Friday, May 23, 2008

Childhood thoughts

Every once and awhile my mom will ask me if I had a happy childhood, usually when we are reminiscing or looking at old pictures. Such was the case yesterday as we were looking at a collage of pictures of my sister Katie that my aunt Lynn made for Katie's high school graduation in 2002 (Lynn makes each of her nieces and nephews a collage when they graduate from high school, by the way!). My answer, as it has always been, is that yes, I did have a happy childhood, but I would never do it again. I have enjoyed being an adult, despite the many trials and challenges being such brings, much more than being a kid, mostly because I have much more control over my life: what I can do, what I can buy, and where I can go. That said, there are certainly aspects of my childhood that were not so happy, which is what I wanted to blog about. I'm not writing this to hang out my family's dirty laundry because let's be honest: pretty much everyone who reads this blog are people I know, so you either already know my history or I'd end up telling you this anyway.

As most know by now, my parents divorced when I was 4 years old (almost 5) back in 1987. It was the direct result of my dad's actions, not only for what he did morally, but also legally: he was the one who filed for divorce. For the most part we were shielded from the divorce and it did little to change our "status quo" as young kids. I was aware it was happening, but it did little to affect my young world. It was the results of the divorce, as opposed to the divorce itself, that affected, and continue to affect, my life in various ways from the present problems with the house to the relationships between my dad and the four of us (me, my brother, and 2 sisters) and between me and my Ridinger side of the family. As I told my mom yesterday, I wasn't happy then, nor am I happy now, about how the effects of the divorce were handled by my Ridinger side of the family, mostly because they never bothered to get our side of the situation and when we made our feelings known, they were almost always brushed aside or ignored. Unfortunately, this is occurring once again with the current situation surrounding the house that I blogged about at the beginning of the month.

I certainly understand that my dad is under a lot of stress not only with this problem, but also with imminent major surgery. We have known he has surgery coming up and that it was major, but his indications have been that it is a routine procedure; no need to overly worry. Well yesterday I was informed by my grandmother that he has expressed fears of "not making it" through the surgery, so I was treated with a short, awkward lecture of needing to fix the relationship with him so that I don't have any regrets should the unthinkable happen. I typically don't say much, even though there was a LOT I could've said to her right then; but I didn't think it would've been very effective. I also knew that if I got started on it, it would've opened the floodgates and I would've gotten them and myself very upset; so I just listened. I did tell her that Dad has "not said a word about this to us." She said that he said that he didn't think we "were communicating." That's funny because we were all at dinner on Tuesday night and we were talking just fine. In fact, I've been lamenting to my brother, sister, and close friends that Dad and the Ridingers have been acting like nothing is wrong and to be here you would never know that we have a pending foreclosure over our heads along with Dad's bankruptcy. In a way, it seems like nothing has changed, when it most certainly has. The only lack of communication was in the initial weeks after we were notified about this. I simply wasn't speaking to Dad unless I had to because I had nothing to say. He has yet to ask me what I even think about the whole thing, but yeah, it's my job to "fix" the relationship. Hmmmmm. My grandma made it sound like Dad has tried to communicate to us and has been rebuffed or shot down, when in fact, he has said virtually nothing nor has he made any notable attempt to do so. In fact, NONE of the Ridingers have asked me how I'm doing or how I'm feeling in regards to the whole situation. I'm losing my home and support right when I need it most but I'm supposed to be OK with that because I don't want Dad to feel bad. Well, as I've said many times, when this is all said and done, Dad will still have a home, Dad will still have an income, Dad will still have relative stability. Me? I stand to watch virtually all my things go into some storage facility and become an extended guest at one of my grandparents' houses and basically have my whole world turned upside down right when I need to focus my energy and ability on graduate school. But no, I'm supposed to be OK with that somehow.

See, it's always been like this. When we didn't get along with my former stepmom, it was our fault, not hers. We were supposed to be the "mature" ones as 6-12 year olds and open up and be patient while she continued to treat us as second-class citizens especially in comparison to her own spoiled son. Never mind that she made ZERO effort beyond the initial contact to try and get to know us and help us feel comfortable around her for the nine years they were married, but we were supposed to do such to her, at least according to my Dad and the Ridinger side's "standards." Let's also not forget that at the time, NONE of them had ever gone through anything CLOSE to a divorce and remarriage and having two separate families like we did. It is something I will never wish on anyone. And no, we didn't have a problem with my stepmom initially; it developed as we got to know her better and experienced how we were treated differently (read: WORSE) not only by her, but also my dad compared to her son. Case in point: in 1992 we took a combined "family" trip to Disney World, my first time ever there. While I had a pretty good time in my first "Disney experience," I will never forget how my siblings and I were each given $20 spending money for the 4 days we were in the parks. My step-brother? He was given $100 not to mention whatever he could get his mom to buy him. This just one early example of how we were always second. Another example, also at Disney World, was one night we were heading for the ferry at Epcot and my step-brother, who was not yet 6 at the time, was ripping leaves off the bushes along the way. I told him to stop doing that ("stop picking at the bushes."), but my stepmom said "Jon, don't tell [him] what to do," ignoring what he was actually doing (damaging park property) and instead focusing on me. She never did tell him to stop doing that. I also will never forget how we used to visit my dad at her house (it was never "their" house) when they were married. We would alternate who spent the weekend up there, so I would go up about every third or fourth week. I became friends with one of the neighbors across the street and during one of my visits; my dad and stepmom had agreed to help a friend of theirs move some things. Well, my friend invited me to stay at their house at the same time, so my friend and her mom apparently asked my stepmom, who they told me said to ask my dad. My dad said it was fine if I went with them instead of going to help this friend (whom I didn't even know) move. Well, I went over to my friend's house and wasn't over there long before I got a phone call from my dad telling me I was a "liar" and that Emma had said it wasn't OK for me to go over, yada yada yada. He wouldn't listen to me at all and made me come back and go over to this person's house. Her wishes were more important than mine. I think I stopped going up to visit on the weekends after that or shortly thereafter. I didn't set foot in that house again for almost seven years. It started before they were even married. I remember going with them, my sisters, and my step-brother to go shopping for a wedding dress and other wedding stuff (so I was 9). For some reason, I was very good and didn't run around and get into trouble and was even telling my sisters to not do stuff. Well, my dad liked that I was being so "mature" (now that I think of it was was being kinda bossy) and to reward me, he told me he was going to take me to Niagara Falls, which was something I had always wanted to do. We did go sometime I think later that year; along with my brother, step-brother and stepmom, of course. To be "fair" to my sisters, he decided to take them to Sea World (back when we had a Sea World in Aurora, Ohio!). Guess who also got to go? step-brother and stepmom too. "Fair" meant equal in how he treated us in relation to each other, but not in relation to my step-brother. It was plainly clear we were second-best. Let's not forget how many events in our lives were missed because my dad "had to be" at something of my step-brother's like when my dad missed my sister Becky's 3rd grade open house at school because my step-brother had a soccer game. It's something that still sticks out to her and emphasizes how we were always second. Are we bitter about all this? One could say that, but in reality, it's in the past. I only bring these up to show how they have shaped the relationship between my dad and myself (and my siblings as well). If the same type of situation didn't keep recurring, I'd have no reason to be reminded of, and bring up again, these sad events in my past. But, once again they do keep coming up. When we were presented with the news that we would be losing the house sometime as early as this summer, there was never "but we'll make sure everyone is taken care of" or "we'll work though this no matter what" or anything of the sort. The only mention of me directly was "Jon can live at Ridingers," in other words "not my problem or concern." I got the impression that yes, Dad was sad to have to tell us, but moreso because of the embarrassment of having failed financially versus than the direct and negative impacts it would have on me, my sister Katie, and my mom. Whether that was his intention or not is irrelevant; that is what was portrayed to me. It was, as my brother put it, "like we had been encroaching on an overly nice stranger who could finally tell us to get lost." We'd always felt he couldn't wait for us to be out of the house and more distant from him and he finally had the reason to cut the cord. Let's also not forget that even though we were the ones most affected by these decisions, we were among the LAST to know about them.

I think it's also important to point out that my dad and his side of the family have always regarded how he has treated us "compared to other divorced dads." When you look at it in that light, yes, Dad performed remarkably well as he was a part of our lives growing up and paid more child support than he was legally required to (along with a variety of other things). Of course we recognize and are grateful for all he has done and does for us which he doesn't "legally" have to. But look at that closely: "compared to other divorced dads;" hardly a desirable group to be compared to. Many in that group have almost no contact, financially or emotionally, with their kids and still others have severely limited contact and involvement in the lives and upbringing of their children. I have often compared this to a sports team promoting their own "success" by stating they were "one of the best teams that didn't make the playoffs." On the other hand, we (my mom, my siblings, and I), compare Dad to dads who didn't get divorced and instead stayed as part of the family so that not only did all of their income (as opposed to a child-support payment) go into supporting the family, but they played a full-time role in the upbringing of the children, as opposed to a part-time role and did not have other interests- or people- competing with the family as the main importance. When you compare him to a dad like that, he falls well short. Financial support and part-time parental support is great, but it is hardly a substitute for a full-time devoted husband and father. The Ridinger's assessment of Dad also makes it sound like the divorce was some kind of mutual agreement between my parents, when in fact, as I pointed out earlier, it is COMPLETELY on the head of my dad; my mom did not ask for nor want to be left alone to raise 4 young kids on a fraction of the income that had been coming in, but she got it nonetheless. I don't care what the world thinks about divorced parents and divided homes: children raised with BOTH full-time loving parents have SIGNIFICANT advantages in stability (emotional and financial) as well as constant examples and figures to look up to. I didn't have that...I saw dad about once a week growing up and even then, I only got one-on-one attention from him maybe once a month or so on "date night" (which I did enjoy...I got to pick the restaurant and something fun to do). But still, that pales in comparison to if he hadn't left and we saw him and interacted with him every day and he was here for all our problems and difficulties rather than when they finally got so big he had to come here and intervene.

But anyway, as I mentioned, my Ridinger side has been slow to hear and even consider our side of things or even show some care for what we're feeling or to understand why. All through my life it's me who's the one who needs to be more "open-minded" or understanding, but never the other way around. They simply do not, and don't appear to try to, understand things they have not experienced themselves. I have NEVER closed the door on any of my family relationships (even with family members that they have severed ties to) and I have certainly not slammed and locked the door to my dad. But they need to understand that a relationship is a two-way street and that he, not me or my siblings, has done a lot to close the door by his actions throughout his life. One can only take so much of being treated as second-class so long before it gets to them. And despite that fact that we are now all adults, he also has to make a direct effort to reach out to us if he wants to retain the relationship; after all, he is still the father in this relationship. Our growing up has not eliminated his responsibilities as a father any more than his divorcing Mom did. Talking to his parents about the relationship is not reaching out to us; in fact, it's doing the opposite. For people who profess to be so "open-minded" and "liberal" they sure seem to have a hard time seeing anyone else's viewpoints or even trying to.

Notes on pictures: 1. Christmas 1989: Andy had just turned 10, I was almost 8, Katie had just turned 6, and Becky was almost 4; 2. Christmas 1990 with my dad and our new "Sound FX" toys (we still have those!). 1990 was about as close as we've gotten since the divorce to having a full-time dad again after he had moved back from Philadelphia and before my stepmom came into the picture; 3. I will give Dad credit for taking me on some fun trips like this one to Virginia Beach to visit my aunt in 1995; 4. My dad and Grandpa Ridinger with the four of us at Chimney Rock, North Carolina in July 1994.

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