Friday, April 3, 2009

Me and My Three Men, or does Filou count too?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

There are times I feel surrounded by men. Not a problem say some. Which is true. I shouldn't be too dismayed. It's not a disease. But it is an interesting case for dissection. But for two of my boarders, the world around me is decidedly masculine. Over and beyond my two boys, there is Filou the dog. As he just happened to come into our life. We accepted him as he was, there was no negotiating on this point.

My neighbors are three single men (one just hooked up with a lady and her four kids, but for the first two years, he mulled and moped about in solitude and a nasty divorce); one is a discreet and chic barman, nearly never there. Other than a bit of music that passes through a wall into the girls' room, I'd never know if he were home or not. The third has become a dear friend. We contemplated something more a while back..., and said, Nah, better off as long lost siblings. He's a 39 year old actor, orphaned nearly 20 years' ago, and coping pretty well. He gives me a hand in the garden, drinks all my coffee, and loves it when I bake. I'm big sis, he's little bro. We're so at ease with each other, I even opened the door to him once while I was plucking my chin hairs. Yes, no artifice here!

But the true threesome is JP and the boys. They're rarely in the same space -- a short weekend per month if that. I think only the very first weekend, and perhaps one evening or two in his house went really well amongst them. The first time they met JP the boys were full of questions, "will you marry him? will he be our new papa? are we going to live together?" You realize how powerful the archetype of a whole family is for kids. That first meeting was planned to a T. The swimming pool, lunch at the French answer to McDs (Quick), followed by a visit to the toy store where his son works, and last but not least, a film (Horton Hears a Hoo). The kids fought over who got to sit next to him, hold his hand. They were in amazement, and delighted to reach out. It seemed like a good beginning.

But, with time, things have not improved. Meal times with my kids are not serene and calm. Conversation is bubbling, the music can be deafening, and there's been known to be an occasional visit to Filou under the table. Hm, are my boys spoiled? Or just getting used to being seated and polite at the dinner table? I've worked intensely on this aspect of their behavior this year, and they've definitely improved. They know not to say a word if they don't like something that is being served, and if need be to fill up on bread and butter. They're learning to hold still, not interrupt conversation, and they always say please and thank and excuse me. Yet still, they are rambunctious, to put it gently. For a man reveling in the calm and zen of a life as a single adult, with tendencies towards being a hermit (it wouldn't displease him), the simple idea of coping with two small boys is a big one to get his mind around.

So, we've been taking things very slowly. I've my boys one weekend per month, and am usually with JP on the weekends, thus, one weekend a month, the three of them find themselves in my sphere. On these rare weekends I find myself divided in three. I'm convinced that the exceptional aspect of his visits keeps him a stranger to the boys, an intruder in our sphere. I've come to see that my three men are accustomed to having me to themselves alone (the boys share me, but even there...). The enforced division and sharing that unavoidably happen when we're all together sandwich me -- and I find myself too often scolding the boys for their teasing, bickering etc., As I look over across the table, or over to the chair by the wood stove, I see a man a bit lost in my menagerie, wondering perhaps why he's there at all, putting up with it out of affection for me, and awaiting the moment when finally, the boys will be abed, and we'll be able to be just the two of us again.

It is a strange thing blending two lives, even in small doses. On the weekends, I revel in being a woman again, and appreciated as such. On the weekdays, I relax, care for the kids, laugh, shout, cuddle, read, chill with my dog, take time for my writing. The kids have me to themselves, as myself. And my vintner has me in an artificial quiet, all by myself in his house, adapting to his rhythms. The occasions when I brought the boys to his house were very mixed, with the balance weighted towards 'failed experiment.'

Accepting that yes, he has a hard time with my boys, and that seems to be a fact, I've also become curious as to why he is like that. Amongst other ideas that have filled my head, I've begun analyzing homes and the division of space. My father, a man whom my vintner resembles just a wee bit (Freudian moment much?) designed our summer home. He created a structure that separated the sleeping quarters/his office from the living/dining area of the house. The house was conceived as two A-frames joined by a small screened porch. Two solid doors kept all the noise of kids playing cards, making dinner, whatever, from my father and his study where he was able to concentrate on his books. Likewise, the early risers could leave the sleeping quarters, and go over to the living house to prepare smelly bacon, brew coffee, rustle a newspaper. My father was one of those fathers who needed complete calm and quiet to concentrate. He was not someone who handled interruptions gracefully. However, he had the financial means and skill to protect this need. I remember him as either being behind that door, or, being with us (a couple of tennis games would regularly intervene). Thus, when he chose to be with the family, he was there, more or less gracefully.

The living space was also ingeniously designed to permit three different activities to occur at any one time. Adults could chat and share their drinks around the fire place, a puzzle could be on a card table in a corner, a game of cards on a window seat, a kid reading The Lord of the Rings on the other window seat. The living area was designed to welcome multiple activities and people.

When I got back to France this summer, and moved back in to my temporary quarters at JP's (my house being rented), I looked around, listened, remembered, felt. Why had it been that when my kids were here in early July it had been so intrusive for him? Well, there's his desk, smack in a prime corner of the living space, and the couch in front of the big TV right beside it. Behind the TV is the small kitchen, and in the last corner, the dining table. When my children wanted to watch a film on the TV, the sound filled the room and their choice dominated the space. When JP needed to work at his desk, all had to be quiet, or elsewhere -- outside, in a back bedroom. When I started to cook, my chopping broke his concentration. Earlier in the year I'd been working on the couch, and was displaced when his daughter wanted to watch SpongeBob (she's 20). This living space, due to its size and acoustics, could only handle one activity at a time. I started to wonder how he'd managed during his own children's childhood? With difficulty and very early mornings he said.

My house is not set up to have a quiet corner other than my bedroom. My room is my haven, spacious, comfortable, cool-colored, relatively quiet and out of the way. But the living space is smaller than at the winery. I've in mind a project to expand out onto my terrace and build a well insulated glassed-in room, with comfy couches, a small stove to warm it in the winter. But for the moment, this project is on hold. Thus my house has one room in which we can all cozily be. Two cushioned chairs are by the wood stove, 6-8 chairs can fit around the small dining table, my kitchen island takes up a lot of space, though it does protect the cook while she works. My oven has a convection system that I use systematically, lending a certain white noise buzz to the space. When the weather is cold, we're all holed up in here. Hence, for he who needs quiet, peace, calm, a moment of zen, my bedroom or a walk outside are the only possibilities.

The kids, of course, don't even notice the spacial limits, the effect on our behavior of the houses we live in, but they do very much act on these influences. In particular, on a rainy cold night when playing outdoors isn't particularly tempting, their preferred activity is attacking each other under my feet and eyes while I cook. Delightful, hm? And those slippery painted floors at the winery? super for running and sliding!

A girlfriend has lived a separated existence for over six years now. In her case, it was her boyfriend who was particularly disagreeable the weekends she had her son. Over time, she simply tried to juggle to keep them separate. She adores her man, and she's done her best by her son. But, she too was a bone of contention between these men, who are constantly jealous of the other. Her boyfriend even once complained to her that she always put her (15 year old) son ahead of him.

What is a woman to do? We put these children on this earth and we're doing our darndest to raise them well. But we also want to be loved and adored as women. How to communicate patience and tolerance to those we love so dearly? How to explain that we are capable of loving all of them, but there's only so much of us physically to go around?

When I left my marriage, I probably left the only man who might ever have looked on me adoringly for my mothering skills as well as desirously for my womanly curves. It is said that few men can love another's children. I suppose I'm putting that to the test. At least for the moment.

But hey, I've got my faithful Filou to warm my feet at night. He never complains, even when he's displaced by JP. Ah, there's the example of patience and devotion that I need.

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