When I was a little girl, special time with my mom meant drying the dishes after supper while she washed them. We would chat about the day’s happenings, who I tagged on the playground, whether I would try out for the track team in the hop-skip-jump or the softball throw. We discussed all topics relevant and extremely important to a grade-schooler.
Many times we practiced the multiplication tables or reviewed my spelling list for the week. When I didn’t want my mom to know I hadn’t studied my spelling words, I begged to play the “Opposites Game.”
I think my mom made up the game; I’ll never know for certain. My mother said a word and I said its opposite.
Mom—“What’s the opposite of hot?” Me—“Cold.”
It was my favorite word game because I could always come up with the right answer. North? South. Right? Wrong.
I was Brilliant!
Sometimes, when my mother wasn’t too tired after her long day scrubbing floors at the nursing home, she’d challenge me. “What’s another opposite for the word ‘right’?” she asked one day.
I scrunched up my brows in confusion. “What do you mean? There’s only one opposite for right, ‘wrong.’ Right?”
Mom smiled. “I can think of another.”
I thought and thought and asked for a hint.
She motioned a letter in the air. “You write with your right hand… ”
I was only seven and had to process that clue. The homonyms puzzled me. Was it a trick question? I shrugged my shoulders.
Mom continued. “And some other people write with their other hand. Their…”
“Their LEFT hand,” I shouted.
She nodded. “Right!” she said.
TRIUMPH! I was brilliant again.
I learned a lesson that day. Sometimes the opposite of “right” is not “wrong.” A heady lesson for a child. The lesson stayed with me. Sometimes lurking. Sometimes in my face.
A New Millennium—A New Perspective
When my own daughters were young, we had an updated version of “special time.” Dishwashers replaced hand-washing the supper plates. Sometimes the evening meal was taken on the run with burgers from a fast food restaurant. (I know. I shake my head, too.)
Thankfully, we still had plenty of time to talk about life. While commuting. To school. Home again. To after school lessons. Home again. You know the drill.
In the car, I tried to play the Opposites Game with Kellini and McKenna. They loved it. Me? Not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, they were exceptionally good at it. One of the two always came up with an answer. It’s just that the world seemed more complicated than it was when I was a child. I couldn’t find it in my heart to paint the world in opposites anymore.
For instance, sometimes the opposite of “man” isn’t “woman.” It’s “boy.” The pairing of “husband” isn’t always “wife.” In some families my children knew, the couple consisted of two “husbands.”
I couldn’t tolerate the idea that my children would think the opposite of “black” is “white.” Many people would suggest the world exists in shades of gray, but I believe in a beautiful rainbow of colors.
I’d come to realize from my own experience that sometimes the opposite of “love” is not “hate;” it’s “fear.”
Those realizations took all the fun out of the Opposites Game for me and I didn’t play it after that initial drive with my girls. They were disappointed. I held steadfast and soon made up a different game, called “Holidays” where I jumbled descriptions of holidays and the girls corrected me. Great fun for small children. Later, I substituted a game where they could learn Spanish vocabulary.
Words Hold Power
I didn’t want to be responsible for setting up dichotomies in a child’s mind. Those are the ideas that stay with a person. Words are powerful. Repeated often enough words shape thoughts and mold attitudes.
It’s best to consider carefully the words we use so we build bridges, not walls between people – or between cultures. It’s dangerous when people believe they live at opposite ends of the world. I’ve traveled enough to know that despite growing up in different climates, continents, societies, or religions, we all love our children the same.
We know there is a whole range of experiences and realities between “success” and “failure.”
It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it, between “trash” and “treasure?” It’s those different perspectives I choose to explore with my children.
All or Nothing
To this day, I struggle with the dichotomy of “all” or “nothing.” As a recovering perfectionist, it’s been a life-long battle for me to adjust my perspective to include the infinite possibilities that aren’t at one end of the spectrum or the other.
When Kellini was twelve, she learned not to see things in absolutes. A few short days after Christmas, she wanted to go to a pricy clothing store to shop for jeans. I pointed out that I’d just given her two new pairs of jeans for Christmas. She responded by stating they weren’t the “right” kind of jeans. The ones she wanted were at Abercrombie and Fitch.
Convinced she hadn’t even tried on the jeans and knowing I wasn’t about to spend that kind of money for clothes she would out-grow in six months, I held my ground.
She committed three critical mistakes.
Mistake #1 – Kellini said, “Fine. Then I’ll ask Dad to buy them for me.”
I knew Allen would have my back on that one. I countered with, “How many times has your dad reversed my decisions?”
Kellini snorted and rolled her eyes. (The answer was “zero.”)
Mistake #2—Kellini said, “You NEVER buy me anything!” She punctuated that with Mistake #3. She slammed her bedroom door.
I sighed, made myself a cup of tea, and planned…
For three months I made Kellini’s statement “you NEVER buy me anything” a truism.
When we went to the grocery store and she slipped something into the cart that only she enjoyed, I sighed and shook my head and pretended I was as tortured as she. “Kellini, your sister and I don’t drink Diet Coke. Since I NEVER buy you anything, you’ll have to put that back on the shelf.”
The scenario played out several times in that long, three-month period until her birthday in April.
It was as much a lesson for me as it was for her. I came to realize just how much I spoiled that girl. Younger sister, McKenna, learned from Kellini’s mistake and never made that same error.
All I had to do to get the girls to rephrase their “always” or “never” declaration was to sigh and ask, “Do you really want me to make that a true statement?”
“Good” vs. “Bad”
Another seemingly contradictory idea is “good” and “bad.” How often have I labeled a situation using one of those words? A “bad” day, a “good” critique, “bad” traffic, a “good” meeting. As if declaring it one way or another made it so.
It’s possible to tag anything with those terms: medical test results, an association with someone or something. It’s even acceptable to label PEOPLE that way. She’s a bad student. He’s a bad… “fill-in-the-blank.”
For many years I’ve studied a philosophy that asks me to see all things as “good.” All experiences and relationships have value. The most valuable lessons are wrapped in discomfort or pain. While not easy, I’ve grown the most from difficult experiences as long as I can find ways to appreciate them.
Putting Theory into Practice
Maybe that’s how Allen and I have stayed good friends, business partners, and co-parents for these past 10 years.
People often ask, “How do you do that?”
I’ve heard several versions of “Do you know how rare it is to get along with your ex?” and “I could NEVER do that.”
For once, Allen and I chose differently from the “all” or “nothing.” We had too many people counting on us. Too many common links. Two wonderful daughters. Two loving extended families. Many friends in common. Two growing businesses.
We were committed to making our divorce work.
We shifted our focus to our children. We told them they didn’t have to choose “mom” or “dad.” In fact, because they were only 8 and 10 years old, we framed it in a familiar way. For their birthday, they didn’t have to choose “cake” or “ice cream.” We explained, on special occasions they could have both. Both desserts. Both parents present.
It was easy, really. We thought of what was best for the children. Together, as parents, we attended after-school sporting events, parent-teacher conferences, high school orientation, college visits. Together, as a family, we celebrated birthdays, Christmases, and graduations.
In 1997, I wrote and Allen delivered the eulogy at the memorial services for my older brother. Some years later, even though we were no longer married, we repeated our roles for the funerals of my younger brother and my mother. I couldn’t have imagined things any other way.
Coincidentally, within months, Allen and I remarried different people five years ago. Each of us wanted small weddings—only the girls, and essential family members.
Yes, we attended each other’s wedding. In fact, with the exception of his mother at his wedding and one step-daughter and two grandkids at my wedding, we were the only people in attendance. Our daughters were our witnesses.
Allen chose an amazing woman in his current wife, Vivian. I chose an equally amazing person to be my husband, Alden.
Our spouses understand it doesn’t have to be “all” or “nothing.” Marriage or divorce. Love or hate.
We respect one another. Support one another. Take up the slack when necessary. The children benefit when both sets of parents, both families get along.
We ALL benefit. We make that an absolute and true statement every day.