- by Carolyn Bergen
I have loved my Junior Tribe Members since before they were conceived. I have been their mother all of their lives. I have worked to provide a stable base and safe haven for them, particularly during times of transition--and our family has had periods of significant shifts. Their sense of security came first for me...and so getting "out there" was not a priority for years for me.
Same for him. I got to know him first when he called me wondering about how to help his JTM's after their mother's death. He worried about them, and wanted to do right by them.
I started a strong friendship with J literally the day I came home from dropping my youngest JTM off at college out west--right about the time I had time for a relationship.I didn't know then it would turn into love, but it did. A beautiful love that was strong and stable and was something we thought could make our kids' lives better.
We worked to be attuned to how each JTM was doing, and what that child needed to be able to move forward with a parent getting married (more about figuring out how to step parent in another post). When it came to JTM's, we had a few guidelines when planning the wedding:
They also had choices when it came to the vows.
The parents bear the responsibilitySome of them are of adult age, but when it comes to parent/child relationships, the parent always takes on the heavier load to make the relationship work. I went online and got some help, read samples and read comments from kids about what they liked at a ceremony.
JTM's. I want you to know that I dearly love your father. As you have so graciously shared your dad with me, so will I share the love I feel for him with all of you.
Together, we will learn much more about each other. I promise to be fair and to be honest, to be available for you as I am for your dad, and, over time, to earn your love, respect and deep friendship. I don’t want to replace your mom, but to make a place in your hearts that is for me alone. I will value my life with all of you. On this day when I marry your Dad, we become a family, together, with you, and I promise to love and support you as my own.
JTM's, do you promise to respect this marriage, and support the creation of this new family?
Carolyn's JTM's, are you willing to create space in your lives for a developing relationship with J, and J's JTM's are you willing to create space in your lives for a relationship with Carolyn? One that is respectful and honest, taking time to get to know each other, and letting them know how they can best relate to you? And there are going to now be many brothers in this family—you will be two families that will be also becoming one family. Will you work to be a cooperative member of this “becoming-one-family”?
... Do you promise to let them love you and care for you as well?
- by Carolyn Bergen
I respected him before I knew him, and liked him as a human being before I loved him as more.
He is someone I have fun with, am supported by, and challenges me. In him was a man I couldn't imagine being without. He is someone I want to invest in, and make his life better.
He understands that because our children are important, there are evenings when our relationship is temporarily put on the back burner because a child needs a concert to be heard, or a birthday to be celebrated, or a game to be watched, or simply a card game to be played--providing a safe haven for our kids is important--and he gets that. That is part of getting me...and I love him for that.
He inspires me to be a better version of myself. My heart slows when he enters the room, because when he's around, all is right with the world, and I relax. He is good to me, and good for me. He gets that I do crazy unusual stuff like weekly radio, regular writing for a blog, weekly Starbucks visit with a friend, and occasional teaching that can require hours of prep and a willing soul to hear me practice...he listens like its the only thing in the world he wants to do at that moment.
Our vows--not pulled from a book or website...uniquely ours. He wrote his. I wrote mine. We wrote, and edited, and edited again...fussed over them for several days a bit at a time, until they said what we wanted them to say. I've watched couples struggle through hard times and win--love wins. I've watched successful couples and seen what is their relationship "secret sauce". I've watched people live out their vows...being a couples therapist shaped my own vows.
We decided on some overlap...and some parts of it unique. What he needed to hear as promises from me is different than the promises I needed to hear from him.
What I said to him, as I committed my forever on this earth to him...
J, last summer when we first met for lunch to talk about our kids, we sat for hours longer than either of us realized…we shared stories of heartbreak and struggle, and our parenting celebrations and goofs. We simply enjoyed friendship in a way that caught us both by surprise. Then, as we started walking in the cool fall evenings, we listened much more to each other’s stories. We laughed a lot, even as we talked about so much hard stuff.
We clicked…in all sorts of ways--in a circumstance that was unusual. And it seemed that so often when we spent an evening together, it was one more opportunity to discover one more way we clicked.
J, there are many wonderful things about you, but perhaps one of the most lovely qualities is the way you have gently and thoughtfully made it possible for me, who’s been hurt before, to move forward our relationship.
Long before there was a “we”, I heard stories of your loving faithfulness to Car, and how the two of you worked to make your marriage work. Then, as we did become a “we”, you were so sensitive and reassuring. You made space for who I was and am.
You celebrate my strengths, and believe in me.
I’ll never forget the early winter afternoon when you asked me not to be mad at you because you hadn’t just taken my car in for an oil change as a favor…you had also put winter tires on my vehicle. You said that if we got married, you wanted your future wife to be safe. And if we didn’t get married, you wanted me to always know that I was thought of and valued, and treasured.
You have created safety for me within our relationship, and I want to thank you for that....
You have taken deliberate and great care in thinking our relationship through in terms of our children. [wee bit of teariness here] Thank you for your concern and love for my Junior Tribe Members—you understand, maybe because of the tremendous love you have for your own children, how very important my JTM's are to me. I can be a better mother because of you.
[Sigh] Feels good to be married to this man.
[insert deep breath here]
J, because of who you are, and because of who you are to me, and because of how very much I love you, believe in us, and am committed to you--with God’s help, I now promise to:
Support and love you--today, tomorrow, and each day for the rest of our lives in all the circumstances life gives us. I’m going to make mistakes, and will be asking for your forgiveness. I promise to learn from those mistakes...
I commit myself to working with you on the very hard stuff of life. I want us to face our differences head on, struggling through them with integrity, trusting that those difficult conversations will lead to a richer and deeper relationship. I commit myself to inviting you to be open about things that are important to you, even if they are hard for me to hear.
I commit to celebrating and practicing a life of gratitude, joy and laughter with you. We laugh often and much. I believe that will give us resilience to handle the inevitable challenges that we will face in our lives together.
I want to learn from you about how better to be your partner. I commit to being a student of you, J, to discover what makes you tick, what is important to you, and how best to collaborate with you.
I commit to letting myself be known, letting you know who I authentically am. That requires a discipline of vulnerability which I believe God calls us all to. That won’t always be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.
I commit to us figuring out how to parent our children in a situation that they didn’t ask for, but have blessed us in. I want to help you be the best dad you can be, and I commit myself to being there for your sons in the way that fits each of them best.
I will be faithful to you and you alone. Together we faithfully place God as the author of our lives, and weave our story to be a part of the bigger one of His. We will write ourselves a better story together, than either of us could have alone.
You understand better than most what a forever love looks like, and how painful it is to follow that through to the end. I respect that profoundly. I commit myself to you as long as God gives us both breath.
- by Carolyn Bergen
*Adapted slightly from our wedding ceremony.
At a wedding we usually talk about the wedding bands being a perfect circle, with no beginning and no end. But we all know that these rings do have a beginning.
Rock is dug up from the earth.
Metal is liquefied in a furnace, then molded, and painstakingly polished.
Something beautiful is made out of hammering and heat.
Love is like that.
It's hot, dirty work.
It comes from humble beginnings, made by imperfect beings.
It's the process of making something beautiful where there was once nothing at all.
We have made something beautiful out of painful and difficult experiences…and we celebrated that with the exchange of rings that will continue to remind us of the promises we have made on our wedding day.*
Wedding rings are beautiful. They are round, without beginning or end. They are hardy and solid and yet precious...but they themselves are borne of struggle. The making of the ring occurred with considerable shaping, molding, and heat. They end up beautiful...but the process is anything but.
To find love in mid-life is a lot like that.
His marriage died when she did. Cancer is an ugly disease...and it does its best to wreak havoc on the entire family. Cancer threatens to hijack a family with fear and pain--physical and emotional.
It was in the hearing of his painful story that I came to know of his strength, and his gentleness, and his perseverance in struggle. It was in the hearing of his challenges and difficulties and his joys in the midst of all of that that I fell in love.
My marriage died a tumultuous tragic end--it's painful to watch a train wreck and be powerless to stop it, and then being left with the aftermath.
It was in the hearing of the ugliness of my story that he heard beauty of family love, of community support, and of wisdom gained in the school of a stressful life. He says it was in the hearing of my challenges and difficulties and my joys in the midst of that he fell in love.
Wearing this ring is sweeter for the struggles. Beauty arising from ashes.
- by Carolyn Bergen
Life took an incredibly sharp right turn for me this last winter when I met the man who is so special and so supportive and so loving and so kind I can't imagine spending my life without him.
He's one of those men who has loved and was loved well in the past...a long and painful tragedy ended his marriage. He was tried and tested, and I watched him love well for the long haul in difficult days. I admired him before I knew him, and respected him long before I loved him.
We focused on the marriage, not the wedding. But we did want the wedding to be a representative sort of launch...to match our values and our style.
We like to laugh and we like people to feel relaxed and comfortable. Folks grabbed beverages before the ceremony, which took place while casually seated around tables. There was no walking down the aisle...he and I just got up from our table near the front to join the ministers when it was time. It felt warm in the room. Not a lot of pomp and circumstance...but a whole lotta love.
Yeah, I'd never been to a sporty wedding either. But this was a wedding of two families, and we wanted our Junior Tribe Members (JTMs) to have a blast. One of my favourite places to be in all of life is sitting on the sidelines or in the bleachers cheering for the kids while visiting with friends.
We had a "basketball wedding"...instead of a dance, folks put on their sneakers and played ball...people of all ages and stages played volleyball, while the younger ones played basketball. There was a riotous game of Dutch Blitz in the middle. It fit us and ours.
And yeah, those pink sneakers? They came in handy. It is a little tricky playing volleyball in a wedding dress, but I can attest personally to the fact that it is indeed, very possible.
Weddings celebrate connection...between husband and wife, but also within a community. Very good friends--both pastors--officiated. There's something kinda wonderful about having good friends I've known for decades, and had coffee with just the week before, marry me and my husband.
I had coffee with a good friend yesterday. She chopped up veggies for the appetizers...that's a lot of chopping! Her favourite part of the wedding was the set up that occurred in the afternoon before the wedding. Friends of his and friends of mine working happily together setting up tables and chairs and tablecloths--introducing themselves to each other and enjoying the cheerful vibe.
As informal as the wedding was, there was no rehearsal...so the night before we had a rehearsalless dinner with his family and mine at our house...pleasant chaos with little children on the trampoline, a group of young adults in a big circle on the back lawn, and small groups of adults visiting inbetween visits to the kitchen.
I know when I am out of my league, and a big part of the fun of this wedding was accepting the help that was offered. I'm learning that when others offer, it's often because they love the opportunity to use their gifts. It was great to see people I love do what they do best, outta love for us:
I wanted the focus of the wedding to be on relationships, not "stuff". We deliberately kept things simple. A few daisies for centrepieces in borrowed vases. Supper was basic but delicious BarBQ. No string quartet or brass band. Lots of love, tho.
Love is simple, isn't it? Layered, nuanced, complicated to express, but ultimately, simple.
- by Carolyn Bergen
For a lotta years, I was a single mom to my Junior Tribe Members. There wasn't always enough of me to go around with the driving and cooking and working and supporting and talking and cleaning and all the other things that all mothers do every day.
One of my JTM was on a team with his best friend, B. They worked on projects together at school, and hung out with the same group of pals. They were good for each other. And B lived closer to the centre of all the action than we did.
B's mom would pick them up from school and give them supper until the 5:30 practice when I couldn't get there. When they had a project due at school the next day, my JTM would go to B's house and they would work on it until bedtime, and my JTM would hop up on the top bunk which had his set of sheets on it to sleep, and she would make his lunch and drive them to school the next day.
B's mom was a mom to my JTM when there wasn't enough of me to go around. When I was off tending to other mothering duties and couldn't be in two places at once, she filled the gap. And not just "good enough", but lovingly.
I will always, always be grateful to B's mom for the mothering she gave to my JTM.
She is my child's "other mother".
When she and I went out West last fall to watch my child play college sport, she wore the "I'm a proud parent" shirt too.
Cuz she is.
When I started dating this winter and it got serious, and my now-husband asked for my JTM's blessing, B piped in with his blessing, too. After all, I'm his other mother, and he wanted to weigh in on the decision--it was only natural. B had his own cereal at our house for when he came over on the weekend. I care about that boy.
Mothering is not a biological relation.
I have often given Mother's Day cards to folks who have mothered me that have no biological relation to me. However, they have mothered me...been present with me, gotten to know and love me, have listened to my stories and let me know that my struggles aren't uniquely awful. They have encouraged me, and shared their own stories of how they got through their own dark days.
Biology is inconsequential, I think, to mothering.
Sometimes, "Mom" is spelled: "m-e-n-t-o-r" or "f-r-i-e-n-d" or "g-r-a-n-d-m-a" or "a-u-n-t" or "t-e-a-c-h-e-r", or even, "d-a-d".
Mothering types come in all shapes and sizes and even genders. The tender, nurturing and caring that we as human beings need can come from the person who nurtures and cares.
For many, that's a mother. For many others, when I ask who took care of their hearts, they identify someone else who mothered them.
Who mothered you? Who nurtured and cared for you? Did you have multiple mothering figures in your life?
I planned yesterday to write about my gratitude for the mothering that B's mom provided to my JTM over the years. For how he was nurtured and cared for by another woman who is mother to him by relationship, not biology. For how blessed he was to have someone whom he could call mom when he was on the other side of the city. For how blessed I am to have her son as someone who feels he also belongs to me. I wanted to celebrate B's mom.
This morning, I got a text from B's mom.
She will have her first Mother's Day this year without her mother. B's mom had a mother who was a mama bear to her...she loved fiercely and protectively. Her laugh was big, and only eclipsed by her love for her children...and possibly A and W's onion rings. B's mom was nurtured and cared for by her mother. The mother that is now gone.
B's mom has lost her mother, but I know that she is not yet done being mothered. The women in her village will care for and nurture her and her sisters in the coming days.
We will surround her and care for her, cuz mothering is in our bones.
That's what we mothering types do. We are all mothering types...it's in our DNA to love and be loved.
Who will you mother today? Who have you already mothered?
- by Sabrina Friesen
And here's another thoughtful thought from Sabrina Friesen...
I am mama to a sports fanatic.
little guy learned his letters and how to sound out words by writing out the
team rosters for the Blue Jays, Steelers, and the Jets. He’s learned how to
Google search players and team lists, and spends countless hours writing out
name after name. It’s super cute to watch him bond with his dad over Sunday
afternoon games, and it is with much eagerness that he powers through all of
his morning tasks so he can whip through the PVR’d game from the night before.
Needless to say he was a little bit excited about the Jets making it into the playoffs.
I know he was not alone in his excitement and enthusiasm for his team. He was quite disheartened by the Jets’ losses in Anaheim, and was hopeful that they’d pull out a win on home ice. Tuesday morning, while I was convincing his sister to get dressed so we could get him to school, I came into the living room where he’d wrapped up watching the Jets’ heartbreaking game 3 loss. The poor guy was sitting silently in a dim room, with tears streaming down his little face.
“I’m so sad the Jets lost, Mom. They really need to win next game. Do you think they can do it?”
I wrapped my best guy in a giant hug and we
talked about how the Ducks were the best team in the division, and while it was
possible for the Jets to win 4 straight, it was not super likely. Sigh. Nothing like dashing your kids’
It was a similar scene this morning, complete with tears, as he wished his beloved Jets farewell for the season. Hard lessons in disappointment for a little guy, yet a brilliant life lesson – teaching my kids how to manage disappointment ranks high on my list of parenting goals, and this was a wonderful opportunity to let him practice that difficult feeling.
And while it was too bad to have the playoff run end so soon, my favorite part of this whole experience was this:
Now I’ll admit, I’m not a giant sports fan.
That competitive gene is one I’m missing, but I’m a sucker for a good story. I
found myself teary-eyed as I watched the Jets salute their team, in spite of a super
disappointing run in the playoffs.
This moment was too good to pass up with my boy, and I took the chance to highlight how incredible it was that even though the fans were super disappointed, that they could still stand with and celebrate their team. They didn’t scoff and scorn and walk out sulking, even though their feelings might have left them frustrated and annoyed with how the Jets just couldn’t pull out a win.
I think that we have a lot to learn from Jets fans in how they dealt with disappointment. Too often when our feelings are hurt, or when we hurt others – one party turns away and becomes unavailable to the other. I hear it all the time with folks in the office, “I didn’t want to disappoint her...what if she gets mad?” or I hear of how one partner ignored the other when they didn’t agree, sending the message that “You have to agree with me or else you’ll feel alone.”
A lot of us have a hard
time feeling disappointed and staying connected.
Thank you for staying when you maybe felt like going.
Thank you for celebrating in spite of disappointment.
Thank you for showing what it looks like to stick with your team even when it’s hard.
I’ve never been prouder to be a Winnipegger.
- by Carolyn Bergen
(Ok...fair warning. I'm getting married
real soon. I get that he and I are in an idealized moony-eyed phase where
we are understanding and accommodating. I get that there will be days
when it won't always be this easy, or that automatic. But I'm also determined
to hold onto the beauty of what is. I've seen this in couples that have been
married for decades, so I am wanting our relationship to be one of grace)
I am learning something about what it feels like to be in a relationship that is supportive and nurturing.
A few weeks ago, after the snow was gone, the skies gave us several slippery centimetres overnight. It was a day that was set aside for wedding prep.
I showed up barely on time at his home. But I forgot the wedding notebook. We had to go back to my home to grab it--backtracking...and making us even later for our first appointment than we would be because of the slick roads.
We picked up my wedding dress (!) and then headed off to the furniture store. I'd gone to the store from the tailors before, and I knew we could get there by turning left. I directed him left...and we got lost. Very lost.
Now I'd gotten us late and lost, back to back.
I braced myself for his irritation, and I apologized. And apologized again.
And he looked at me, shaking his head. "Do I look mad?" he asked. He didn't. I goofed--twice in a row--and he wasn't mad. He extended grace.
There's very little that attracts a heart more than easygoing forgiveness.
We got out the GPS and got us back on the right track. And then got ourselves to the store.
Which didn't open for another 45 minutes. Oops. Mistake #3. Third mistake in a row.
I don't like making mistakes...especially when they inconvenience other people. I hate it.
The weird thing was, he meant it. He wasn't hiding his irritation. He wasn't gritting his teeth to avoid snapping at someone who goofed at every turn. He just continued chatting with me about the day. He giggled at how often he has gotten lost in the city while going from one job site to another. It was real grace. He talked about how he goofs up too. We laughed and went on to do some other errands first, and came back to the store later.
He extended grace. The real deal...and I gotta tell ya, that is something that is remarkable to experience.
And we were stronger for the grace I experienced. Sigh.
I'm hoping he experiences the same from me.
He is helping me to embrace all of who I am. He tells me he loves me for all of who I am--and he's given me the chance to learn about grace by living in its beam. To be able to accept my own imperfections because he accepts them. Powerful.
I love that man. Think I'm gonna marry him! ;)
- by Carolyn Bergen
A letter to Carolyn, from Carolyn. That can sorta catch people off guard, including me. Why do we have to have the same name?!!
I'll be honest here. I'm torn. I can only be deliciously happily-in-love because you died. And that's totally messy, eh?
Last week, my fiancé was filling out a form to allow his youngest Junior Tribe Member to go to the U.S. with another teammate to attend a sporting event. The team made a form available giving signed consent to allow another adult to take him into the United States. I was at the desk doing some other odd job when he asked me to witness his signature.
I noticed then, that there was two lines for signing...one for each parent.
He signed the top line. The bottom line was empty.
It stayed empty...and instead of your signature as his mother agreeing to the trip, it remained blank.
And instead, he paperclipped a copy of your death certificate to the form so the border patrol would understand why that line was blank.
There's something seriously very wrong with sending a child away on a fun sporting trip with a copy of his mother's death certificate in his bag.
You should have been around to sign that. The line that begged for your signature looked glaringly empty. Shockingly empty. Wrong on so many levels.
I wept...for the JTM who couldn't lovingly be sent off on a fun adventure with a hug and kiss...and your signature on his form.
I wept for you...who fought so hard to hang in there to be a part of moments such as that. Those ordinary, simple moments of motherhood...you got cheated of all of these now with your little one.
And that's when my head fairly aches with the messiness of it all...cuz I so wish that they still had you.
But if they did, I wouldn't be looking forward to the rest of my life with him.
You were such a part of his life...you come up in conversation pretty much every day. Naturally, without effort. How could you not? When I ask why something is where it is in the kitchen, or where one of the kids learned something, or when the kids talk about their favourite brownie recipe.
Like yesterday, for example.
We were setting up new bedroom furniture in what will soon be our bedroom, and putting the nightstands next to the bed. He giggled at how the nightstand's height blocks the bottom of the window...he talked about how you loved huge windows everywhere, and how he couldn't talk you out of enormously tall windows in a room that traditionally begs for privacy.
The conversation then moved on to talk about how that room used to be his and your room, and soon will become his and my room. You were already terminal when you and he moved into that house...but he was desperately hoping that you would living in that house for a lot longer than you did.
We talked about what it was like to have it be a different paint color and different furniture than what is was when you were alive. And how it signalled a new life with me...and how that was uber exciting on one hand, and yet acknowledging the sad end of an era with you on the other hand.
While he still misses you, he makes it very clear that he loves me. I can tell he does, and it's wonderful.
He tells me that he can love me because of how well you and he loved each other. You guys were good together, supported each other, had each other's backs. From experience in my work, I know how much easier it is to have a great marriage when you have had good examples lived in your life--and he not only has his parent's marriage as an example, he has the lived experience of the one he had with you.
Husbands are a little like a comfy pair of loafers, I think. Sometimes they fit the best once they've been worn a while and broken in. There's some advantages to getting a husband that has been happily married before...he loves working together in the kitchen, and it's fun to prepare a meal together. Sometimes he'll be especially thoughtful, or he'll help me with something that I wouldn't have thought he would notice, and when I thank him for it, he'll say, "Car taught me that."
I am loved, very much. And very much only because you're gone.
I'm grateful to you. So grateful.
I can't replace you. Wouldn't want to. Couldn't anyways.
But something very sweet tugged at my mama heart the evening of that blank space where your signature should have been.
The JTM called down from his bedroom and asked me to check his bag by the door that he would take to the tournament the next day to make sure he had everything packed for his overnight trip.
This love is so often untidy in life, isn't it? So often, our greatest time of losing it is also the greatest time of experiencing the support of others. And loving is so often painful...being a mother has taught me so much about messy love--I would give my life up in an instant for a JTM, but so many moments I also want to yell and scream and pull my hair out in frustration at these very same JTMs. And then there's the heartbreak of watching someone you love make decisions that seem doomed to fail, or to struggle with an injustice beyond their control, or to suffer the natural outcomes of their own choices. And now, for me, to find love only because of the tragedy of the cancer that was relentless. And to have richness in that love precisely because of how much your death affected my future husband.
Both of us have loved and lost painfully. And that changed him and me, too. We treasure the gift of each other.
We have both have experienced big things in life. Big hard things. And so, so many things that would have seemed big when I was in my 20's, I know now are not big. They are not worth fussing or fretting over. It's hard to be irritated when he's a little late, cuz when he shows up, I can see how alive he is, and how committed to us he really is.
I have been given a gift that arose out of the tragedy of your life. The relationship I have with him is life giving and precious. The situation is hard and lovely, beautiful and painful, awesome and brutal.
Life is messy...and I'm determined to get in there and experience it fully...I wanna be a person who gets full on dirty in the messiness of life because therein lies the richness of it all..
Love is something that should not be squandered or lived carefully--life itself is something to value and treasure and be lived as a gift.
The last of a series:
- by Carolyn Bergen
Life is messy, isn't it? Exquisitely so, maybe…but exquisitely messy.
My marriage to your husband, I think, is a classic example.
Even that sentence, sounds odd, doesn't it?
Let me explain.
At your service, your love of packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child was mentioned several times. Your husband said that you imagined that your happiness packing shoe boxes is probably what being a happy drunk feels like. You invested so much in the lives of children you would never meet.
Then, this last November, there was a shoe box packing party at your house--you should have seen the tables overflowing with socks and pencil crayons and notebooks and toothbrushes and such that so many of your people brought. The place was packed with your friends and their kids as they packed shoe box after shoe box full of presents for kids in other countries. It was awesome. Your friends laughed and packed and ate and remembered you in the finest of fashion. You would have loved it.
Your husband hosted it. At the beginning of the evening, he told the group how he remembered how you would pack those shoeboxes for many years, and how, in your last fall on the earth, when you were too sick to shop and not strong enough to pack, your friends had come over with piles of stuff and spent time with you packing shoeboxes for Samaritan's Purse. He said that the afterglow of that shoe box packing party had lit up your life for weeks. You had loved being together with friends, imagining the faces of the children who would receive them. He was so grateful for your friends and what they had done for you that day.
Sigh…as your passion for Operation Christmas Child suggests, you were pretty incredible, and your memory has sometimes felt a little hard to compete with. I've struggled sometimes, with how I will relate to the people closet to you…they lost so much, and I feel so very inadequate. You might know that feeling too, of inadequacy--don't we all, as humans, struggle with that?
This measuring business where we compare ourselves with others that we are so prone to do, can get so painful.
When your husband and I began walking last fall, talking about how concerned he was for your children, and we realized one night that we clicked in a way that said this was actually going somewhere, I got scared. Not because of who he is, but because of who you were. And how much your friends loved you. And how much you meant to them…and how much they still missed you.
I was convinced that his and your friends wouldn't accept me, couldn't accept me in their lives as someone that was dating him. You were a wonderful friend to them…warm, caring and thoughtful. They had sat with you while you were ill--and so many told stories of how you had cared for them in your gentle conversation with them during that time. You asked them about their kids and their concerns when they came to be with you during your last weeks and months. How could anyone walk in the door hand in hand with your husband, and be accepted?
I worried that their loyalty and love for you would mean that they wouldn't have room to get to know and like me. I was worried that I wouldn't be good enough for them, that they would judge me harshly, that they would be cool at best, or rude at worst. I remember plaintively wailing to your husband, "They're gonna hate me."
Not my proudest moment. Quite possibly one of my most vulnerable ones. I can hardly tell you that now…how scared I was that I would be rejected.
I was wrong.
Your people have been very, very good to me. They have extended grace in ways that take my breath away. They have challenged me to increase my understanding of the capability of healing hearts to be in relationship.
Your friends' grace-extended hardly makes sense for me.
When J. told your best friend that he had begun dating someone, her first question, and I kid you not, was, "When can we meet her?" Your best friend, the one you hung out with for 25 years, double dated, played cards with, laughed with, and cried with--wanted to meet me. She and her husband were so gracious and kind…somehow they know how to miss you and grieve you and still hold space to get to know (and even seemingly like) me. She emailed me after our first double date to say:
- by Carolyn Bergen
They wore red. Each of them. Their shirt or in their tie. It was your favorite color and one of the many ways they honored your memory that day. I remember them walking in to the church and down the aisle to the the front, all slow and somber and dressed up. They cleaned up real nice the day that the church was gathered and packed to remember you .
They are more comfortable in sweats and gym clothes really. And their dad knew that, too--so they went to the gym in the other part of the church building with their friends while the grownups visited after the memorial service. He let them be boys. After dipping deep into the grief, he created a space for them to come up for air. The gym is a space of comfort and familiarity. In a world that just turned upside down for them, he gave them the gift of being with their friends in the place they feel most familiar.
His first concern was for them. He was lost himself, for sure, because of all that you were to him as his wife. But the extra kicker was that the parent most able to help them through, was the one they had just lost. He was floundering some, not knowing how best to be there for them after the death of their mom. And that was why he called me.
Friends call their plumber friend when their pipes spring a leak on the weekend. Folks that are moving call their friends with pickup trucks to help. And friends call their therapist friends when they are in over their head in relationships. And just as plumber friends and truck friends help out, so do therapist friends. Not to be a therapist. Not at all. But to be a friend. I knew from personal experience what it was to walk Junior Tribe Members through the loss of a parent in the household, and to grieve a way of life that was, and now is no more.
I let him know we could meet and visit and brainstorm as parents who care about their kids. That was how he and I got to talking, Carolyn--out of concern for your children.
Your children have been very important considerations in our relationship all along, Carolyn. They got shafted big time when you died…kids need moms. They weren't finished being mothered by you. You were such a good one, too—and so your loss was doubly felt. Their tender hearts needed to be considered--protected and cared for. I'm sure we've made mistakes, Carolyn--but our mistakes haven't been for lack of effort.
And now, they didn’t get to pick this woman that their dad would marry—thought we did consider them and their thoughts in the timing of it. We asked each of them for their blessing. We asked them about their concerns and their fears. There's so much in this situation that could have them feeling powerless…we have done what we could to include them, and make sure that this is working for them.
Years ago, I read an article where a woman wrote out a list of all the qualities her future husband should have. She did that as a helpful objective measure for when the time came, to remind her of who she was looking for. I thought that was a good idea and did the same. On my list was this: I wanted my future husband to: “struggle with how our relationship will affect his kids…and have that impact our relationship”.
I wanted that future husband of mine to have his kids matter--I wanted him to sometimes tell me it didn't work to see me because his kids needed him that day for a special event, or simply because they needed time with him. That's not so noble as it sounds, Car—there is actually an element of practicality there—if he put his kids as important priorities in a dating relationship, then I knew he would make space for me to do the same with mine. And that would also have me know that he could have his priorities have him make inconvenient decisions (when you're new in a relationship, it's so tempting to want to spend every minute together, eh?)—which would mean that he would be able to be able to hold me as a priority in his life over the long haul through thick and thin.
He does that, Carolyn. There’s times when I want to see him, but we both are hanging out with our kids doing their thing. That’s one of the many things I love about him. He's a good dad.
So…soon your children and I will be part of the same family…two families working towards the process of becoming one. I get that it's gonna take time, and it's probably often gonna feel like two families who are clumsily trying to do a multi-person waltz for the first time. Toes are gonna get stepped on, I know. It's a vulnerable position to be in. I will be living with them in the same house as we all figure it out. I want it to go well…but I don't wanna try too hard at it either--because kids can smell it a mile away when you force it. Forcing it wouldn't be respectful to them. I just wanna be real with them…and even more, create a space where they can be the real with me.
So…here’s the deal, Carolyn: You are their mom. Always will be. Not gonna try to take your place. That would be disrespectful to you and them…and well, a total pipe dream to try to replace you. You were and are their mama. I do hope, in time, to be allowed to mother them. To someday be a woman who provides a mothering spirit in their lives—but for now, I’m their dad’s fiancée and we are friendly friends.
Some have expressed concern it will be hard for them to call me “mom”. That’s not an issue. They aren’t planning on it…that’s simple. I’m "Carolyn" to them. That’s the way I want it. Because that's the way they want it.
They may not consider me as their mom, but I do consider them my sons. It's a little odd getting a sudden pack of new Junior Tribe Members. They are growing on me, fast though, these boys of yours. Remarkable sons you birthed, these ones. Kinda funny how quickly my heart has been captivated. Last weekend, one of them limped off the court after a particularly rough play, and it bugged me to see that one of the opposing team had hurt "my boy". I didn't even notice that feeling as unusual right away--it felt so natural at the time.
I think that's how step mothering works best--to come to love them like your own, and yet allow them to see you in whatever way they find works for them.
I've started a book, which I keep at their house--things to remember about each one so that I remember the quirks and uniqueness of them. One doesn't like mushrooms or olives. Another one doesn't like tomato chunks in the tomato sauce. One likes Lord of the Rings--and now I am watching the movies, and will yet read the books. The older ones are fiercely protective of the younger one. I write in the book things I want to remember about them.
We are having fun. We went tobogganing this winter…and laughed as we went down the hill in various combinations on the sleds. We've gone out for dinner, played games, and watched March madness on TV. And I get to watch them play in the gym--watching from the bleachers is one of my favourite things ever. They're fun boys, Carolyn--and I know how you didn't want to miss their growing up. We laugh and joke. Sometimes I ache, thinking of how I get to enjoy these moments in ways you longed to, and would sooo loved to have been a part of. These moments then become doubly precious to me.
I think one of the most important roles I have in relating to them is to make sure that they know I honour and respect you, and I want to be the champion of your memory in the household. You raised them to be honest, to care for others, to have fun, to look for ways to help others, to be brave and try new things, and to work hard at things they are tackling in life. I am looking to support that legacy you left them.
We will have some family pictures up on the walls of you with them, and pictures of you together with this one or that one around the house. I want to make sure you come up in conversation as we tell stories around the supper table--of how your feet were always hot even in the middle of winter on the cold floor, and how you liked the colour red, and of the birthday cakes you made for them.
The other day it was the youngest's turn to help with supper and so when I had some things for him to do, I called him downstairs to the kitchen. I asked him to wash and quarter some strawberries for the salad. He pulled out a dishtowel and put it on the counter. I wasn’t sure why he pulled out a dishtowel to cut up strawberries but I let him do his thing. After he washed the berries, he put them on the dishtowel and then cut them up. As he did so, he let me know that, “This is how my mom does it.” Almost right after, he corrected himself to say, “This is how my mom did it.” It’s heartbreaking to hear a young boy have to change the verb tense when he’s talking about his mother. Afterwards, he apologized for the red stains on the dishtowel that the strawberries had made. I didn’t care about the stains. Please know that I'm fine if the dishtowels in our home get stained if that’s gonna be a way he remembers you. Every. Single. One. can get dirty. I want that.
So…like I said, these boys are more at home in a gym with a T shirt and shorts than fancied up in dress duds. We want our wedding to be comfortable for JTM's…and so instead of a dance, we are having basketball and volleyball in the gym. They are each inviting some friends to enjoy the wedding and the gym with them. Whomever wants to can play on the court, and the rest of us will sit and visit and watch the fun. I first knew your sons from the sidelines many years ago…and it will be a blast for all of us to be in the gym on the wedding day.
I have the cutest sneakers to put on with my wedding dress for the gym part of the evening. Hot pink with white laces.
Pink sneakers. Very pink--very cute. Not red.
Red was your colour…and I will make sure your sons will always remember that.
The third in a series of letters to Carolyn. The rest:
Looking back on the wedding...Part 1 and 2...3 too!
Mothering is an attitude. Who will you all greet with, "Happy Mothering Day"? Reflections on nurture and care