We’re settling into a booth with old friends visiting from out-of-town, happy for a night out that we’ve been putting off way too long, and happy for the chance to catch up with two people we love who know the good, bad, and ugly of us.
“How are you?” she asks, in the way that old friends do: full of meaning and with genuine interest. She continues,”things look so settled and calm now. Does it feel great to be through it? I’m so glad everything is finally okay.”
I just look at her.
I’m tempted to laugh.
When will everything finally be okay?
Gabe and I were just talking about everything that isn’t currently okay on the drive over.
The kids are off the chain. We’ve been off of our regular 50/50 custody schedules for a variety of reasons and all the kids are on high alert. They worry about when transition day is and if the time at each house is really even and will I see Dad before I leave for camp? When the kids aren’t asking about where they’ll be, they’re fighting like cats and dogs. It got so bad on our vacation we came home early. Back talk and rolled eyes abound, and there aren’t enough popsicles in the world to make things right.
Gabe and I aren’t much better. We’re stuck between an expensive, high mileage lemon and a new-to-us car payment that feels tight. Our jobs are both demanding more time and energy than usual. We’re navigating yours vs. mine kid disciplinary issues at a mind-boggling rate, and while we might not agree on the specifics of each situation, we agree that this blended family parenting and stepparenting gig can wear you down like no other. Our shared calendar is color-coded chaos, and I nearly forgot to pick up Lottie at camp yesterday. We are desperate for time away together, but agreeing on a budget and location and then planning a trip feels like madness.
Our coparenting commitments feel heavy. My ex and I just renegotiated child support, and neither one of us is particularly happy with the interim solution we reached. We’ll be back at the table talking through our options again in January. He’s vaguely wondering about whether our week to week schedule is still the right fit, and my stomach clenches at the mere mention of another change. I took the kiddos out to dinner during his week recently and Caden mentioned he hadn’t eaten lunch. Or breakfast. I bit my tongue so hard it nearly bled.
We are mired firmly in the messy middle.
The messy middle makes no sense. My favorite DIY bloggers posted about the messy middle of design projects years ago, and I’ve often thought of that post. According to them, the middle is always nutty looking and DIYers should push through the mucky middle with confidence. The room will be perfect, they assured readers. Just keep going.
I love the idea that in the middle of a project or journey we can lose our way, and the plan we loved can start to look all jacked up and crazy. That doesn’t mean the plan has suddenly gone wrong. It doesn’t mean that the end state isn’t achievable. It just means that with the furniture piled in the middle of a half-painted room your perspective changes.
When the children were little, and my family situation far less complicated, the messy middle wasn’t so messy. Figuring out our summer schedule had a neat beginning, middle and end. Picking a preschool, applying for a promotion, buying a new car all followed the same predictable route.
Our reality was built on the steady predictability of first-family life: we knew where we were spending Thanksgiving this year, and all the years that followed, planned carefully for our retirement, and believed the children would use the play set we saved for every day for the next several years.
This messy middle is different. Our reality swirls much faster than it did before. We know now that nothing is certain forever.We have a broader cast of characters, multiple bank accounts, and schedules that sometimes require military-style maneuvering. The middle seems to stretch on for much longer than it once did.
For years, I didn’t recognize it as the middle. I thought because it was longer, murkier, more confusing that it was some new awfulness I hadn’t anticipated. I talked about it with friends and therapists. I tried to research it away and find solutions.
Then, suddenly I recognized it. This was the middle of this new life in progress.
We keep on keeping on.
Now, firmly in the middle, I don’t struggle against the muck.
It’s okay if I can’t see my way through it. It’s okay if the kids aren’t getting along today. It’s okay if we switch our schedule. I trust our plan and keep moving forward. I talk about it less. I don’t judge it. I let it be.
Maybe that’s why my dear friend thinks it has disappeared.
I used to think the long complicated messy middle was known only by blended families or divorced parents.
Now, I wonder if this is just the messy middle of a well-lived long life. My still-married friends are navigating their own messy middles: the sudden loss of a mother, a career meltdown, a child whose special needs have become increasingly heavy, heartbreak. Maybe this long messy middle sweeps us all up eventually.
There’s good here in the middle.
There may not be a well-styled DIY reveal after this middle. This noise and swirl may extend far longer than I can imagine. But even in the middle, love remains.
We are showing up, this tribe of ours. Showing up to parent our children, showing up after we disagree and make mistakes, showing up even when we feel like running for the hills. We are still here, and so is joy.
I still walk the dog through the misting sprinklers on my morning walk. I cook using the nearly-worn-through pots and pans my toddlers clanged and clapped in my kitchen. My thirteen year-old still sits in my lap and asks for a cuddle. I wake with a start in the middle of the night and find Gabe, bare-chested and snoring lightly, still holding my hand as we dream.
My sweet friend blinks her blue eyes at me, expectantly. I realize I’ve waited just a beat too long to answer her question.
She repeats herself, voice lower and full of concern, “Kate, are you alright?”
I smile and meet her gaze. “I’m just fine,” I reply. And we are.