Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Wise Man Listens to Counsel

"The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel." Proverbs 12:15 (NASB)

When my first marriage started really going badly, and there was talk of moving out and other problems that should have been obvious before were all just bursting into the light, at least for me, I was a wreck for a while. I had been trying to lose weight before that, because I had gotten really big, but right after my now ex-wife moved out, I went from a plateau where I didn't think it was possible to lose any more weight to losing just over 30 pounds in one month. I was just not eating and starting to actually look skinny, and not in a good way. People were amazed at my commitment and results and asked how I was doing it, but since I was so depressed and ashamed of my situation, at first, I didn't tell a soul - at work, at church, or even my own parents - that I was living on my own now with my two kids. So whenever someone would ask how I was losing that weight so effectively, I would just smile the best I could and say something like, "You don't want to know," or "It's really difficult, not for everyone."

It was in that state that I started looking up marriage and family counselors, not because I wanted to, or because I thought it was the right thing to do, or even because I thought it would help. I went to counseling because, when it was all over, whether my marriage worked out or was torn apart, I wanted to be able to look my children in the eyes and tell them that their father did absolutely everything he could to spare them this pain and preserve a whole and loving home for them. I knew someday they would ask about what really went down in those days, and I definitely didn't want to tell them "Well, I did almost everything. There was this one thing I could have done, but it was difficult and embarrassing, and I wasn't sure that I could afford it." So I found a great counselor in Hollywood named Martin Murphy, and he helped me get some insight into the situation, gave me advice on how to deal not only with my then wife, but with my children as well. When it looked like I was going to be coming to these sessions by myself, I asked if I could bring the children, especially because I was starting to feel that this was bringing about positive change for me, and that they could benefit from it as well. Ultimately, there just was no saving the marriage, but I'm not sure where I or my kids would be today if I hadn't made that choice to seek help.

The thing about blended families that we always talk about is that there is so much love and so many different ways to include everyone in a loving home. The thing we don't talk about is that every one of our blended families is born out of pain and failure. Our blended families are built on failed marriages, lost loved ones, deep griefs, and psychological damage. They are fragile. They are tenuous. And, like any fragile but valuable possession, they require constant care and attention.

When I started going to counseling myself, I had already had some negative experiences with therapy and family counseling as a child - nothing so traumatic, but enough to put me off of the idea. In addition, as a Christian, I was waiting for God to deliver my miracle, waiting for the story that I would be telling in testimony time. But when I got desperate enough, none of that mattered. I was already talking to my sister and my pastor, the only two people who know that I was going through this, but the more I talked to them, the more I realized that what I needed was professional, expert help. If my leg were broken, I wouldn't pray about it and call my pastor for advice, because, as wise as he was, he's not trained to deal with broken bones. And unless your pastor is trained to deal with broken marriages, broken homes, and broken hearts, you need to go elsewhere and seek help. Maybe you're thinking that the Bible has every answer for every situation, and that the church is the only place where Christians should go with these problems. If your church has professionally trained family counselors on staff, then definitely take advantage of that, because it's the cheapest and closest help that you're going to find. If they don't, then look elsewhere, and seek professional family counseling, Christian counseling, if you can find it.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't pray about it, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't include your church leadership in the process, but look at it this way:

Your children are suffering.

Think about that fact, because this is your reality now. Your children are suffering and you are on your knees praying about it and seeking help from well-meaning and wise people with no real experience in the specific nature of your children's pain. If your child were choking to death on the floor in your home, you wouldn't drop to your knees or call your pastor. You would tend to your child and call the paramedics, because they, and only they, are trained to deal with this.

Your children are hurt and need professional care.

You are hurt and need professional care.

Maybe you still think that prayer is the answer, and it definitely is part of the answer, no doubt. Pray while you choose a family counselor that will help you heal your family. Pray on the way to each session that this time will be effective and that everyone will leave that room a little closer to healing and wholeness. Pray that you will have the wisdom and the will to follow through with whatever advice the counselor gives you. Pray all you can, but also mobilize your your troops, gather your resources, and get in the fight for your family.

It reminds me of the time that Joshua came back from a crushing loss in Ai. His army had been beaten for the first time, and they had sustained heavy losses. The truth is, it was a bloodbath for Israel, and Joshua didn't know what to do. He was dealing with failure for the first time. Joshua 7 tells us that Joshua, the commander of the army and leader of all of Israel, tore his clothes and fell face down in prayer before the ark of the Lord, and he stayed there praying until he heard God's voice directly. The irony is that when he heard God's voice, it wasn't saying, "Well done, just a few more hours of prayer should do it," or "You're almost there, just pray a little harder." What God said to that leader with his clothes torn and his head buried in prayer was "Stand up! What are you doing on your face?" God told Joshua that there was sin in his camp, that his people were suffering, and that it was his job to gather Israel together, to comfort them, and to use any means to find the problem and solve it, not to spend one more minute in prayer. There is a time for prayer and there is a time for action, and when your family is falling apart around you, your children are suffering, and your home is in jeopardy, it's time for action. It's time to use any means at your disposal to fix the problem, before it's too late.

So, do your research and find a counselor with a good reputation that suits your needs, Christian and otherwise. There are too many good Christian counselors out there who can help to stay home and try to fix it yourself. If you go to a session and don't feel like it's a good fit, then find another one, and another one, until you find the right one. Once you start counseling, give yourself over to wise counsel and follow their advice explicitly, like a student to a teacher. When I was in counseling, just about everything that man told me to do seemed counterintuitive to me, and sometimes, downright crazy. But before I even walked into his office for the first time, I committed myself in my heart to do every single thing he said, without arguing. I figured that if I was so smart and knew what to do, then I wouldn't be dragging my children through this mess in the first place. I can't tell you that everything he prescribed worked in the way I had hoped. My marriage ended, because sometimes they just can't be saved. But even so, I walked away with my sanity and my dignity intact, and the confidence that I really had done everything I could to fix the problem.

Even now, our family goes to counseling on a pretty regular basis. We don't go that often, but we also don't wait for a crisis to arrive before we make an appointment. Sometimes we all go together, sometimes it's just me and my wife, and sometimes one of the big kids might ask to talk to the counselor privately. In the latter cases, if there's anything we need to know as parents, which is usually every time, the counselor calls us in at the end to debrief. Actually, I think this is just an easier way for the kids to tell us certain things with a sort of buffer to protect them from the wrath they think might be coming their way. However it works out, we go, not so much to fix our marriage and family, but to maintain them, because, as God is my witness, I don't ever want to be in a situation like I was before, and I don't want my kids to suffer through that again. All it costs is an hour of our life and a copay that's less then what we spend for us all to eat at McDonald's. If the cost of therapy is keeping you from going, then check with your health care provider to see if you have coverage for mental health or family counseling, and you might be surprised by how little you have to come out of pocket to get the kind of help and expertise that other people are paying ten times as much to get. Failing that, there are plenty of organizations, especially Christian ones, in neighborhoods across the country, that provide affordable or even free counseling. It might take a little more research, or a little more money, but you can get what you need, and it's worth the price and the effort.

There is no shame is reaching out your hand for help when you're drowning. On the other hand, your children will ask you one day what you did to protect them, comfort them, and heal their family in the moment of crisis, and you will want to say that you did everything that you could. Your children will probably love you through all of this, despite their hurt and anger, but you have such a short window of opportunity to make your stand and heal their pain. Once they reach majority age, or leave your house for other reasons, your ability to seek help for them is mostly over. My prayer for all the blended families that I know, and the ones I don't as well, is that you use every tool available to you to fix and maintain your homes, for your sakes as well as for your children.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Mother's Day?

Mother's Day is difficult enough in so many ways. Just buying a present for your wife that somehow says "mom" but not "domestic," with enough of a subtext of "lover" thrown in. I'm not great at buying gifts anyway, which just one of several reasons that we have separate wish lists on Amazon Prime. I swear sometimes I just pick off her list whatever is in the price range and hope that she forgot she put it on there. For blended families, Mother's Day can be even more difficult, to the point of causing stress and putting wedges between family members. Just consider some of the questions that blended families have to negotiate, some of which might be unique to our situation.

The first and probably the most obvious is, do I have to buy my ex-wife a present or card or something? This is a tricky issue, and there are a lot of emotions involved on either side. I personally don't buy a gift for the big kids' mom, but not out of spite or disrespect. My main concern, especially before I married, was that I don't want any gift I give to be misconstrued as anything other than a token of respect for the mother of my children. In our situation, my ex married before I did, so there were a couple of years where those dynamics had to be considered, and for some men, just about anything can be taken as an overture. I usually send a text or phone call, but nothing so tangible that it could serve as an affront to their marriage. I definitely make sure the kids get a present and a card for their mom, and usually their grandmother on that side as well. When they were younger, that always meant providing the money for the gift as well, and taking them shopping, making suggestions. So it's not as if I don't have any involvement in the gifting, even if my name isn't written in the card. Now that the kids have their own money, whether that's wages or allowance, they want to use their own cash to buy the gift. Still, they sometimes ask if I can chip in for something that might be outside their budget, or offer to do something around the house for extra funds. At some point, probably soon, I won't have to be involved in the process at all, but for families with younger children, dad really does have to take the initiative to make sure the kids have gifts for their mom, even if he doesn't want to. Think about it like this - you may not want to go shopping for a gift for your ex, but you definitely don't want your kids to feel ashamed or sad because they don't have anything for their mom, and all of their friends do.

Aside from not wanting to buy a gift because of the effort or expense, or an awkward feeling of separation, what if you just don't think she deserves a gift at all? What if she's just a bad mother, as far as you're concerned, and shouldn't be recognized? First of all, have you considered the possibility that you're just bitter and angry? That you may not be in the best emotional position to judge the parenting skills of a woman who very possibly broke your heart? That said, maybe she really is just a bad mother. Maybe she doesn't deserve recognition. Even so, it's still in your best interests to suck it up and make the kids buy a gift and a card for their mother. Unless their mother is completely AWOL and unreachable, she's doing something maternal with your children. At some point it becomes less about rewarding her parenting skills, and more about teaching your kids about humility and generosity. And if their mother is really that bad, and they know it, then it's an opportunity to teach them about showing love to people who don't deserve it as well. Just the fact that they see you making the effort can show them so much about the attitude they should have towards people who make their lives difficult, about how to combat apathy with love, that you can't afford to miss this opportunity. Besides, if she really is that terrible, then I can guarantee that she makes you sound ten times worse when she talks about you to her friends, or her family, or even maybe to your children. Just strategically, do you really want to give that woman solid evidence of your worthlessness, to shout to all the world? So have the kids buy her a nice gift, and instead of her going on about how their father didn't even get her a card for Mother's Day, she might just focus on the children for a change.

Unfortunately, in many situations, your children might not be able to celebrate Mother's Day with their mom, because she's passed on. When we're lighting candles and throwing streamers, we sometimes forget that holidays aren't always happy occasions for everyone, and can be particularly difficult for some. There's nothing wrong with celebrating Mother's Day with your kids after the death of their mom. It might not make much sense to buy a gift, but buying flowers and making a trip to her grave can be a really good way to help them hold on to the memory of their mom. Putting her picture in a special place on that Sunday, eating her favorite meals, listening to her favorite music or watching videos of her can create very positive traditions out of something very sad. And if it's difficult for you, Dad, just remember two things. First, you'll probably only have to keep this up until they leave your house and continue these traditions for themselves, or don't. Second, it's probably much more difficult for them. Explain this to your wife beforehand, that this is going to be a part of your children's ongoing healing and grieving process, and that while she is the only woman in your life, you share this grief with your kids. Above all, don't just let the day pass unnoticed because you're afraid of stirring up their emotions or making them feel worse by reminding them of their sadness. Trust me, they're going to feel sad either way. Because their mom died.

There's one more issue that might only be unique to our situation, but I'd be willing to bet that there are at least some others dealing with this. What if their mother doesn't even celebrate Mother's Day any more, or other holidays, for religious reasons? I dealt with this myself when my kids' mom changed her religion soon after the divorce, and let the kids know that she didn't celebrate Mother's Day, or birthdays, for that matter. In a situation like that, you end up walking a very fine line between respecting someone's religious beliefs, and honoring your kids' relationship with their mother, and teaching them the joy of generosity and thinking about others. Actually, that's really more of a triangle than a line, but the point is still valid. The decision, I made, right or wrong, was to keep on making the kids buy gifts for Mother's Day, and birthdays too. I didn't want to appear disrespectful to her religious beliefs, but I also felt that not doing anything could appear disrespectful as well. When My daughter once asked why we were even shopping for gifts when he mom doesn't celebrate the day, I told her that we do celebrate it, and that if you have to make a mistake, you make it by being generous. Most people can easily forgive a mistake when they know it's made in love. If there's some concern about a gift being refused, then make it a gift card to a restaurant so they can spend time together, whether it's on that Sunday or some other day. There's lots of cards that can express their feelings without necessarily saying "Happy Mother's Day" on them, and if you can't find one, then have the kids make one.

This kind of thing reminds me of playing tennis with my friends - not because of the competition, even though that does creep into these relationships sometimes. When I play tennis with a couple of my buddies, we definitely are trying to win, but sometimes just finding ourselves in a really good volley is rewarding too, and we even get upset with our opponent for ending one. Hard to believe, but I've found myself yelling across the net, "Dude, how could you miss that? You ruined it!" In the same way, sometimes this is exactly what you have to do. Just return the volley, put the ball back in her court and keep the momentum going. If she fails to return that momentum, then it's not really like you get a point or pull ahead in the ranking - just serve again and do your part to keep the game alive as long as possible.