Category Archives: Angela Cardinale Bartlett

are you my mother?

It will be Mother’s Day again soon. I am not scheduled to have the boys on that day, but Ryan is being more than accommodating. We will feel our way through this holiday like we have done with the past several, and we will be a little stiff but kind to one another. I have no biological mother to buy flowers for and celebrate. I have no stepmother. And though the paperwork is still unfiled, I now have no mother-in-law. The latter was the closest I ever had to a mother.

In P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, a confused baby bird asks one animal after the next if it is his mother.

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He naively thinks a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a car, a boat, and a plane are his mother. He bumps around from one to the next, growing more and more frantic. He finally winds up on top of a seemingly dangerous, harmful-to-the-environment bulldozer-type machine. He feels panicked and trapped. He pleads for his mother. Fortunately, at the most crucial moment, he is miraculously dropped back into his nest, and they are reunited.

I was 10 when my biological mother died, but only 4 when she left me. I was raised by a stepmother who could be cruel and irrational, who hit me often. Like the baby bird, I bumped around, seeking the nurturing I lacked. I felt fortunate when I met my future mother-in-law at 15, and I eventually became part of her family when I married her son. We are both tall and brunette, with broad smiles. In public, people often mistook her for my mother, and I loved that. She told me she loved me like a daughter, and I believed her.

But circumstances change. People say parents love unconditionally, but I’m not sure I believe in that sort of love. Or maybe it’s the blood that makes the difference. I have moved from one mother to the next, but they either die, or resent, or give up on me.

I get the feeling that it would be much easier for Ryan’s parents, especially his mother, if I could somehow be erased. I understand that this is painful for them, too. Like that photo of the McFly siblings in Back to the Future, maybe they wish I could just gently fade away and disappear.

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The problem is, I am everywhere. I am in all of the family photos from the past two decades. I am at birthday parties for my nieces. Their grandchildren have my DNA. Worse, I am in their memories. I won’t fade away because I exist.

I am no baby bird. I am an adult now, and nothing will drop me into the comfort of a mother’s arms. I only wish I could kill that instinct in me that still longs for that kind of connection. Fortunately, this feeling lives in a tiny corner inside of me, and on most days I don’t notice it. I try to give my boys the unconditional love and connection no mother ever gave me. I am lucky to have plenty of people who love and support me, even if I will never have a mother. I have figured out how to fly, and most of the time I fly just fine on my own.

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20 things i’ve learned

In the last four months, my life has changed dramatically. After our separation, I stepped off of a cliff, not knowing where I would land. Here are some things that I have learned so far.

1. I loved someone and tried my hardest and it wasn’t enough.  I spent years blaming myself and trying to fix it in my brain and in counseling. I read books about how to fix the damage I imagined was irreparable from my childhood.

2. I still love him and want the very best for him, and we will be friends and parent our children together. I can’t imagine a life without him in it.

3. I am not a bad person and anyone who tries to make me feel like I am can go fuck themselves.

4. I am a good parent. This is really hard, and it isn’t perfect. But these boys are strong and we love them fiercely and they will be okay.

5. (I hope they will be okay.)

6. I don’t think I will ever be able to get married again.

7. It has been over a decade since I lived in an apartment complex. It is reassuring to discover that apartment managers still have raspy voices and cry at unexpected moments and wear Minnie Mouse shirts that proclaim, “I WANT IT ALL.”

8. I do not have enough time to file divorce paperwork.

9. I have no back-up plan.

10. There are people I thought loved me unconditionally who have dropped me like I do not exist, who have erased me from their lives. It made me sad, then angry. They are choosing to cut ties, and I am floating away.

11. My father can be kind.

12. My brief foray into online dating was fun/depressing. A lot of men take photographs of themselves taking photographs of their abdomens in bathroom mirrors.

13. I still wake up alone and look at my new curtains and wonder how I got here.

14. I am capable of losing weight without trying.

15. There are people who have lifted me up and changed me with their love and kindness. I am so grateful it is overwhelming.

16. Although it is not a comfortable place, I am learning to rely on others.

17. I thought this was a mutual decision, but then I didn’t know. I am the one who said the words. I am the one who left. I think we have both told ourselves stories about what happened, and maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

18. There are waves of intense fear and joy, and they almost always surprise me.

19. I liked to plan and control things. I thought I was good at this. I have had to admit that I was very wrong. I am 34 years old, and I don’t know anything for certain.

20.There is freedom in admitting this.

 

 

now with more vagina

I have been neglecting my blogging duties for months now. Just as soon as I am done grading this enormous stack of papers, I have something to say about the past four months, which I will post this week. For now, I wanted to say that I am taking this blog in a different direction, and making it more of a woman thang. You may now expect posts solely about tampons, menopause, baby food, and romance. Tell your friends!

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Appetite

My body knew before I did. I woke every morning, for weeks, my stomach roiling and angry. I forced myself out of bed and tied my running shoes on and threw my body out into the freezing morning for my training. I ran 6 miles, 8, 10, 15, 18, on nothing to eat, only water and gels I forced down for the longer runs. I came home and stretched and took a shower and waited to be hungry. I just wasn’t. I’d make a smoothie and drink it down. I’d have a piece of toast. Or I’d just have nothing at all. I have posted before about how much I love eating, all types of food, how I would think about food when I’d first wake up, or on my commute to work, or mid-yoga class, when my mind was not supposed to be on anything at all. This was not me.

After we decided it was over, it got worse. My belts became bigger. I bought a size smaller, and then a size smaller. The pants I once spilled out of hung loosely. My sister, who hadn’t seen me in a while, told me my ass is gone, my prized bodily possession, but that I refuse to believe. It’s there still, and it is good. I did lose 20 pounds in about a month, however, and I now weigh less than what I lied about on my driver’s license. I am not an unhealthy weight, but the drastic nature of all of it is unhealthy. I know that. I had some baby carrots and a beer for dinner the other night. My dad, who has been through four divorces, told me that he lived on beer, coffee, and cigarettes for about a year when he divorced my mother. I’ve been sticking to beer and coffee, but cigarettes don’t sound half bad, either.

I wanted to make a life for my kids that was different than my life growing up. I have tried to be smart and practical and make all of the best decisions. It didn’t matter. I still somehow fucked everything up. My body knows. This probably sounds strange and irresponsible, but in some ways I can understand a little bit about eating disorders. There’s something a little intriguing and exhilarating about not caring about food anymore. I like to be in control, and I am not anymore, so I have been cleaning the house daily and not eating.

This whole experience has been like an episode of Out of This World, that terrible 80s show, when the teenaged protagonist, secretly an alien, would touch her fingers together and freeze the world around her so she could reassess the predicament in which she found herself.

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In the weeks immediately following my moving out, I feel like an outsider, removed from the world in which I once lived, and the one that everyone else still seems to be a part of.  It has given me a sad and bizarre but almost comforting sense of clarity.

In that song “Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley sings,

                          I remember when I lost my mind

                          There was something so pleasant about that place.

                          Even your emotions had an echo

                          In so much space.

I know exactly what he means.

In the past week or so, my appetite has returned. I think about food again, all of the time, and I am always hungry. Before school let out, several students gave me baked goods for Christmas, and I eyed them in their square, holiday-themed plastic containers and thought, I will never eat all of this. But then I did. I ate orange scones, ginger cookies, lemon muffins, and brownies. I ate it all.

I’m still drinking too much beer, and I don’t sleep very well, or enough. But my appetite is back. My body knows. Things will be better.

Photo credit: http://www.fourthgradenothing.com/2012/01/out-of-this-world-tv-series.html

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this is real

I used to not know what it meant to laugh and cry at the same time. I mean, exactly the same time, not one bleeding into the other. Several weeks ago, Ryan and I sat in our car, at the top of our city, in the dark. We had been talking and crying for hours. We’d seen the sun set in the side mirrors, and watched the light fade quickly after, and now we couldn’t see anything clearly, just the faint outlines of our faces. We joked about how pathetic we were. I told him I wanted Oprah, and Yoda, and Dr. Phil, and the Dalai Lama to all emerge from the bushes and tell us what to do, and even Dr. Oz so he could tell us what to eat (“and show us a penis,” Ryan added) and maybe this is not that funny, but it struck me as impossibly funny in that moment and I started laughing and crying at the same time, my chest heaving, my face wet. The sound was insane. Ryan asked me if I was okay, and I was not. Neither of us are. I feel like someone has hollowed me out with a giant pumpkin scraper, like someone died, like I am dying. A couple of nights later, he recorded a series of voice mail greetings. The boys were in bed. It was late. We’d been crying, again, for hours. He lay on the floor, I lay on the couch. Strewn all around us were shoes, backpacks, video games, socks, comic books, wrappers, essays I need to grade, unfolded laundry. “My life is unraveling…leave a message!” “Everything is slipping away…leave a message!” We are devastated. There is nothing funny about it, but we laugh out of desperation, I guess.

He is my best friend. We made two beautiful, amazing little boys, whom we both love so much. He saved my life so many years ago. He is a good person. I am, I hope, a good person.

Our marriage is over. Our marriage is over. This is real.

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an element of your condition

20131012-092848.jpgI love you, I say, and you say I love you, too. You stare at shadows or reflections or your iPad, and the structure of your words is hollow. You place your tiny, perfect hand on top of mine, all scarred and veiny. Your bones are so small. I examine them in those seconds, the rippling movements beneath the skin. They remind me of the hummingbird skeletons we saw through glass at the nature preserve in Austin this summer. I could snap them. You are so small for your age. The man at the electronics store today thought you were two years younger. He told me a story about a woman on the news who didn’t feed her toddler. As he spoke, he watched my face.

I tickle you and you roar into my ear. It is too loud, almost painful, but your breath is hot against my skin. When you hug me, you turn away, all vertabrae and elbows. An element of your condition is your discomfort with touching, and being touched. Your eyes are cartoonishly large, beautiful, deep gray blue ocean, and they are always fixed elsewhere. But I am your mother and I want to drink you in. There were years lost when you would scream and cover your ears if my fork made even a tiny clink against my plate. You banged your head against hard floors, slapped your own tear-carved cheeks, compulsively opened and closed doors, flipped light switches on and off. You couldn’t stand photographs. You couldn’t say mommy. But none of that mattered as much as when you screeched, like an injured, angry animal, every time I tried to touch you. I knew not to take it personally. I couldn’t help it.

You are doing better. You are only six. I want desperately to see the future. You are obsessed with yellow, so I try to picture you living in a yellow house, driving a yellow car. I can’t imagine very long. I can only see your round face, your full lips, those enormous eyes, the face of a little boy. Soon, the questions invade. Will you be able to live alone? Will you be able to go to college? Will you be able to have a job? Will you have a partner? Will you have children? Will you have friends? Will you continue to rage and scream? I try and put them away. I count the ways in which everything has improved. One thing at a time, everyone tells you. One thing at a time, I say.

It has been three years since your diagnosis. You have been instructed to tell me you love me. You have been taught to allow me to touch you. Sometimes it feels real. Sometimes I believe you. But I am not so different from any other parent. I always want more and more and more and more and more.

Photo credit: http://menagerieofminds.wordpress.com/

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four times a year

I am sitting in the waiting room at my insurer’s Mental Healthcare Facility. We all sit together, on this stained and awful circular arrangement of olive green couches. Father Knows Best blares from the tv directly above and behind my head. Why did I choose this seat? What channel could this be? We all avoid eye contact, mostly via cell phone screen, except for the man in the wheelchair. He is staring directly at me, I can feel it even when I’m not looking. I can’t tell if he’s staring on purpose or because he lacks the motor control to look elsewhere. I try to avoid this place. I only come maybe 4 times per year, well under the allotted number of annual visits.

My parents have always been suspicious of educated strangers trained to help. “It goes on your record,” my stepmom used to say. She believed neighbors and employers would somehow find out, that your future could be ruined. I was raised not to tell anyone, not even close friends, my problems, my secrets, to push it down, to hold it in, to suck it up.

I heeded that advice for some time. I kept it all inside. I was very, very quiet. Eventually, something broke, and it came pouring out.

My dad asks me how my week went. I’m having one of those weeks I sometimes have when I feel low, like I am moving underwater. It only happens occasionally. When it does, it is intense, and recent external events have made things more hectic than usual. I tell him it has been a long week, and, to my surprise, he presses for more details. I begin to give them. He quickly stops me. He tells me about his girlfriend’s sister-in-law’s ALS. She can’t move her arms, he says. She can’t speak. We are still alive, he says. We can speak. I think he is trying to make me feel better. It isn’t working.

I hate myself a little when I go to therapy. It such a privileged person thing to do, to whine to someone about my problems when I have my health, enough food, good kids, a stable relationship, a warm home. I have pet turtles that swim in a 40 gallon tank, and some people don’t have water. I am not that man in the wheelchair who probably can’t move his head. I feel obnoxious for feeling like I have problems. I hate everyone in here, I hate my brain. I am sorry for the nice redhead who has to listen to me.

I come here anyway. I force myself through an awkward session of talking and, sometimes, crying. I blow my nose and wipe at my eyes with the cheap, scratchy tissue from the little blue cardboard box. I am exhausted when we are finished.

I would like to be able to sort out my head alone, to not need any help, with anything. I would like to be as strong and repressed as my parents tried to teach me to be. But I’m not. Sometimes I need help. At least four times a year.

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hiccup girl

I 8993036-smalldon’t watch the Today show very often, or ever, really, but somehow I happened to be watching it one morning in 2007 when 15-year-old Hiccup Girl was featured. For more than 5 weeks, she hiccuped 50 times per minute. I tried to imagine how horrible that might have been, a kind of torture. I was happy she found a cure, and I didn’t think about her again until a few days ago. A Facebook friend posted that Hiccup Girl, aka Jennifer Mee, now 22, was convicted this week of 1st degree murder. She was charged at 19. I can’t explain what made me so sad about this story.

Last night, my teenage niece moved in with us, at least temporarily. Her sister just moved back home and is in the early stages of rehabbing from a speed addiction. I had the pleasure of witnessing my brother, my niece’s father, through various bouts of withdrawal from addiction to the same drug when I was in high school. Once, I took a boyfriend home after a date and was greeted by my brother on the couch in the stinking, sweating, shaking throes of withdrawals. I was 17. My niece is 16. Her family lives in a small space. She is trying to do well in school and go to college and secure a different life for herself. I offered for her to stay with us for a week, just until things settle down, because I know how difficult it can be to focus on school and normal teenage life with a sibling unraveling on your living room couch. Her mother exploded with anger and kicked her out when my niece asked to stay with us. “Family first,” she said. “Your sister needs you.” “You always run away.”

Her mother is not a bad person. In fact, I like her a lot. But she is perpetuating a cycle, and it is difficult to break free from this cycle or even see it for what it is when you are in the middle of it, when that is all you know as normal. You are the crazy one if you see it. You are selfish. You are elitist, especially when you use words like “cycle” and “dysfunction.” You think you are better. You push and you struggle and you work hard to break free and, eventually, you do. But you break yourself a little in the process. The people you leave behind will never love you the same. You say, well, fuck them. You convince yourself you don’t need them. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. In any case, to survive, you stop waiting for the people you love to change, to accept you for who you are, to stop hurting you. You shut down the soft, vulnerable parts of yourself. They harden and ossify. And they stay that way. The cost of breaking free is high, but the cost of staying is higher.

What does this have to do with Jennifer Mee, Hiccup Girl? Probably not very much. I want her to remain a funny story I caught in passing one time on tv, maybe in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or in my in-laws’ living room. I look at that broken girl in the mugshot, who is guilty of breaking someone else. She had schizophrenia, Tourette’s, and “low normal” intelligence. She admitted to setting up the murder. I don’t feel sorry for her, not exactly. I look at my own broken self and the people around me who are breaking. Like I said, I guess it all just makes me sad. Sometimes I wish things were different than they are.

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hitting kids

Lots of parents I know and respect spank their children. But I never have and never will.

I was spanked as a kid. From the ages of 5 to about 16, I was also subjected to a variety of additional punishments. My stepmother made me kneel on rocks holding heavy items, hit me with her high heel shoes, forced socks or underwear, clean and sometimes dirty, into my mouth if I laughed or talked too loudly. I didn’t realize how much this impacted me until I had my own kids. I could not imagine doing these things to them. When I look at my children and I think back on all of this, I get a flush of anger, but also embarrassment. It was humiliating, all of it.

My kids have not been “easy.” Ben screamed nearly constantly from the moment he was born until he was almost four years old. He was always mad, always defiant. He spit on my face. He punched me. He peed on the floor on purpose. There was only one moment during all of this when I thought I might spank him. When he was three, he went into his bedroom and ripped every item from the wall, tipped his bookshelf over, destroyed several of his toys, and pulled the mattress off of the bed. In that exhausted, desperate moment, I took it very personally. I looked into that angry red toddler face of his and I thought about all of the things he had that I didn’t at his age, from his own room, to all of the toys and books, to a stable household. I picked him up and he thrashed in my arms, and I placed him, roughly, on his mattress, which was now haphazardly placed on the floor. I looked down at him and I took a deep breath and I walked out of the room and shut the door. Later, when he had stopped yelling, and I had stopped breathing so hard, I went into his room and took everything he had destroyed away from him, which worked very well. If I hadn’t walked away, I would definitely have spanked him. But I was committed to not hitting my kids.

And then there is Elliott. This morning, I went to check on whether or not he had put his school clothes on, and he was sitting on the couch with no pants on, casually flicking his penis. I asked him to put his clothes on, and he screamed at me, and when I tried to help him, he screamed at me. And then he screamed at me that he wants to be nice but that he does not want to try harder. I feel the anger rise and I let it go and we get through it.

With many years of patience and time outs (which I know are also controversial) and positive reinforcement and redirection and all of those things you read about in books, Benjamin is one of the most delightful and caring people I know. And given Elliott’s challenges with autism, he is making huge strides. Applied behavior analysis has helped tremendously. His empathy and self-awareness grow every year. He tells me he loves me and crawls into my arms and asks me if I am okay. He gets frustrated when he can’t control his impulses and he tries to do better, which is all I can ask.

When I was 16, my stepmother hit me for the last time. I don’t remember what I had done wrong, but I cowered in a corner of the upstairs hallway and she hit me again and again with her shoes. It didn’t hurt very much anymore because I was older. It didn’t stop being humiliating, though. As I curled into myself, I grew angrier and angrier. I was very tall, about 5′ 9″, and my stepmother was 5′ 0″. I watched her face as she hit me and I hated her in that moment. I stood up, and, surprised, she stopped. I was trembling with rage. I felt the largeness of my body in comparison to hers, and, feeling a new sense of power, I looked down on her. Fear flashed across her face for just a second. “What are you going to do?” she asked. “Hit me? You don’t hit your mother.” My feelings were complicated. I felt a twinge of guilt for making her afraid. I didn’t know what I wanted. It might have felt good to hit her, but I don’t think that was it. I just wanted her to stop. For good. I was done. “Don’t ever hit me again,” I said. I stared into her eyes, hard. I believe I would have hit her if she hit me again, but she didn’t. So I just walked away. I didn’t feel good about this, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I realize that spanking is not the same thing as some of the more abusive things my stepmother did to me. But to me, it is the same to a lesser extent. It still makes children feel afraid, humiliated, and powerless. It makes them feel their smallness acutely, and they already are made to feel so small. We romanticize being “old school,” but old school isn’t always better. Reading parenting books, striving to do better, and being thoughtful about the ways in which our actions impact our children is something to be proud of. I am strict with my children. I am consistent. I set firm boundaries. I do not allow them to misbehave. And both of them have challenged me a great deal. If I have been able to discipline these two crazy boys without ever hurting them physically, I believe anyone can. I never want them to feel about me the way that I feel about my stepmother, not even a little bit. And I know that they never will.

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on (not) eating

I have always had a robust appetite. I can out-eat almost anyone, including my 6′ 4″ husband. My Mexican step-abuela used to call me Gordita, and I once overheard my aunt and uncle’s hushed and anxious conversation about how much of their food I was eating on a weekend visit. I’ve weighed over 160 pounds since the 8th grade. I never had any willowy teenage or even childhood heyday. I’ve always been thick. And I like it all–Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Korean, American, sweet, savory, spicy, salty, mushy, crunchy, moldy (just cut it off. just kidding. sort of.). Even when I was pregnant and had morning sickness, I wanted to eat all of the time. Then vomit. Then eat again.

For this reason, I’ve always struggled with my weight. I have to exercise a fuck ton to compensate for my appetite. After having children and turning 30, my already slow metabolism got even slower. Sure, I could stop drinking beer and have one breakfast instead of two. But I have never been able to. Last year, I trained for 18 weeks for a marathon, and I lost a grand total of one half of one pound. I regularly have vivid dreams about eating.

Until recently. For the last two weeks, I have found myself in the curious position of not feeling hungry, of not spending the forty minute drive home daydreaming about what I should eat next. I look at food I love, like pizza or ice cream or tacos or oatmeal cookies or Mediterranean garlic sauce, and I shrug. I have no urge to snack between meals. A vague sensation of nausea looms through my day. I don’t know where it has come from or when it will go.

This is me now:

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NO, I AM NOT PREGNANT; WASH YOUR MOUTH.

I’ve lost 6 pounds in this short time, and I’m thinking maybe I should make a doctor’s appointment. I keep waiting to wake up one morning dreaming of food. Instead, I think about what I can eat that won’t make me vomit and calculate how many calories I need to keep me running without passing out. I still drink beer because beer. And I can keep my food down. Whatever this is is not extreme. But nothing is as good anymore. I used to be ashamed of my appetite, but now I miss it. When I figure out what is wrong and I start feeling better, I will once again dream of maple bars and paneer saag (typing this is making me nauseous again), but next time, I will dream proudly.

Photo credit: www.home-remedies-for-you.com

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