Their voices were muffled through our closed storm door, but I could hear enough. “I know what the hell I’m doing,” Oldest yelled at his dad. My forehead imprint still shines from where I rested it against the glass in that moment of did I really just hear my teenage words come from his mouth?
My husband was explaining how the choices Oldest has been making have him on the slippery slope we as parents dread. None of us wish for our kids to grow into sullen black-clad hooded figures, smoking cigarettes or trying alcohol among other things. None of us wish for their unhappiness over a disappointing childhood to fester into a leaden ball of anger–a weight that will suffocate their motivation and zest for life. None of us wish for it, but sometimes it’s what happens.
Children often don’t realize how little is within our control as parents. We learn that ourselves over the years. For many of us, it’s a lesson of acceptance after many failed attempts to control everything. When they’re little, we can choose their food, what’s on TV, what clothes they wear, what time they bathe and lay down to bed. But at no age can we choose the who’s and the what’s outside our home.
I could’ve chosen to stay with my son’s father, but I couldn’t have controlled him. I couldn’t have forced him to stop doing drugs and drinking with his friends on the weekend. I couldn’t have flipped a switch and turned on the caring and responsible father I’d hoped lived within him.
When I chose to leave him, I couldn’t control how he’d react. I choose to treat his father with as much kindness as I can muster. And when he doesn’t even bother to call with an excuse after skipping yet another Sunday visit, I choose not to snap and pick a fight. Because it’ll end up bleeding out all over my son.
But should his father choose to say awful things about me to our son when he’s with him, I can’t stop him. Should he choose to (and he does) feed Little nothing but sugar and buy him yet another toy to “make it up” or drop him in front of the TV all day so he can sleep it off on the couch or smoke like a chimney with his buddies, I can’t do anything about it. The law has me locked down into a parenting agreement entitling his father to the time between 9am and 6pm every Sunday. I was told by my lawyer I got the best deal I could hope for, because short of repeated child abuse or jail or chronic child endangerment, no judge would take a father’s right to see his child away. And even then, they’d only add supervision.
Just like I cannot plead a case in court for all paternal rights to be revoked on the grounds of plain old being a shitty father, my husband won’t get custody just because his boys don’t like the rules at mom’s house. He tried once, but no judge is going to take children away from a fully functioning mother who provides for her children. Especially one with no substance problems, no criminal record, and no complaints of physical abuse to the children.
Unfortunately, the intricacies of family court are lost on children. Try explaining to two little boys why their superhero father can’t pick them up whenever they want. You won’t get far.
It used to be their mother they blamed because she’s the one who left dad and took them away. But the older they get and the longer they wait for dad to swoop in and rescue them, I’m watching it shift to his shoulders. Somehow as they age their understanding of how it works is diminishing instead of growing and now they’re just pissed off at the world about it.
Then, to add chaos to confusion, Oldest was sent, rather harshly to live with us a year ago. And we adults had our heads inserted so deep within our sphincters, we thought he’d be happy. We thought, well, he’s wanted to live with dad for a long time, this will fix everything.
Imagine our shock and disbelief when a child caught in a pattern of silent rebellion didn’t make a one-eighty reversal in attitude overnight.
It wasn’t till he was being expelled from school when I saw how deep the wounds were. His mother kicking him out. His father, now married to a new woman who expected rules to be followed. Sure, he’d wanted to move in with dad. What he expected was the naive weekend dad who made up for lost time with bicycles and sugar and movies and theme park tickets. The dad he got is starting to agree with mom and his new wife about discipline and saying, “no,” every once in awhile. That wasn’t what Oldest had signed up for.
And so he’s spent the last year answering to the ball of anger taking up residence in his chest. Now, Middle, only two years younger has become an only child at mom’s house and moved into the spotlight. Sort of. Because despite living with us, Oldest’s expulsions, threats of suicide, self-medication, suspensions, and more have brought mom running every time.
So somehow, Oldest still manages to pull himself into the center of attention from a distance, while Middle’s every move is under a microscope at home. He’s left behind while big brother got what they both have wanted for as long as they can remember. Mom, who is doing her best to make amends with Oldest, now has a vice grip on Middle giving all her power to ensure their relationship doesn’t follow suit.
Meanwhile Middle considers rebellion as the only effective means for getting what you want and is modeling his behavior accordingly. Unfortunately, his mom isn’t willing to be pushed this time. But try explaining to a fourteen-year-old why his sixteen-year-old brother gets to live with dad, and he doesn’t. There’s no answer we can give him that doesn’t drip with the bullshit of unfairness.
And dad and I would love to have him, but his outbursts have me terrified of the idea at the same time. While Oldest chooses the mode of silent and injurious rebellion, Middle is a time-bomb. He asks for the moon and the stars and the earth and the sun and the planets and then some, and he’s often told, “Here ya’ go, son.” But the first, “No,” he hears, and it’s kaboom! We’re then called every name in the book.Backs are turned. Doors are slammed. “Whatever,” becomes his favorite word beyond the cuss words. We’re hit with an endless barrage of, “Why?” And no answer is acceptable. He will argue every reason we give him to the point of not making sense anymore, as long as he has the last word.
Weekends when we have both of them are like being caught on a Ferris wheel spinning out of control while you’re trying to keep your eyes centered on one spot below.
This past year has tested everything I’ve learned about acceptance, forgiveness, letting go, and all the other components usually wrapped up in the Zen lifestyle. I feel as hopeless as I did during my own adolescence, and as lost too.
I always told myself my days as a juvenile delinquent junkie would benefit me as a parent. Because I’d be able to recognize the signs with my own kids. I’d know what they were using because I’d done drugs too. I’d know all the excuses and tricks and be able to catch them at it. And I was right.
I know all of it. And it doesn’t change a thing.
Knowing they’re up to no good doesn’t tell me how to keep them from getting up to no good. At the end of the day, I cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I cannot make someone else care. They have to choose it for themselves.
I can show them compassion. I can show them kindness. And I will because I’m out of solutions for everything else. Sometimes choosing not to (re)act is the best course of action. It might mean watching them make mistakes potentially affecting the rest of their lives. It will mean letting them face the consequences of their choices. And it will be suffering every damn step of the way.
But life is suffering.
And teenagers suck. The important thing I’m trying to remember every day even when I’m living one damn minute at a time is that actually being a teenager sucks more.
Note: This is a story of reflection and observation. Nothing stated here is intended with judgment or blame. Part of what makes parenting so difficult is accepting our fallibility and that of others. And learning hindsight is always 20/20.
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