Monday, November 26, 2012
Rob and Celia traveled to spend Thanksgiving with his family, against Celia’s wishes.
Celia was worn out, back at school on Monday morning following a whirlwind holiday trip. But despite the added layer of fatigue on top of being a new mother and a music teacher – William had not slept well in the porta-crib and the drive with William exhausted everyone – it may have been worth it, because for the first time ever, Celia may have realized what it means to have family. Celia’s family was small and dysfunctional and she had few memories of family being an asset.
Rob’s family was larger and reasonably functional, and they embraced Celia’s mother, who had joined them for the trip, like she was one of their own. Celia had actually taken a short nap each of the three full days they were there because William had aunts and grandmothers to meet each of his needs before he could even make a chirp about them.
Everyone treated Celia differently now, too. She could not be sure if that had to do with being a new mother and being treated therefore like a real adult, or if she and Rob had just been married long enough now – three years – that she was considered a real Benton. That felt good, like recompense for the effort it took to haul her mother, William, Rob’s sister (who hitched a ride home from college) and all of their gear across the state and back in five days.
Of course, Rob had been happier than she had ever seen him (and he had been pretty content for the last six months, since they had bought the house and William had been born). He spent time with his father who was still working a reduced schedule after his heart attack two years ago. They talked home ownership and yard care and financial planning in ways that Celia knew made Rob feel confident and secure and worthy. He had been sensitive to her, too, feeling badly for accepting the invitation to Canton without checking first and therefore being at the ready for whatever she might need.
She had not said much about this to Rob, but she was truly grateful to him and glad that he had pushed back on her when she had whined about the trip. He was right. His family did need to see their grandson and they had been more than gracious about her mother coming, too. She wanted to do something special for Rob besides just telling him so.
What does Celia decide to do for him?
Monday, June 18, 2012
Caring for a newborn and becoming accustomed to living with Celia’s mother is presenting challenges. Celia and Mom are arguing about diapers, with Rob stuck in the middle.
Rob said, “Celia, it is just two dollars price difference. Mom will get the generic next time.”
Celia knew Rob was exhausted, and that he had his own struggles getting used to the new house and living arrangement. But, exhausted and anxious from caring for William, she did not have it in her to give Rob the benefit of the doubt on this comment. All she felt was Rob taking sides against her.
She stood up, barely aware that William, in her arms, had awakened and was revving up for a full-blown newborn scream. Rob took him from her.
“Celia, you need to calm down,” Rob said. “You just woke up William.”
“Whose side are you on, Rob!” Celia shouted. “We can’t afford to waste one penny, even if I was working for the summer, but we have the new house to pay for”—she broke down and started to cry – “and your income supporting four people.”
“I’m on our side, Cele. Yes, I wish your mother bought the cheaper diapers but just this once we can afford it.”
“And the little teddies on the front are so cute,” Mom said.
Celia, crying, watched as her clueless mother persisted in her line of reasoning.
“Mom,” Rob said as quietly as he could, since he was cradling William against his shoulder and patting him. “Thank you for going to the store for us. That is a big help and the little Teddies are a great splurge. But we do need to get the generic ones in the future to keep our expenses under control.”
Her mother waved her arms in an I-don’t-care-either-way gesture. “Whatever you say, Robbie,” she said as she turned to go back into the kitchen.
Celia, still crying, thought she must be losing her mind, expecting Rob to start a fight with his mother-in-law by “siding” with Celia, raising her voice around William and panicking about money. But she could not stop crying.
What happens next?
Monday, February 06, 2012
Marriage vs. Mother?
Every day seems to usher in one more small battle between their marriage and Celia’s mother, but Rob and Celia are beginning to feel like they are winning.
Rob, standing behind the counter in his Starbucks barista role, watched Celia and her mother continue their conversation at a table over tea.
“Look, I love you and I want us to live together, but I need you to be a team player,” he heard Celia tell her mother.
“I am a team player,” he heard his mother-in-law say with a touch of whine in her voice.
“Being a team player has to mean more than your best intentions,” he heard Celia continue. “Rob and I need you to listen to what we’re saying. When I ask you not to talk about the baby’s sex anymore it’s because”— Celia glanced up at Rob and he held her eye contact for the long moment before she looked back at her mother – “it’s because I don’t have the energy it takes to have the same conversation, over and over. Please.”
“Well, you don’t have to get mad about it,” Mom said.
Rob laughed inwardly at his mother-in-law’s lack of nuance. People were either happy or they were angry in her world, and since Celia was not obviously happy she must be angry. Watching Celia and her mother struggling out of their rut, he credited them both for their efforts. Reaching into the pastry shelf he picked out two miniature cupcakes, grabbed a pair of napkins, and walked over to Celia and her mother.
“Good job,” he said, giving them each a bite of dessert.
“What do you mean, Robbie?” his mother-in-law said.
“I mean that I’m proud of you both. It’s hard work to figure out how to live together and you’re doing it.”
“I’m just not going to say anything at all,” Mom said. “That way I won’t get in trouble.”
Rob and Celia both laughed in spite of themselves, and Rob knew that even that was progress; to laugh at her limitations instead of despairing over living with her meant they could be on the same team even if the going got difficult.
Celia’s phone rang at that moment and she answered it.
What is the call about?
Monday, January 23, 2012
A boy or girl thing
Celia’s mother was laid off from her job just as she, Rob, and Celia are preparing to buy a house together.
Rob was doing the closing shift at Starbucks, sweeping the floor after what would probably be the last rush of the evening. He had good days and bad days about the whole deal with Celia’s mom. On the days when he focused solely on the financial piece, he was excited about the possibilities. Between the sale price of Celia’s mother’s house and a small loan from his father, they would have sufficient down payment not only to buy a house, but to sneak into a decent school district too, and between his salary and Celia’s they would be able to afford the overhead.
On days following another dip on the family emotional roller coaster, he was not so sure. Celia’s gratitude toward Rob for being so supportive buoyed him, though he feared he would be unable to sustain his optimism if she and her mother didn’t figure out how to work things out better. Celia still treated her mother as her mother. Rob was beginning to feel that to treat her more like a child would be more helpful to everyone, including her mother. Mom wanted to be told what to do, it seemed, but Celia still had an expectation that she should defer and therefore Mom would step up.
The only remaining tasks: to find a house, close escrow, and move in before Celia had the baby in May. Whew.
The bell over the door jingled and he looked up to greet the next customer. He was mildly surprised to see Celia and her mother, but he had known they were going to check out the baby store nearby.
Celia’s mom gave Rob a big hug. Celia, respecting his workspace, showed more restraint.
“Robbie,” Mom said, “I don’t know why you and Celia won’t tell anyone if you’re having a boy or a girl. It would be so much easier to think about what to get if we just knew.”
Celia looked at Rob as if to say, your turn, and good luck on that.
There were times when Celia definitely needed Rob to step in and deescalate situations that pushed her buttons. Clearly, this was not one of those times.
“I’m sure Celia has explained to you how we feel about that,” he said. “I doubt I have anything to add.” He picked up his broom and headed behind the counter. Celia’s mom took a seat at a table as Celia, looking cute in her new maternity jeans, came over to the counter.
“Can I start a drink for you?” he joked.
“I needed your help there,” Celia said. “I’ve been trying to her off my back all evening about the boy or girl thing.”
How does Rob respond to Celia?
Monday, January 09, 2012
Expect the unexpected
House hunting is dominating Rob and Celia’s life right now. Rob is disappointed at the asking price for Celia’s mother’s house, which will provide their down payment, but Celia is realistic that they may have to move again before their not-yet-born child needs a school district.
Rob and Celia shared one of the few quiet dinners they could have alone now that Celia’s mother lived with them, just tacos at the kitchen table, but Celia had lit a candle and they were cozy in their warm apartment. Mom was working the late shift at her retail job and neither Rob nor Celia had evening responsibilities tonight. For Rob, that meant no Starbucks duty, since he planned to keep the second job until right before the baby was born, and for Celia it meant no private piano lessons on top of her daytime teaching job.
“I know Mom’s house sold for less than you wanted,” Celia said.
“A lot less, actually,” Rob said. “We’re going to have at least ten thousand less than I wanted.”
“As I have said, I don’t mind moving again,” Celia said. “It’s a lovely dream, to move into the house we’ll spend the rest of our lives in now. But it’s OK if we move again.”
“I don’t want to move again,” Rob said, continuing to push his point.
He kept pushing until Celia said, “Rob, I think you’re tired. You’re working too much. The only thing that keeps you going is the belief that in six months you will have climbed this huge buy-a-house mountain once and for all. Then you can sleep.”
Rob thought about that as he built himself another taco. Maybe there was something to that. Two months ago, all thoughts of home buying remained years in the future. Now, with Celia unexpectedly pregnant and their decision to try to meet as many needs as possible by buying a house with Celia’s mom, maybe Rob was trying to make too many things happen all at once. He sighed, disliking the option to buy cheap now and trade up in five years.
“But who knows where the market will be in five years?” he said. “There may never be a better time to buy up than now.”
“I don’t need a fancy house,” Celia said.
“Neither do I, but we do need one that we don’t strangle your mother in because she’s constantly underfoot.” A light bulb went off for Rob. “Wait – I wonder if my dad might be willing to lend us a little more for the down payment.”
“I don’t know,” Celia said. “You have two sisters in college right now”—
Just then, they heard front door lock unlatch and front door open.
“Mom’s home early,” Rob said.
“Uh oh,” Celia said. “I hope this doesn’t mean”—
Just then Celia’s mother walked into the kitchen. She looked dejected and tired.
“It was just a holiday job,” Mom said. “I was laid off today, with about ten others.” She dropped her face into her hands in despair.
What happens next?
Monday, December 26, 2011
The House Hunt
Rob and Celia, in their separate ways, have been attempting to redefine their relationships with Celia’s mother, with whom they are in the process of buying a house.
Rob’s firm closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so for the time being he was working only one job, the part time Starbucks job. He had planned to work extra shifts – he found that paying down debt and building savings provided him with more energy than sleep did – but he decided to take the extra time to do some house hunting with Celia. They could use the time together anyway while Mom worked the after-Christmas sales.
In the three weeks since they had decided to pursue buying a house together, Rob was encouraged that their plan was sound. He and his mother-in-law continued to get along famously and Rob felt confident that little could arise in their relationship that he could not handle. Celia, whose complicated relationship with her mother typically drained her, reported similar success. “When Mom started talking about decorating the nursery,” Celia told Rob, “I told her that I refuse to think about a nursery until we have a new house.”
They were driving around neighborhoods Rob considered affordable, trying to determine where to focus their search. “And she accepted that,” Celia continued. “I know it seems like a little thing, but I fully expected her to come up with some convoluted reasoning why outfitting the whole nursery and storing it in our living room until we move made sense. Time was I would have believed her, but”— Celia paused.
“But what?” Rob prompted.
“But our relationship is so much better now that you are a part of it. She’s less crazy”— Celia paused again, obviously in the middle of her comment.
—“And?” Rob prompted, again.
“And so am I,” Celia said. “You and I have known each other for five years now. It’s taken that long, but all the good stuff you got growing up – parents married, everyone happy more often than not – is rubbing off on me. I feel like I can handle my mother for the first time ever. Never in my life would it have occurred to me to live with her again, but I’m actually excited about this!”
Rob pulled over in front of a pretty, small Victorian on a tiny lot with a “For Sale” sign in front, turned off the engine and took Celia’s hand. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to the house. “I can’t believe this, but we could probably afford something like that. It doesn’t have a separate guesthouse or anything, but as well as the three of us are getting alone, we might not need to be so separate.
Celia looked at the house and sighed. “It looks like a place to raise a happy family, Rob.” She turned to him. “I really want to be a happy family.”
“So do I,” he said. Rob kissed his wife, quite content with his lot in life.
How does their plan unfold?
Monday, December 12, 2011
Rob, Celia, and her mother shared a brief honeymoon period around the idea of partnering together to buy a house in Columbus.
Rob still believed they had stumbled together into a good idea over the long term. Meanwhile he was not sure if he would survive the short term. Rob admitted that he had never understood just why Celia’s relationship with her mother was so fraught with drama, all the time, because Rob had always gotten along with her just fine. The longer Mom lived with them in their small apartment, though, the more he empathized with Celia and the life she had lived with Mary Gillespie as her mother.
He had come home from his second shift as a Starbucks part-timer, hoping to be greeted with a quiet ham sandwich, but instead he arrived to an argument he could hear clearly even in the hallway thirty feet from the front door.
Rob flooded with multiple streams of panic and he resisted running back to his car; he worried about Celia being pregnant and stressed, and he feared that the living together ideas was a huge mistake – perhaps he should have let Celia’s initial fears drive their decision making after all. “You can’t stay here, Mom,” might have felt cold and unkind but at least it would have been clean. Rob had never liked messy; he even had vivid childhood memories of sitting in a booster seat at the table shrieking to have his sticky hands wiped off.
He sighed to face what he had signed up for and opened the front door. Celia sat on the sofa with her head in her hands while her mother stood a few feet away with her arm in the air as if she had been gesturing something. Both looked up as Rob entered the living room.
“Robbie, thank God you’re home,” Mom said. “Celia won’t listen to me about taking care of herself. She needs to be eating for two but she insists she’s not hungry. I brought home cookie cutters and sugar cookie mix – would it kill her to eat a couple of them? They’re just going to go to waste now.”
He looked at Celia and saw not his pregnant adult wife but a young child in whose eyes were despair and helplessness. He had never understood so clearly as in that moment why physical distance had been Celia’s preferred method of dealing with her mother.
Rob dropped his things and, ignoring his mother-in-law, went straight to Celia and sat next to her.
“Mom, those cookies smell great and I’m going eat half of them myself in a minute,” he said as he put his arm around his wife. “It’s OK if Celia doesn’t want any. Her doctor said she should eat what she wants, when she wants.”
Rob had no idea what the doctor had said on this point but he groped for the most local authority he could invoke. “And they won’t go to waste. I’ll take them to work tomorrow.”
“I’ll put another layer of colored sugar on them right now and pack them up,” Mom said. At least she could be redirected easily. “Glass of milk, Robbie?” she added as she disappeared into the kitchen.
“Sounds great,” he called after her.
Celia stood up. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said in an angry whisper. “How am I ever going to take care of our baby with her telling me what to do every minute?”
How does Rob respond?
Monday, December 05, 2011
Embracing a new normal
Rob and Celia pitched an idea to her mother: sell your house and move to Columbus with us. We’ll partner in buying a house.
Celia’s mother barely seemed to be the same person, so happy was she about their idea. The personality shift was nearly a one-eighty. Instead of denial, she stood firmly on the ground and engaged the reality of her situation. Instead of negativity, hope and optimism allowed for genuine participation. Celia dared to hope that the lifelong depressive who had raised her might, for once, enjoy her own life. She was surprised, though, that this did not feel like pressure; instead the energy they had put into the old boundaries had been freed to flourish in this new direction.
Celia knew this was a honeymoon phase and that the process would not be easy. Thankfully, Celia’s sick-and-tired first trimester of pregnancy had passed. Between Rob’s real job and his part-time Starbucks job, and Mom’s William-Sonoma holiday help job, many of the real tasks of the transition fell to Celia. She embraced them. First, she broke news of the plan to her older sister Catherine, who still lived with Mom, via phone. Obviously, this would impact her.
To Celia’s surprise, Catherine broke down in tears – of relief.
“I can get on with my own life now,” Catherine said. “I’m going to apply to grad school!” Catherine further offered to be the boots-on-the-ground in terms of selling the house in Canton and would start by contacting real estate agents. Cleaning out and packing up the house would be a job, but the sisters agreed to start this task between Christmas and New Year’s, when Celia would be on vacation from teaching.
Next, Celia addressed the real issue of how she, Rob, and her mother would co-exist in a small one-bedroom apartment for the next few months. She cleaned out the coat closet in the living room entirely, moving its contents into the bedroom, to create a contained space for her mother’s belongings. She put a laundry basket on the floor for the bedding and pillow her mother used on the sofa, and put clothes hangers on a shopping list.
By accepting the new normal rather than continuing to fight the old one, Celia found that she actually had more control over the situation than less. A vague memory from a martial arts class she had taken as a child floated back to her, about moving with energy rather than against it… she had been fighting to separate from her mother for years, and now, with Rob’s help, she had accomplished this by embracing the relationship.
Her gratitude toward her husband welled up. She narrated every point in her life that had led her to Ohio State and the fencing class, of all things, in which she and Rob had met one another.
What happens next?
Monday, November 28, 2011
Reality hits home
Celia’s mother took a holiday job in Columbus and expects to stay with Rob and Celia while she works it.
None of Celia’s panicked, verbalized reactions to her mother’s news—that they did not have room in their small apartment, that the job was temporary anyway – had any impact on her. Not that reason ever impacted Celia’s mother, but it had been the place to start…
Short of defending their threshold at gunpoint, their only option was to receive Mom. Or so Celia had thought; consequently she capitulated to the emotional blackmail of her own fears. As threatened, Mom showed up the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, attended training for her retail job on Wednesday, and started work for Black Friday.
So Rob watched as Celia, still tired and sick in her first trimester of pregnancy, lost out on the holiday week’s rest to the stress of her mother living with them again. He had been ready to refuse his mother-in-law’s plan, but Celia’s worry that Mom would tip back into depression if they did not support her gave him pause. So for now they were stuck.
“You need a new strategy,” his office mate Lucy told him as he unloaded the story the Monday after Thanksgiving. Lucy had a large extended family with which she seemed to balance genuine care and affection with actual boundaries. Lucy did what she could and said “no” when she couldn’t.
“What do you suggest?” Rob said.
Lucy had told him what she thought, which he shared with Celia that night in bed.
“Let’s help her move here,” Rob said. “Whether she keeps this job after Christmas or not, she’ll do a lot better job-wise and mood-wise here than in rural Canton.”
“She still can’t afford to be on her own,” Celia said. “Getting the house free and clear after the divorce was the only thing that made survival possible for her on her income.”
“Lucy had an idea,” Rob said, speaking quietly and calmly to counter Celia’s anxiety. “We could buy a place – partner with your mother, basically. Her down payment from selling the house and our – yours and mine—combined income making the payments. We’d get a place that has a guest house or separate apartment or something. Mom gets taken care of, you get help with the baby, the baby gets its own room, and we could begin to build some
equity. We would buy your mom out someday.”
Celia looked like she had never heard anything so crazy.
“Look, do you really believe your mother is ever going to change?” he said. “Let’s adapt to living with the mother you have, instead of hoping a whole new person shows up someday. Lucy’s really good at this. Maybe we need to be, too.”
“You make it seem so obvious,” Celia said. “You would really do this?”
“Of course I would. I wouldn’t suggest it otherwise.”
What happens next?
Monday, November 21, 2011
Ever wonder if mother really knows best?
Celia’s mother, who had been on an extended “visit,” moved out on schedule per Rob’s request.
This Thanksgiving, Celia’s first gratitude was that she worked for a school district that provided the whole holiday week as vacation. Even though she was approaching the end of her first trimester of pregnancy, the fatigue remained overwhelming. She hoped she might get ahead of it, somehow, with a week of rest. She started with a delicious sleeping-in, and now, awakening slowly in her warm bed, she counted her blessings.
Her second gratitude: She and Rob would observe Thanksgiving in their apartment, alone. They had chosen to remain in town so that Rob could grab extra holiday shifts at his part time Starbucks job while on vacation from his other job. Celia wished Rob did not still work the second job, but what had started as a way to close their income gap when Celia was underemployed now provided extra cash to stash for their unplanned bundle of joy. Celia knew Rob would sleep better for the next eighteen years if they had even a small college account invested now.
Her third gratitude contributed to the second. Her mother was gone and seemed intent on finding another job, having been laid off from her previous one. Celia prayed she would find one before falling into discouragement and depression as was her custom; when that happened getting her back on her feet fell to Celia and her sister Catherine, who lived with their mother.
Celia’s phone rang and she saw that her mother was calling. She considered ignoring it, but decided that at this rested and thankful moment she could tolerate whatever Mom had to offer.
“Celia! I got a job,” Mom said as soon as Celia said hello.
As relieved as she was, Celia was also surprised it had happened so soon – Mom lived in a rural area and jobs were scarce now anyway.
“Mom, that’s fantastic,” Celia said. “Where?”
“Holiday help at Williams-Sonoma,” she said. Celia could not imagine that an upscale store like that had a branch near where Mom lived. Mom must have sensed her emerging confusion because she continued: “At the mall near you and Rob. I applied last week before I left and they called me today. I have a day of training on Wednesday to start on Black Friday.”
Mom continued to chatter about the job as Celia’s grateful heart sunk into her sickly stomach.
“Mom, where are you going to live?” Celia interrupted.
“Well I thought I would drive back up to Columbus tomorrow”—
“And stay WHERE?”
“With you and Robbie, of course,” she said. “But just for the holidays. Once they offer me a permanent job after Christmas I’ll get my own place.”
Celia almost fainted at her mother’s multiple, dysfunctional layers of assumption and naïveté.
What does Celia say?
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