Life is hard. Being a parent is hard. Nobody ever promised that either one would be easy. However, sometimes you get smacked in the face with just how hard the combination of these things can be.
This year I am embarking on two of the hardest things that I never thought I would do. Training for an Ironman and learning to be a single mom. Yep, I said “learning”. Even though it’s been almost two years since I got the official decree pronouncing me “single”, I still feel like I’m going through a learning process. But I guess that just comes with being a parent in general since babies aren’t born with a guide book on all the decisions you will have to make for them, and which decisions will be right. Being a parent is hard enough when you have a loving, supportive spouse there blazing the trail beside you. But no matter how many supportive people you have in your life, when you’re a single parent, some things you just have to get through on your own.
A couple weeks ago, I met Vega for pancakes one morning and we had the conversation we’ve had so many times before. We talked about our kids and the struggles some of them are facing. We both agreed that the first year after a divorce with small kids is all about survival. You keep putting one foot in front of the other and do whatever you have to do in order to get through each day, including occasionally allowing the kids to eat cereal for dinner. Or popcorn. Or pudding. Not because you don’t have food in the pantry or because you aren’t capable of cooking, but more so because you are too exhausted to even make a decision about what to feed them. And so, cereal it is. Of course, if I’m being honest, those nights don’t just apply to the first year. Nor do they apply only to single parents. Sometimes we just have to survive parenthood any way we can.
That particular day though, when I sat down in the booth across from Wes, he tossed a couple 20’s across the table to me to pay me back for something I had picked up for him at the expo a while back. I don’t typically like taking anyone’s money, in fact, I love giving presents, but I almost jumped with glee at the sight of those bills. You see, April was not kind to me. In fairness, I shouldn’t blame April, but rather the FICA guys who took all my money on April 15. I got hit harder this year than expected and I had to pull from several accounts to make things work. Not only did I owe for last year, my quarterly estimates for this year were even higher. My safety net is now gone and at the time Wes gave me those 20’s, I was down to my last $35 dollars until payday on the 30th. Needless to say, things were tight. But the good news is I made it. All on my own.
In the midst of the financial stress came the proposal to have one of my kiddos repeat his current grade. You can mark that near the top of the list of decisions that no parent ever wants to be faced with. My Ethan. My sweet, smart, unique, wonderful Ethan. Did I fail him as a mom pushing him into school too soon? Will this break his beautiful spirit? The worst part was not knowing how he would react. And causing my children pain is the last thing I ever want to do.
Even when we know without a shadow of a doubt that something is the right decision, it can be so paralyzingly difficult to follow through with it. The past few weeks, I’ve spoken with various friends who have done the same. I sought counsel from my best friend in the world; Britta is an educator, has her Master’s in Counseling and has known Ethan since birth. Her insight was priceless. But even with all of the signs pointing to “Yes, Do this” it was still agonizingly emotional.
Monday was Ethan’s 9th birthday. He was over the moon about his new bearded dragon, who he has named Spike. And I let him play hooky from school on Monday to spend the day playing with me and Grandma. Tuesday he requested a Cookie-Cake to share with his friends in his class. So, after I dropped the kids at school, I drove back up Manchester to Dierberg’s to accommodate his request. Then, back over to school. At the door of Mrs. Hackman’s 3rd grade classroom, I handed off the giant cookie with the green letters “Happy 9th Birthday Ethan” scripted across it. As she closed the door, she caught my eye and said quietly, “Pray for us later today” and I responded, “Of course. I need it too”. Side note-you’re allowed to say things like that in a small, private school.
And so I left the school with tears in my eyes, the little dude who was so excited about his new pet and his oversized cookie was about to have a conversation that could go well or really bad. It’s just not fair that kids have to learn so early that with the joy in life, there also comes pain and struggles and obstacles that sometimes feel mountainous. It’s not fair that they have to learn life isn’t fair.
I called my brother. I sometimes forget that I am 7 years his senior because the wisdom that oozes out of that kid is profound. As always, his insight made me cry and feel better at the same time. He kept saying “Good job, Mom. What you’re doing is so great for this dude.” How is it possible that I can be a great mom but feel so wrecked on the inside at the same time?
I needed to relieve some of my anxiety so I did the only thing I know to do at times like that. I threw on my shoes and hit the trail. I drove over to the Al Foster trail head, which has been the chosen start point on so many tough days lately.
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for a run. The temp was only high 50’s and there was a light mist in the air. I ran along the wide part of the path between the Meremac River and the mini train tracks. About 2 miles in, I arrived at Sherman Beach where I made a sharp left turn. The trail narrows there and heads into the woods. Everything is so lush now from all of the rain we’ve had. The greenery was thicker. There was a tree down across the trail. The puddles were more frequent and harder to avoid. The branches were overgrown so I had to duck and dodge branches, even using my hands to push them out of the way. There were points where I couldn’t even really see beyond what was right in front of me. As I got to the other end of Sherman Beach and entered Castlewood, it was even more muddy and hard to see. And once I got to the underpass to the other side of the train tracks, I decided it was time to turn around and go back. Back through the muddy puddles and the overgrown brush. Back over the tree crossing the trail. Back to the Sherman Beach parking lot. Sharp right turn and back onto the wide path. The rain would pick up and then stop. The sun even tried to make and appearance at one point when I was at a clearing and I looked around for a rainbow, but no luck. I looked up to see a guy running about 50 yards ahead of me. And then I realized I hadn’t seen anyone else out there since a couple of walkers with their dogs in the first mile. I ran behind him, gradually decreasing the distance between us until we neared the parking lot where he continued on and I slowed to a walk. As I approached the car, I could see the reflection of my tear-stained, sweat-stained, dirt-stained face. But I didn’t look anxious anymore. I was ready to face whatever would come from that day.
As we prepare to enter the summer months, I am facing a schedule that will make training for an Ironman even more difficult. I will have my kids for the better part of June, which is great, but with school ending and the kids at home most of the time, I’m not sure how I’ll manage those century rides I need to be doing. Maybe I’ll have to hook the bike back up to the trainer.
But here’s what I’ve figured out recently. Life is so full of stuff to stress about, why am I going to stress about something that is supposed to be fun? I’ll bike and swim whenever I can. And I’ll run as much as I can because of the joy it brings me. I’ve said it before, my training doesn’t look like anyone else’s because neither does my life. The only thing my life has in common with anyone else’s is that it’s messy. My training doesn’t look perfect, but neither does my life. I’m still just getting by the best I can. But ya know what, I’m doing it. And I’m not giving up. And that right there is the best Ironman training there is.
My run at Al Foster the other day was so symbolic of life. Sometimes the path is wide and clear, sometimes it’s messy, muddy and unclear. We can’t see beyond what is right in front of us. With all the obstacles in our way, we second guess and wonder if we should give up and turn around. But we go it alone and press on, because what else are you gonna do? Eventually, the path opens up and the way is clear again. And just because you can’t see the rainbow, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
I’m so proud to report that Ethan is very excited about “staying in 3rd grade”. He gets to continue on with his amazing teacher and join several of his friends who have already turned 9. I could not be more proud of my little man. My kiddo is being the strong one carrying his mom through this transition and he’s teaching me a few things in the process. He’s already reminded me that life is short, so let’s focus less on some prepackaged version of being perfect and focus more on appreciating the little things and just being joyful in a crazy, uncertain, messy, beautiful life.