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.