I have always had FOMO, the fear of missing out. It is what kept me in school when I was sick, kept me awake in the back seat of our family car on long car rides, it has forced me to go to some social engagements when I really didn’t want to go. It’s part of my personality, and I can’t let it go.
But this year I have another FOMO—Fear of Moving On. To be clear, I didn’t see this coming. I had processed my grief over the last three years and its hard edge has softened to the dull, patina of mourning. It will always be there, but now it is benign, manageable, and yes even comforting.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting on the steps of my bathtub, in a robe, hugging my knees to stop from passing out, hands clammy, lips tingling, all the classic signs of a panic attack, an hour before I was going to introduce my boyfriend to my children. We had been dating about six weeks, and with the exception of pick-ups and drop-offs, my two worlds had not yet collided.
To be clear, I’m not prone to panic attacks—I’ve had a few in my life which I would deem “situational”, but this was a Tsunami that had been building for the entire morning and had crashed an hour before “showtime.” There is a cause of this anxiety, and it is rooted in the past (isn’t it always?)
I am an Adult Child of Divorce—it’s a crazy term, but we are a tribe of the confused, the conflicted, the hopeful, the jaded, and the disillusioned.
When my parents separated, literally one month after my engagement, it was like I lost the signal on my GPS in the middle of nowhere.
My parents, to me, had a golden marriage—she was blonde, blue-eyed, well dressed with classic taste and a “can do” attitude that made everything seem possible. He was darkly handsome, brown hair, brown eyes, funny, very bright, and deeply ambitious.
They supported each other—my mother’s support being more overt since my father teetered on narcissism. They co-parented efficiently and raised us, two girls and three boys, equally, with obvious love for us, and each other.
When my father’s FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) gave him the push to torch his existence in mid-life, it was in search of greener, less domestic pastures. It rocked the foundation of our family and changed our future forever.
My youngest brother, who was only 12 at the time, was forced into weekends that involved brunches with his mistress and a cast of misfit characters, who shared stories of how they narrowly escaped the bondage of suburbia. None of them ever looked happy.
Our lovely holidays became a mixed-bag of trying to see him either before, or after the day itself. We, all five of us, held fast to the tenet that my mother came first. She didn’t leave us, he did, so he had to make accommodations.
Things were strained—he would try to force-feed us some narrative about the virtues of his current girlfriend—usually some tall tale that would put Paul Bunyan’s to shame.
Years later, he would be force-feeding us another narrative about another inappropriate woman who he would eventually marry. By now, he would try to extort us to invite her to family events. “It’s both of us, or no one.” We stood firm, if my mother was there, she could not be—end of story.
When my father had events, we had to endure her, usually with the help of a cocktail and a mantra that went something like “We only have to see her for three hours.”
My mother, on the other hand, continued to live her life as she had, with grace and kindness. She always encouraged us, even in the darkest of times, to maintain a loving relationship with our father because, as she would say, “He was always a very good father,” which was true.
She settled into a life where she could parent my youngest brother, have a lively social life, and provide a safe-haven for all of her children. The end of their marriage was incredibly painful for her—every night she prayed a novena to the Infant of Prague. I know her prayers involved the emotional and physical wellbeing of her children and later grandchildren, and she always prayed for him—that this smart, loving man would come to his senses and see what he was missing. She was a patient woman, who felt that his goodness would bring him back to her.
In her mind, he had everything—five healthy children, money, a business that he loved, a spouse who was devoted to him. She would tell him that he was tempting fate, and that he would regret it. He did.
(A few years ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, despite his best efforts to fight it with drug trials and the best doctors in the field, he died within the year. He regretted his actions until the day he died. But that’s another story).
As we all got married and had children, my mother’s house was our resort. It was the best kind of resort because we would pull up, step out of the car, and my beautiful mother would be at the front door, ready to grab the newest baby from my hands, or that of my sister. She always had a look of such love and satisfaction, that all of the worries of trying to juggle a baby and a job would just melt away.
Once we crossed that threshold, we were taken into a place where there was no problem too big, no issue too complicated. Her children were her legacy and she made no apologies. Where that thought was diminishing to my father, to my mother it was everything.
When her children were around the table talking and laughing, she would always say “What is better than this?”
We tried to get her to date—God knows there were a dozen guys that, once they found out that my parents were divorced, flocked to her, via intermediaries. But she was content being the matriarch of a large family.
We often felt guilty when we had other plans and were not able to be there. We would fervently wish, and discuss amongst ourselves, how nice it would be for her to have a relationship. In a way, we thought it would take up some of the slack, but on a less selfish note, we wanted her to be loved that way again.
We would wonder how she could be so satisfied with our company—I mean really, we were her kids! She delighted in us, although she wasn’t shy about using her velvet hammer for criticism, advice, or judgement. She was wonderful, but she wasn’t a saint.
So here I sit on the steps of my tub, paralyzed in fear of what’s to come and haunted by the mess of the past. But it is not what is to come that Saturday, it is the fear of what is to come in the future. Blended families, shared holidays, my kids always looking at him as “mine” and not a real part of their family. Or maybe they forge a tighter bond with their eventual in-laws in response, maybe they will feel I have abandoned them, or we have to suffer through the constant tension of them not liking each other, or worse yet, not accepting him.
I know I was totally getting ahead of myself, but frankly, this was the first person that I had dated (and I dated a good many) that I would consider spending time with my children. He is smart, funny, handsome, kind, and considerate. We are delightfully compatible, and truly enjoy each other’s company.
So my panic attack was literally a cry for help, and so I went to the only person I knew could help me at that moment—my sister. Younger, but much more practical and on-nonsense than I am, I knew she would give me the verbal “Snap Out of It” slap (picture Cher in Moonstruck) that I needed.
Crouched on the cold tile steps, robe tied so tight as to cut off circulation, I called her. I had to whisper, because I didn’t want my kids to hear. I told her the situation, and I started to cry, I’m terrified, I don’t know if I want to go to the next step, what if they hate him, what if….
“First of all, it is just another date. He will meet the kids and Rob and I will be there. You are not alone, it’s going to be fine. Just stick to today. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ve done everything for your kids since Michael died, you are allowed your own happiness.”
“What if someone is rude?” I asked.
“Deal with it.You are the mother. Get a grip.”
And she was right, and the day went off without a hitch. Later when I had time to calmly reflect, I realized that it was because I had carefully, to the best of my ability, crafted a life for my family after death that I didn’t want anyone, or anything to upset. It was a delicate balance, and I felt the responsibility of maintaining that balance every day. If this relationship were to proceed, it would have to be delicately introduced, not force-fed, a la my father.
I thought of my mother and for the first time realized that, in her cocoon, she didn’t have to make this jump. She never introduced any man to us, she never had to split a holiday, we always had her, and she us. We came first and although it was a tremendous thing. I also realize how easy it was—that was the easier path. To be alone, to not compromise, to not move on, to make us her whole world. It was selfless to be sure, but it was also safe.
Now, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, she doesn’t have the bandwidth to reflect on her life choices. Would she regret not having shaken things up a bit and dated, and introduced someone we may, or may not, have liked? Or would she be content with the life she had? We will never know, but I know that I’m someone who likes being in a partnership, I’m good at it.
So now, I’m still terrified, I have made my children (and still intend to) the number one priority of my life. In my marriage, it was kids first always. After my husband died, it was even more important. My grief was nothing compared to theirs. But now they are all forging their own futures. I fully intend to be the safe port in their lives, but it won’t be a bad thing if there is someone with me. And if it works out that I am alone, it will be by design, and not from fear of moving on.
Claudia Lucey is a widowed mother of four, mostly adult children. Her “happy place” is the beach, where she spends every waking moment in the Summer. But spending time with her children is her greatest joy. Her philosophy is that laughter, even through tears, is the greatest emotional outlet. Nothing makes her happier than a good laugh, even at her own expense. She is a Director of Marketing for a construction company, yet she is a trained journalist who loves to write and photograph buildings of any size or shape.