Strength

Strength comes in many shapes and sizes,

many forms and functions,

many ways and words.

Strength comes when a mom holds her baby for the first time and knows in that moment that she will do anything to protect her baby. It also comes when her grown baby is in tears because their heart has been broken, or someone has treated them poorly, or they had to learn for themselves that life isn’t fair, and knowing she can’t fix it.

Strength can be found in a grown adult sitting by their parent’s bedside while they are recovering from surgery, still waiting to find out what the next steps are. It can be found in the waiting room of a hospital in the family members hoping, praying, and just being there, being together.

Strength comes when a smart, beautiful, young lady spent her junior year of high school battling cancer instead of her grades. When she shaved her own hair before the chemo could take it away from her.

Strength can be found in the eyes of a 12-year-old girl who finally got up the courage to tell her father that she was raped by her boyfriend. And in her steely response when her father asked if she did anything to encourage the boy.

Strength comes when a woman stands up to the man she loves, the man who promised to love and protect her, but instead filled her with fear and terror. When she finally finds a way to protect herself and her family from the man who threatened to ruin it all.

Strength can be found in weakness, in tears, in fear. Because in those moments, when we are often at our weakest, it is then that we feel the strength to push on, the strength to move forward, the strength to ask for help.

Strength comes from knowing when to walk away, and when to walk towards.

Strength can be found in the arms of a friend, who doesn’t have to say a word.

Strength comes in the familiar “ding” of a text message or email alert from someone who cares enough.

Strength can be found in the amazing people who are in our lives.

To walk with us,

to cry with us,

to celebrate with us,

and to just be with us.

I am blessed for all of the different ways I have experienced strength.

I try every day to accept the strength others give to me, and to be strong for them in return.

I’m not a very big person. I doubt anyone would describe me as physically very tough or strong.

But I have seen strength, I have felt strength, and through my experiences, I have known strength.

gentle strength

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Experiences

A recent blog post suggestion asked what would your present self tell your 10 years ago self. 10 years is an interesting timeframe for me as I am 1 year out of a 10-year long marriage. As I look back on the past 10 years, actually on the past 20 years, I would have liked to have been able to spare myself some of the heart ache and pain. I would have liked to tell myself to be smarter and not get involved with this man, or that man. But in the end, who I am today has been shaped by each choice and each decision that I have made. Who I am and where I am is because of the events that have happened in my life. Hopefully some of the wisdom I have gained from those experiences will help me to help others.

Over the past few weeks I have talking to 13-year-old girl about a horrible event that happened to her. She had a bad start to the school year and was acting in a way that I thought was out of character for her. She was being down right mean. I had a few occasions to talk to her, and one of those times she told me in detail about the horrible thing that happened to her last year. And while I thought that no 13-year-old should ever have to go through what she endured, it started to make sense to me as to why she was so angry and mean.

A few of the things we talked about really resonated with me and made me appreciate what I have been through, if only to help this girl.

One of the things we talked about was the meanness of people. She was talking about how mad she would get when people made jokes or comments about her. Many of the kids knew generic, and often incorrect, information about what happened to her, so when they made comments or did things, she overreacted to them because it was so raw and painful. She said to me, “Ms. S. you can’t tell me that when someone is talking about you, you are just going to sit there and take it. You get mad and want to get back at them.”

I told her that people could be mean at any age.

At the end of last year I told my teachers that I would be going back to using my maiden name. I wanted to be sure they knew so that they were not surprised when emails started coming from me with my new last name. Most of the teachers don’t know the details of my divorce, nor do they need to. But I happened to overhear two of them talking about me, snidely commenting on me being divorced, again. It hurt. I didn’t like what they were saying. I didn’t like the judgment they were passing on me because it was such a raw and painful experience for me.

When I told her this story she said, “You could fire them.” I laughed, not for that. But I did still have to work with these teachers professionally. So we talked about taking the high road and knowing that my real friends understood and were there to support me. I also admitted to her that it did hurt. I didn’t like people talking about me. I didn’t like people judging me. But what was more important than what they said and that they were talking about me, was my reaction to them. I couldn’t control them. I could only control me and my reaction to them.

After one of our conversations she told her mom that she told me the whole story. She told her mom that after we talked she felt “lighter.” One of the things I tried to stress to her was that she was not alone. While most other 13-year-olds would not understand or be able to relate to what she had been through, I tried to assure her that she isn’t alone.

She told me later that when I shared with her some of my experiences she felt better. She said it helped to know that someone else understood what she was feeling and that she isn’t alone. I have noticed that she does look lighter. I’ve seen her smile more. I’ve seen her be a little kid again talking about silly junior high stuff. And I’ve seen her smile at me with a warmth that comes from knowing that someone else gets it.

She has talked about moving to a different school next year and I cautioned her that running away isn’t the answer. It might seem easier at times, but this isn’t something to outrun, but rather something to outlive. I encouraged her to think about what would be best for her. And in the end, she has to make decisions for her future, not simply to escape her past.

It’s easy to run. It’s easy to get mad. It’s easy to act like you don’t care. But in the end, what happens to us shapes who we are and who we become.

I was married, and divorced, twice. I have been in abusive and controlling relationships. I have been victimized, but I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

So if everything that I have been through over the past 20 years has helped this little girl know she isn’t alone, then it is all worth it.

If I could, I would tell my younger self that you are stronger than you think and you will have to deal with a lot, but in the end you will help others.

Disappearance or disappointment

I have 2 sons (the pride and joy of my life) from 2 different husbands (not my proudest moment).

My oldest son’s father was the disappearing one. We left him when my son was only a year and a half old after the relationship turned violent. I tried to keep a connection for my son with his dad, but I couldn’t do it alone. He did not make the effort to stay connected, so he disappeared from his son’s life. I worried about my son and tried to provide him with father-like figures throughout his life. But mostly he had me, as both mother and father. He is an amazing 19-year-old young man who is surprisingly well adapted and not bitter about his disappearing father.

My younger son has known his dad most of his life. He is 10 years old and we are only recently divorced. He sees his dad every other weekend. Every other weekend he is faced with disappointment from his father. He says it doesn’t hurt when his dad shows up late or cancels, but I know it does.

Being the one who’s home with his all the time, I sense a difference in his voice and his spirit when talking about his dad. He is careful and guarded. He is shy and uncertain. When he wants to make a change in his plans with his dad, he asks me to intervene. When he wants his dad to come watch him compete on his swim team, he asks me to invite him. And when he comes home from his dad’s, he holds me tighter.

I think that because he had a dad involved in his life for a long time, he misses the “dad” role more so than my older son did. He talks more about what kind of a dad he wants to be. I have a few friends who he looks to as a father figure. He talks about what he admires in them. He is constantly comparing and questioning.

While both my boys are different and have had different experiences with their fathers, I think that the disappointment is harder than the disappearance. While my older son was probably disappointed by the fact that his father was not in his life, it was not a constant sense of disappointment every other weekend.

It will be a struggle to help my son deal with the constant disappointment. I will continue to give him positive role models in his life, both male and female. And I will continue to be there for him, as both mother and father. And do my best to love him enough to grow into the wonderful young man I know he can be.

Practice what we preach

I work with middle school students all day long. I spend a lot of time trying to help them to deal with and navigate social situations, especially bullying and cyber bullying. You would like to think I don’t have to deal with adult bullying in my life, and sometimes it is harder to recognize, but that is exactly what my ex-husband is – a bully.

Don’t react – or at least don’t let them see you react

I tell my students that the bully likes the reaction. They thrive on upsetting their victim and seeing the reaction. In junior high one of the hardest things is that the friendships twist and turn so much that the “best of friends” one week are the one who are tormenting each other the next week.

The bigger problem with that is they know each other’s secrets and they know how to hurt each other. It makes the betrayal sting all the more. Someone who you once trusted is now the one using those secrets against you. Which makes it even harder not to react. I often tell my students that the hurt is there and very real, but if you don’t show them that it hurt you, then you take away the power they have over you.

Unfortunately, that is the tactic my ex-husband uses. He is so used to having control over me and being able to manipulate me that he pushes those buttons, hoping they will still work. It does still upset me, but instead of showing him my reaction, I have a few friends I will often text with a random “He’s such an ass” text. They have learned that this is my release for when my ex does something that is upsetting me. I have tried my best to take away the power that he has over me, step by step. First is by not letting him see me react. Soon (I hope), he will stop being able to upset me by the things he says. I’m still working on that.

What about the bully?

But the other part of my job is that I am often in my office with that kid who is being the bully or (more recently) the “mean girl”. And when confronted, they are just scared little kids who are pushing first because they are afraid of being hurt. They will often break down in my office and tell me the terrible things happening in their lives. Sometimes they are facing inexplicable horrors in their own lives. Sometimes an adult is taking advantage of them at home. Sometimes there is no adult who seems to be paying them any attention at home, so they are taking care of younger kids. And sometimes, they just don’t know how to interact with people in a nice way, so they do so in a mean way.

I have tried to remember this when dealing with my ex. He has spent most of his life manipulating and controlling people that he really doesn’t know how to interact in a non-confrontational way. While I can’t be the person to help him learn this skill in his life as I might try to do with my students, I can at least try to understand why he does what he does. He has lost power and control over me and so he lashes out. It doesn’t make it easier when he pushes my buttons, but it does help me later on when I stop and think about what he has in his life and what I have.

Taking back the power

One of the things I struggle with my students with is encouraging them to take back the power from the bully. There were several students being picked on by the same student. I tried to encourage them to realize that they are more powerful as a whole than the kid picking on them. It’s a tough lesson to learn and hard for middle school kids to stand up to someone they perceive as having more power then them. In working with my support staff and teachers, we are trying to show these kids they are the ones who have the power.

And that is what I did a year and a half ago, the first time I told my ex-husband “no” and stuck to it. I took back the power he had over me for years. I’m still fighting to maintain that power and control. I don’t always feel like I have any power, but I know I do. I have broken from his control and I do have the power over him that I once didn’t. I won’t let him know how much he hurts me, but I know that at the end of the day I have power over me and that’s more than he has.

Redefining alone 

Every other weekend I have to see my ex husband. He brings his new girlfriend with him every time he sees me. It’s his way of proving to me that he’s moved on. It’s his way of rubbing it in my face that I’m alone and he isn’t.

But maybe alone isn’t what I think it is. A good friend of mine told me that maybe what I need to do is redefine what it means to be alone.

Dictionary.com defines alone as:

  1. Separate, apart, or isolated from others: I want to be alone. 
  2. To the exclusion of all others or all else: One cannot live by bread alone. 
  3. Unique; unequaled; unexcelled: He is alone among his peers in devotion to duty. 

In looking at definition 1, I’m certainly not alone. I’m not isolated from others. But in many ways my ex is alone. He has separated himself from his family and his friends. He keeps himself isolated and alone. I don’t. I have amazing friends and family who care for me and check in with me on a regular basis. I have people in my life that I can turn to to make me laugh, that I can depend on when I need a shoulder to cry on. I have people in my life that let me vent and that build me up when I’m down. I have good people in my life who remind me to be gentle and patient with myself.

According to the second definition I’m also not alone. My ex tried to keep me alone when we were together. He tried to control me and keep me away from others both physically and emotionally. Whenever I made a connection with someone, he would try to turn it around and keep me away from them. He made me doubt their intentions. It was actually one of the turning points in our marriage. He tried to ban me from seeing a friend I had made at work and tried to force me to choose between him and my friend. I don’t know why I refused to give up this friend but I just wouldn’t do it. It was the first time I had really said no to him about his controlling behaviors and he spiraled out of control.

As for being unique, I’m not alone in that way either. That is one of the great things I’ve learned through blogging and through connecting with people. I am divorced. I was lied to, manipulated and threatened by the man who promised to keep me safe and love me forever. But I’m not the only one. I have a strong group of women I connect with who are going through similar situations. We talk, we share, we connect and we commiserate. While unfortunate, I’m not unique in what I’m going through.

So I guess it’s not so much about redefining being alone, but defining it correctly and realizing that I am not alone. I do not currently have a significant other in my life. But my life is filled with many significant others who love me and care about me. I am not alone.

Must have’s for a new man

I am dually terrified, and not because Halloween is coming. I’m terrified about relationships. I’m terrified about the idea of putting myself out there and getting into a relationship again. I feel like this is an area where I am not very successful. But I’m also terrified about the idea of being alone for the rest of my life.

I’m not sure which one terrifies me more. I think that fluctuates day by day. But in what can only be defined as a positive move, I began thinking about what I would want in a man if I were to ever date again. I guess it’s a good thing that I am even thinking of dating again. Maybe it means there is some healing going on. But I admit to being tentative and scared that I will fail again.

My list, of course, starts with my boys. They are the most important people in my life and if anyone wants to be in my life, they have to understand and appreciate this. I know no one will love my boys as much as I do, but they are so important to me that it is essential for someone to be in my life that they must care about my boys and figure out a way to build a relationship with them. My ex couldn’t do this. He was jealous and controlling of everyone I talked to. He could never comprehend my relationship with my older son, his stepson. He was so jealous that he became angry and resentful of my relationship with my younger son, his biological son.

Religion or more specifically spirituality is also significant to me. I have always been a deeply spiritual person. My connection to a particular organized religion has varied throughout my life. I have often gone back to Catholicism because it was what I was raised and where I thought I was comfortable. But I wasn’t. I disagree with many of the Catholic Church’s tenants and beliefs so I have spent a lot of time exploring churches. I am currently a practicing Presbyterian but bigger and more importantly than the actual religious affiliation is the fact that I now know what it is like to have a church community where I can really belong.

If I were to get involved with a man again, I would want him to have some type of religious conviction and spiritual belief. My first husband was the son of a Lutheran pastor, but he was not very spiritual. He actually resented the church and the people of the church because he felt that they took away some of his family and his father because of the demands of being a pastor’s son. My second husband went to church because I went, but he really didn’t believe and he was not invested. Spirituality is something that is very important to me and something I value in a partner.

That is the next thing. I want a partner, a companion, a friend. Someone I can count on and rely on. Someone who is there for me, as I would be there for them. Most of my previous relationships have been about me being there for and giving up myself for my partner and not the other way around. I want someone to do things with and share things with and talk about things with. I want a partner who is invested in me as I am in him.

Doing things with a partner would mean that we should have some things in common. I love football. You would think as a woman that would be an easy sell to a man, but so far, no good. I like watching football. I like going to football games. And at some point in my life, I would love to travel to different stadiums to watch football games. I would like to do that with someone who would enjoy those games with me. I’m hoping that somewhere out there is someone who can appreciate a woman who is passionate and knowledgeable about football.

As I began contemplating this list this weekend, I went to church on Sunday and saw an even better list to live by. The front of the bulletin said:

Clothe yourself with:

Compassion,

Kindness,

Humility,

Gentleness,

Patience

And above all else, Love.

What more could I ask for. As I look to find someone to share my life with, I will first try to practice the qualities I want to find in others: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience … and above all else, LOVE.

Genuine happiness

Not every happy birthday wish is genuine. Sometimes it’s just for show.

happy birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. I love birthdays. I don’t care so much about my own birthday, but I love to celebrate my friends and their birthdays.

I am a principal of a middle school. Somehow the kids and the teachers always find out about my birthday and I’m usually a pretty good sport about being sung to by the students all day long. But I remember one birthday when my ex-husband and I were still together and working at the same school and I wasn’t very gracious at all.

My ex-husband planned to surprise me with a cake in the cafeteria when I was on lunch duty and have the kids sing to me. I suspected something was going on, and rather than just go along with it, I resisted. Practically making one of my friends, the social worker at school, drag me into the cafeteria. The kids sang, we had cake, and it was great. But I was pissed about it. And I didn’t know why.

As I look back on that time now, I realize that one of the hardest parts of us working together was that the person other people saw (and loved) at work, and in public, was not the person I went home to at night. Everyone thought he was so sweet and wonderful, but the man I was with at home was angry, mean and spiteful.

We were living a lie, and I think at that time in my life, I was finally starting to realize it, but I couldn’t quite identify it. I didn’t really want to acknowledge it, but our life was most definitely not perfect, in fact it was pretty miserable.

He made such a big deal about being this great guy in public that it made me feel bad about the way he acted it home. It made me doubt myself. I was mad at him that birthday because he wasn’t trying to make sure that I had a happy birthday, he was trying to look good in the eyes of other people. So the birthday gesture didn’t feel genuine. And the fact that he continued to fool people, and still does, made me mad then, and is something I still struggle with now.

Even though I was alone for my birthday, every “happy birthday” that was wished to me felt genuine. The students, the teachers, my friends, my family, my boys, all wished me a happy birthday because they wanted me to be happy. Which [even as I sit here crying as I type this] makes me realize that I am a very lucky person. And I genuinely did have a very happy birthday this year.

Effort not an excuse

photoA friend of mine recently shared with me her new favorite quote “When someone truly cares about you they make an effort, not an excuse.”

This is something that I have learned a lot about over the past year. When you are going through hard times in your personal life you learn who your friends are. But I think it goes beyond just friendships. I think that this quote is also about the way in each people approach life.

I work with people all day long. I’m a principal of a middle school. I’ve been in education for a long time. I have dealt with students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff and community members. When things get tough people tend to do one of two things: they either make an excuse or they make an effort.

Those who make an excuse, tend to blame others for things that have gone wrong. They find an excuse for why it isn’t their fault. They try to place the blame on someone else, anyone else.  Quite often they try to place that blame on me for being the one who called them out on their behavior.

On the other hand, those who make an effort accept responsibility for their actions and try to figure out how to make a change. Some people, when being called out for doing something they shouldn’t, will apologize and try to learn from their actions. They make an effort to improve or change their behaviors.

I can usually tell the way in which a student will react by how their parents react when I call them. If I call a parent and they try to deflect the blame, the student will usually also try to deflect the blame and make an excuse for why their behavior is wrong. But when the parent accepts responsibility for their child and makes an effort to improve or at least address that behavior, the child will also usually make an effort to learn from it as well.

Teachers react much the same way by either making an excuse or an effort. When confronted about a situation that happened either in their classroom or with a student some teachers will make an excuse: the kids behaved differently in their class because I was in there, the students aren’t capable of doing what the we expect them to do, the parents aren’t supportive enough, I wasn’t supportive enough, and the excuses go on and on.

But other teachers reflect and think about what they can do to make things go better the next time. They make the effort. They take responsibility and want to make it better next time. I find that those teachers who take responsibility doesn’t even need me there to call them on something, they make the effort right away reflecting on what is happening in their classroom.
Clearly working with people who make an effort is easier than working with those who make excuses. In my role as an administrator I am continually put in a position where I work with people to get beyond the excuses and put forth the effort. I listen to the excuses, and then I try to help the individual get beyond those excuses and help them to see the part they played in the situation and focus on the effort they can put in to improve the situation. It is definitely a lot of work, but when you can get someone to see beyond the excuses and begin to make an effort, it is definitely worthwhile.

the human touch

 I’m recently divorced, again. I have 2 amazing sons. And a great job. And a HUGE family (it seriously is huge). But sometimes I get lonely and I miss that personal touch. I miss another adult to talk to about my day. I miss someone to ask about me. And I really miss physical intimacy. Don’t worry, this post is not about to get ‘R’ rated on you, I just mean a hug, someone to hold my hand, someone to rub my back, a peck on the cheek, someone to be there … for me.

 

The affectionate gestures of the cute, little, old couples in church just about bring me to tears. It is so adorable to see them holding hands, or helping each other stand up, or just placing their hand over each other’s hand. It really is beautiful and it is something that I miss. I miss someone just touching me affectionately because they want to touch me and they want me to know they are there for me.

 

It probably sounds kind of silly in the grand scheme of things, but it’s true. Human physical contact is really important and one of the things I miss most now that I am divorced. I’m not quite ready to begin dating again, but I wouldn’t mind a nice affectionate hug every once in a while, just because.

 

Gentle

Be gentle with yourself

Two people in the past few days have told me to be gentle with myself. That is something I am not good at. I expect perfection from myself at all times needless to say, I’m often disappointed. I am very gentle with my students, most of the time. And very gentle with my teachers, again, most of the time. But I’m very hard on myself.

Today was a tough day. Bringing my older son back to college was tough. I adore him and I love having him home with me. So having to leave him at college is heart breaking. This is his second year, so I knew what was going to happen and I knew we would all survive the year. But it was still tough.

In addition to the emotional struggles the day presented, there were also financial stumbling blocks. This past year has been hard, both emotionally and financially. A divorce is not easy, nor is it cheap. And college is definitely not cheap.

But facing the fact that I am still struggling financially makes me feel like a failure. I wish I could take care of my son’s college expenses. I wish he could graduate without debt. I wish finances weren’t an issue. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

So after tears and stress and frustration and kind words from my sister-in-law. I’m going to try to listen to her advice and be gentle with myself. I’m in a better financial place this year than I was one year ago. But it’s going to take some time to really get back on my feet. It’s going to take time, and I have to learn to be patient and gentle with myself.

As my blog title suggest, I’m still a work in progress, and being gentle with myself is something that is still in progress.