I won’t lie. Some of the experts I was encouraged to follow were borderline criminals to me in their parenting methods. I ignored them.
Still, others seemed wise. Educated. Informed. Something that I clearly needed to align myself with to “succeed” at this whole parenting thing.
Um. Yo. 19 years into this gig, I’d like to tell you, not one of those experts prepared me for what our life would actually be like.
Not a single one knew my kids.
My kids didn’t fit neatly into any box that people told me they would or should.
By the time my oldest was a high schooler, I was pretty convinced that there was no way I could possibly know how to raise a child who was both a cancer survivor and the surviving child of a dad who died by suicide.
There were no books for me to read.
No experts to consult — although we did find a pretty great therapist in Arizona who specialized in helping kids who lost a parent to suicide. So, I’m all about help-seeking if there is help that helps.
By the time my son was starting high school, we were living in a different state, in a new blended family (oh yeah add that: needed an expert who specializes in kids who have survived cancer, suicide loss AND 4 new step-siblings, 3 of whom usurped him as oldest child in the house. Know anyone? Yup. Me neither.)
It all felt pretty insurmountable.
Especially on the day the school counselor called to complain that she’d never, in “all her years of being in education,” seen a child with such a “complicated” educational history. Thanks for that vote of confidence, dear counselor. Now, if you wouldn’t mind, please just write his 504 plan based on the neuropsychologist’s recommendation because she’s considering the chemo he was on, his trauma, and this complicated education history? K? Thaaaanks.
Freshman year was a strong solid start. As the child of a physician dad and a life-long learner mom, it wasn’t surprising that he was earning top grades his first semester.
Until, he met a girl.
He met a girl in the “wrong crowd” that he thought he could save. And my tender-hearted sweet boy doubled down on making that happen. It didn’t. And neither did passing grades in a couple of classes second semester.
It was a bit daunting.
High school matters, right?!
This kid needs to go to a good college. He needs to have a great career. These grades are not good. They are not good at all.
Everything in my brain screamed, “Now would be an excellent time to PANIC!”
And, panic, I did.
My sweet son spent most of sophomore year grounded. Now, some who lived through that year may take issue with my characterization of said child as “sweet.” I get it. It was pretty hard to see his sweetness through his trying-on of toxic masculinity and his house-shuddering blow-ups over not being allowed to have a life–at least until he got his grades up.
All the experts were telling me that I just needed to have consequences for him not doing his homework. Take the phone. Take the PS4. Take it all! He’ll come around.
Except, I should have known better.
This “sweet” boy had already proven to us that he was anything but your typical “give-me-a-few-gold-stars-and-a-couple-of-consequences-kid” when he was fighting cancer ages 3-5.
Nope. This kids was the “Fuck-anyone-coming-at-me-with-a-needle-and-I’ll-burst-your-eardrums-with-my-screams-and-a-toy-doesn’t-make-up-for-the-battery-acid-you’re-trying-to-get-me-to-drink” kind of kid.
At least that’s what the social workers explained to my husband and I when they gave up on reward systems and taught everyone on his support team (including us) physical restraint methods to get the necessary medical procedures done.
So, no one, especially me, should have been surprised when he opted for staring at the ceiling afternoon after afternoon instead of doing his homework and getting his privileges back.
I was doing everything the experts were telling me to do in order to NOT be in a power struggle with my son. And yet, he’d found a way. He was going to wait me out. And, let me tell you…all of sophomore year. He did.
Sure, there were moments I’d bend. Dances I’d let him go to when he’d finally turn in a project I begged him to finish for school. He became really, really adept at completing just enough last minute assignments to take failing grades to barely passing.
His teachers knew he was capable.
I knew he was capable.
We also all saw, he wasn’t going to dance like a monkey for any of us.
This kid was going to do exactly what he wanted and exactly when he wanted to.
The school counselor caught on before I did and put him on the “let’s just get this kid out of high school” track. No one was even considering college in his future.
And I started asking myself, how is this story going to end? What’s going to happen when he graduates (if we are lucky)? What will he do? Will he ever be motivated enough to go to college and get a job and take care of himself? Will he ever make beyond minimum wage? How did we get here? Is it my fault? What did I do? What can I do now?
These thoughts kept me up at night. And haunted me through my days. And no therapist, school counselor, or friend seemed to have any kind of a real plan or answers to my questions about his future.
One day, I’d just had enough.
The bottom line? I missed my son. I missed his laughter. I missed him wanting to hang out with us at Disneyland. I missed his friends. I missed getting memes and vines sent to me late at night that he thought I’d find funny.
I didn’t really plan the conversation we were going to have. It just happened. And, I will always be grateful that it did.
One day I told him:
“I’m giving you all your privileges back.
Not because you’ve earned them, but because I’m tired of thinking this is a way to control you.
I don’t want to control you–not even if it is in your best interest for you to pass classes and get good grades.
You’re extremely intelligent.
Your IQ shows that.
My years of knowing and loving you show me that.
You are extremely tough, surviving all you have and still finding joy and humor and friends in the midst of it.
You’re extremely gifted with music and in a crisis and with helping people who need you.
And I know you are smart enough to know the doors you keep closing in your future by not staying on the ‘college track.’
I know you are smart enough to know that if you don’t even graduate from high school you’re going to make your life very difficult for yourself.
I know you know all this. And…” I took a deep breath.
“I believe in you.
I believe you’re going to figure something out.
So, starting today, I’m going to totally trust you to do that.
I’m not going to ask about your homework.
I’m not going to make sure you are passing your classes.
I’m not going to ground you for not turning in work.
You know the serious consequences in your future if you don’t do those things.
I’m just going to ask that you present a plan for me for what you are going to do when you turn 18, because you aren’t going to live here for free and play video games for the rest of your life.
You’ll either need a job that allows you to save up to move out, or you will need a plan to go to college, even if it takes a few years of classes to get ready for that.
What do you think?”
He hugged me.
He said, “Thanks, Mom. I’ll make a plan.”
And, ladies and gentlemen. He did.
Now, it is quite possible he was saved by the bell of Covid his senior year and graduated just by the skin of his teeth. It doesn’t really matter.
It is also quite possibly true he met another girl (a wonderful girl) who was a 4.3 GPA sort of high schooler and kicked his butt a bit to try harder.
It is also true that he signed up for a class his senior year that prepared him to take the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians exam to become an EMT after high school. All on his own. I mean, got all the signatures, all the registration paperwork, and all the details figured out. On his own. The kid who didn’t turn in a stitch of Spanish homework for two years did all that. Without a single moment of me nagging.
He had a plan. And he was executing it. And it turns out, he executed it extremely well.
While he was executing this unconventional plan, he also attended homecoming dances, prom, played his cello for stage productions and rock bands, got a part time job where he was bringing home tips of $100 a shift. Oh, and the job? It was working ON THE BEACH. All day. All Summer long. On. The. Beach.
It turns out, when I got out of the way a bit, he wasn’t so bad at setting up plans for himself. He just didn’t like the control/power struggle of school.
Now, a year after graduating from high school, he’s happily working 911 calls as an EMT in our county. He is using his natural gift to stay calm in a crisis, connect with people, and think on his feet to literally save lives. During a pandemic.
My sweet boy. This man he has become. He has plans. Big plans. His plans.
He has a great job. The same wonderful girlfriend. And, we are each other’s biggest cheerleaders and dare I say, good friends.
We still butt heads from time to time–mostly over the never-ending mess a 19-year-old can produce in the few hours a week he isn’t working and over the unnecessary arguments with his younger siblings over video games. But, I can honestly say, I am extremely proud of him.
I no longer think we needed an expert. I think I needed to learn to believe.
I needed to learn to believe in myself as a mom. To stop thinking there was only one way to succeed as a parent. And only one way to succeed as a child.
Most importantly, I needed to really believe my kid had the answers he needed for himself, inside himself, all along.
To believe, without reservation, in my son.
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