanced special-needs dad, I am determined not to make the same mistakes. I must claim time and energy to feed my soul in ways that it cries out for. And I have to do what I can to nurture the wonderful things that make him “him” as well.
What about you? Have you lost parts of what make you “you?” What about your partner? What can you do to reclaim them – or help your partner reclaim them — before it’s too late?