When the story doesn't go as planned
Yesterday I went to the lake.
Despite living within walking distance of a gorgeous lake, one of a whole system of lakes in the region of New York in which I live, hanging out by the lake family-style, with swimming and grilling and kids playing, has never been my bag. It’s so… wholesome, and social. I do not, generally, consider myself either of those things.
However, right now I’m navigating how to continue my connections to my bonus kids now that I’m no longer in a relationship with their dad. This is really important to me. Some folks might question why I would continue to have a relationship with them now that their dad and I aren’t together, as if the three of them are some sort of package deal. He’s out, so they’re out. End of story.
Except, I didn’t carve out space in their lives as their bonus mom by approaching them as just ride-alongs in my relationship with their dad. They are their own people, with their own needs and personalities. When he and I introduced our children to each other, I gave both his kids the opportunity to decide how they wanted to interact with me. I didn’t tell them what to call me or how to refer to our household unit. Despite my kids and I being very physically affectionate with each other (we’re big huggers and snugglers in my house), I never put any pressure on my bonus kids to participate in that. How and when they settled into our family was never a thing I took personally. They didn’t get to choose his relationship with me, but I felt they should get to choose the nature of their relationship with me.
My bonus daughter has voluntarily participated in bedtime hugs for a while now, but the hugs themselves were quick, a little rote; there was always some emotional distance there. Fair enough. I wouldn’t expect a kid who is not biologically mine to want me to hold on tight and kiss them repeatedly like an over-eager puppy like I often do with my own kids. My kids and I have no chill. None.
The first night she stayed over, though, after her dad had moved them all fully into his new place, I went in to say goodnight and offer hugs. For the first time she really held on— no space between us, no chill. At that moment, this was no longer a relationship of circumstance, with her dad between us, bringing us together. This was a me-and-her thing— mutually chosen, meaningful, and necessary.
He chose to walk away from this family. She and I didn’t. We still belong to each other.
Which is how I found myself at a (for me) weirdly wholesome and social sunny afternoon gathering at the lake with her mom’s family, who invited me for the day. Part of me didn’t want to go. Staying fully present for all the feelings involved in grieving my relationship with her dad and keeping my own life moving forward without pushing anything away or compulsively off-ramping through drinking, smoking, or eating (common tactics for me, historically), is requiring nearly every bit of emotional fortitude and integrity I have right now. Being around my ex’s kids is good for my heart, but it’s also hard on it. I worried my sadness might overwhelm me, and spill out onto her people who I ultimately don’t know very well. I would be raw and awkward and make everyone uncomfortable.
Sometimes I worry about how to “sell” this notion of living a life of integrity. Do I focus on my traumas, which elicit strong emotions in my readers, offering integrity as some sort of “cure”, a road to unending happiness? We do love those sorts of redemption narratives; we also love a good recipe or listicle. No matter what has happened to you, do these five/seven/ten things and all your problems will be solved!
The honest truth is that I don’t know what will happen to you, or to me, through living a life of integrity— showing up honestly as your whole, authentic self; making a habit of reflecting deeply on yourself, your values, and the world you want to live in; making the choices that reflect those values even when they are hard or uncomfortable. I know that committing to my integrity hasn’t magically given me a life with no problems or pain, nor has it eliminated all the reverberations of my traumas through every area of that life. But it has made my life easier.
The way I show up in my relationships feels cleaner. I don’t worry which one of me I have to be depending on who I’m with; I’m always just me. I don’t have to keep my stories straight for fear of what might slip out that I’m afraid of people knowing, or that I don’t want to take responsibility for. When I make mistakes, I am confident that I will own and learn from them. Even when relationships end, I am free of regret. I know I showed up fully, with as much honesty, kindness, openness, and vulnerability as I possibly could. I believe I am building the world I want to live in actively— in every choice, every word, every act of love and service.
My burdens are lighter because I’m clear what’s mine and not mine to carry; I have laid down so much unnecessary weight. I’m always working to lay down more weight as I go. Where did this weight come from? Do I still need it? Is it essential to who I am? Would I still be me without it, just maybe a truer version?
An old friend once told me, when I was packing the single backpack I would live out of for an entire semester in East Africa, “Never pack more than you can carry— alone, uphill, in a rainstorm, in a country where you do not speak the language.” Integrity helps me do exactly that, every day.
The day at the lake was truly lovely. The sun was hot. The water was cold. I was welcomed and fed. I tried new things (this girl can stand on a paddleboard now). I felt, at moments, sad and awkward, and nobody cared or died or probably mostly even noticed. I loved on my kid, who is amazing and delightful. I got great hugs.
I showed up with integrity and I made real friends. I felt grateful and blessed.
It was not the story of those relationships that I was anticipating, but my story never seems to go exactly how I expect it to. Still, it’s a damn good story and I’m rising up to meet it.
I don’t know if that’s much of a sales pitch. Can you sell something that doesn’t make anybody any money? Though there is profit in it. I get even more than I put in, every time. I prefer to think of it as a testimony.
What’s your testimony?
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