Loving children when it’s hard

When I was 16, my father and stepmother told my two sisters and me that as much as they loved their children — they’d die for us — they loved each other more, that their love had only grown in the dozen years they’d been together.

Eight years later, my dad moved to Arizona, divorced my stepmom and married a woman with three young daughters who essentially replaced us. In the 27 years I’ve been a mother, my father’s never visited. Any interaction with him required my initiation and follow-through, ultimately failing a cost-benefit analysis.

My stepmom, on the other hand, has remained constant in her children’s lives. She’s celebrated our weddings and supported our divorces. She came to my home and took care of me every time I had a baby. She’s the only grandmother my older boys grew up with, a role she’s embraced so fully, it’s a large part of her identity.

There are no guarantees that any relationship will be permanent. But it is more assured between parents and children than between lovers. Nobody knows anyone as well as a child knows a parent. And, when fully committed, a parent cannot be laid more emotionally bare than by a child.

A committed parent shows up in both easy and difficult times, holding their seat as the one in charge while empathizing with children’s often confusing emotions. “How to Talk so Your Children Will Listen,” which was published in 1982, remains the parenting bible on how to do this.

Young children and teenagers alike often seem irrational. Most school mornings my 10-year-old, Leif, ignores my calls to get up and is whiny and angry when I make him do so, even though he’s slept for nine or more hours. “Get your butt down here right now!” I’ve yelled more times than I wish to admit.

Yet yelling never works. What does is going to his room to comfort him, stroke his head, give him a hug and tell him he’s going to have a good day. That’s not always possible, however, as there are breakfasts and lunches to make and another child, along with myself, to get ready.

When he was a teenager, my second son, Hugo, once shouted at me, “I only have one problem and it’s you!” For years, he directed what felt like endless anger at me. But as unpleasant as it was to live with, I tried not to take it personally.

“Why is he always so hard on you?” my partner, Max, asked after Hugo had marched into our bedroom and told me all the ways I had disappointed him on his 16th birthday. I believed then, as I do now, that Hugo regularly tested my commitment to him from a place of pain over his father, who never made an effort to have a relationship with him.

Hugo’s now 24 and we talk daily. We’ve started our own two-person book club after he recently texted, “For whatever reason, I’m craving some depressing, overly descriptive and nature-focused literature. Do you have any Russian authors to recommend?” We’re starting with Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls.”

But what of the anger of an adult child? One who never gave me trouble before now claims that if he is to have a relationship with me, he needs me to understand him. He’s angry I didn’t intuit what he is going through. Of all my qualities, psychic powers are not on the list.

Regardless, “If I am going to have a relationship with you” are words that cut my heart to the quick. Emotions are neither right nor wrong, they just are, and I’ve always treated them as such. But it isn’t always a two-way street that, certainly not with this son at this time.

It reminds me of young baby boomers stating that they needed to go find themselves, to which their greatest-generation parents scratched their heads and said, “Huh?” And that somehow made the young boomers angry.

On a walk last month, my son talked and I listened. When I was a child, I felt hot shame whenever I disappointed an adult I respected. It felt similar listening to my son’s complaints.

There is nothing, short of causing harm, that I won’t accept of my children, which I’ve made clear in word and action all their lives. Yet this child, in an effort to find his way, feels he must push away from me. I don’t know what I could’ve done differently, but my love for him remains steadfast.

There are many benefits in being the mother of a large family, including seeing children turn out so differently from one another that it’s impossible to credit or blame myself too much for who they become. But also, there are witnesses, people who have known each other all their lives.

“He’s being really selfish right now and you need to set boundaries with him,” my two other adult sons recently told me. And they reminded me, as they have throughout their brother’s life, that he’s not the angel I think he is.

“But he’s my child,” I told them, a relationship they cannot yet understand as they are not yet parents.

One summer years ago, I told my father, mother and stepmom about things that they did in my childhood that painfully echoed into my adulthood. My father and mother became angry and stopped talking to me, neither a surprise nor a disappointment. My stepmom wept as I spoke and apologized with a simple sincerity, making no excuses.

Her response, meaningful to me then, is an example for me now.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 7, 2021.


Mark important moments in history with children

“History is not was, it is.” — William Faulkner

On a January day in 1973, a bulky television atop a 4-foot metal cart was wheeled into my second-grade classroom at Longfellow Elementary in Toledo. Former President Lyndon Johnson had died the day before at his ranch in Texas and we were shown a news program about his life.

I didn’t know anything about Johnson — he’d left office when I was 3 — but I did know about the current president, Richard Nixon. In the weeks leading to his reelection the previous fall, children in my white working-class neighborhood, myself included, chanted “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man. Let’s throw McGovern in the frying pan!” as we walked to and from school twice daily (once for lunch).

No, the white working-class conversion from union Democrats to a GOP voting block didn’t begin with Donald Trump, nor did it begin with Ronald Reagan. The movement started in the ’60s as a response to civil rights legislation, yes, but also to a host of societal changes occurring in America and other developed countries (1968 is remembered in France as a year of protests, strikes and riots).

There are periods in history that are pivotal and can shape nations for decades. Johnson’s administration was responsible both for progress on civil rights and the escalation of a war the government knew we could not win. I’m sure much of the program on Johnson went over our 7-year-old heads that day. And, yet, nearly 50 years later, I remember watching it.

On Sept. 8, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a televised 15-minute speech to the nation’s K-12 students. My second son, Hugo, was in the seventh grade at Miller South where I assumed they’d make the students watch the highly publicized event. But they did not.

When I spoke with her the next day, the school principal told me they had a television on in the cafeteria, but that most students instead had gone out for recess. Well, yeah, they’re kids. It’s up to adults to guide children to watch and listen to important events.

Earlier that year, I kept all three of my boys home from school to watch Obama’s inauguration. It was an historic moment for our nation, which has treated Black Americans as lesser humans for four centuries, often violently so. Because I didn’t have a TV, my friend Dana, who worked that day, gave me the key to her house. Twelve years later, my sons remember the ceremony.

Not all historic events are appropriate for young children, and I was glad not to have a TV in the months after 9/11. But we shouldn’t underestimate what children can handle by the time they are 9 or 10. My 95-year-old friend Barbara Campbell recently told me that the day John F. Kennedy was shot her kids were outside playing ball. She called them in and had them watch the news coverage.

Long before November’s election, I was concerned about Trump’s reaction should he lose. Anyone seeking the highest office in the land must think well of themselves, but notable mental health experts have described this president as having something far worse than an over-inflated ego: malignant narcissism. And when thwarted, narcissists have one response, which is rage.

Former cyclist Lance Armstrong, who is also believed to have narcissistic personality disorder, won the Tour de France seven years in a row. At the time, it was often rumored that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs, which he vociferously denied.

When Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former teammate, testified under oath that Armstrong had indeed used performance-enhancing drugs, he tried to destroy her with a costly lawsuit and a smear campaign in which he claimed she was an alcoholic prostitute.

Eventually, the world learned that Andreu was correct and Armstrong was the liar. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles.

So it was not surprising when, after November’s election results became clear, the current president began granting pardons to war criminals and cronies, signing executive orders to frustrate the incoming administration’s ability to address the panoply of once-in-a-century crises facing our nation and, just for an added measure of cruelty, rushing through federal executions.

But I hadn’t imagined Trump giving a 70-minute incendiary speech calling on his supporters to attack our Capitol in an armed insurrection that endangered the lives of those inside, including the nation’s congressional members who were there to certify the presidential election results.

After NPR first reported rioters breaking through the barricades surrounding the Capitol and then into the building itself, I began streaming CNN on my laptop. My 10-year-old son, Leif, and I watched in horror as the house of our democracy was desecrated. According to reports, rather than being alarmed by the violence he had incited, the president watched it on television, pleased his supporters had taken him seriously.

Only hours later, and after President-elect Joe Biden and pleaded on national television for him to do so, did the man who had unleashed the mob appear on TV with the mixed messages of “Go home” and “We love you.” Trump did not condemn their behavior nor concede the election.

As I write this, there is one day left in which the 45th president can wreak havoc on our already suffering country. While the road ahead for our nation and the world will continue to be difficult, after the inauguration of Biden and Kamala Harris I will breathe and sleep a little easier.

You can be sure that Leif watched the televised ceremony with his father and me. And in 50 years, I hope he remembers doing so.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 23, 2021.