I Read My Son’s College Essay And It Broke My Heart

by Kortney Rivard
Originally Published: 
Woman with letter by window
Scary Mommy and Cultura/Seb Oliver/Getty

Being a parent is tough.

Once your kids reach their teenage years, you’re most likely firmly planted in midlife. With all of those challenges, now you’re also adjusting to your changing role as a parent to an adult.

And let’s face it, aging is tough. As adult human beings, approaching the likely halfway point in our lives, we have our own set of challenges. Did I do enough? How am I not further ahead in life?

Did I screw up my kids somehow?

The answer is yes.

Yes, you screwed your kids up somehow. We all do.

I recently stumbled upon my son’s college application essay. A printed copy sat on the dresser in his room. I knew he didn’t want me to read it — his dad and I both asked if we could and he refused on multiple occasions, opting to utilize the writing center at school and to lean on friends for feedback.

Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I read that damn essay.

I learned that I may have caused some irreparable damage. Or maybe it is reparable… hopefully it is. When he was 12, I discovered his dad was having an affair with another man. When my ex came out as gay and we started down the road of separating, then divorce, things were bad. We fought, we weren’t nice to each other. I was a mess. I was devastated. The life I knew was gone. The life I had dreamed of, and held in my hands for 17+ years, disappeared in an instant. I was a dysfunctional mess. I couldn’t handle it. Along with my marriage, I crumbled. I fell apart.

I knew it was hard on my son, but that day I learned that it affected my son more than I could have ever imagined.

The days I couldn’t get out of bed and used being sick as an excuse weren’t exactly hard to see through for him. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for sometimes and he knew. It put more pressure on him to watch his sister than I fathomed. He was put in a position at a young age to take care of me, which I didn’t realize I was doing to him at the time, and it never should have happened.

The snide comments, while true, I made about his dad in front of my kids–about how he was manipulative and of poor character–stuck with him. The off-the-cuff insults about his dad’s sexuality offended him. Just to be clear, I have nothing against him being gay, but I was in so much distress, and so angry that it was the reason he was leaving me. My son saw it as me trying to turn him against his dad. At the time, I tried so hard not to say those things, to keep it all to myself, but it was sometimes just too much. I hadn’t learned yet that my reality is not my kids’ reality. They deserve two parents who love them and are involved in their lives. They don’t deserve to be put in the position of having to choose sides.

I was not the best mother during those times. But I was doing the very best I could with the resources I had at the time. I was floundering and just trying to make it to the next day in one piece. I was in survival mode.

Today, as I contemplate this, I am filled with so much regret about how I handled my mental state as I navigated the divorce. I’m saddened that my actions (or lack of), affected my son like they did. I feel like I failed him greatly.

I want to justify my actions (or lack of action) to him so badly. To tell him that his dad was manipulative and controlling and terrible to me during that time and that’s why I was a mess. That’s why I was not the best human and mom I could be. I want to tell him that his dad very easily could have made the divorce process easier on all of us. It was clearly not going to work out, and I understood that. It would have been nice to be able to come to a resolution amicably. It was the way my ex treated me during that process that made me distraught and broken. I wish I could tell my son that, and more importantly, I wish I could make him understand that and agree with me.

Yes, I want to explain and justify myself to my son. But that would completely invalidate my son’s experience and feelings. And his feelings are extremely valid. No matter how much I justify, it will never change his experience.

As I am struggling to come to terms with the fact that I caused my son a lot of pain during that time, my mom pointed out that there were some beautiful things in that essay. He talked about how the experience made him into a stronger person, how he learned to be compassionate and empathize with others. He learned how to take care of others, but he also learned the importance of taking care of himself. Those are some amazing lessons to have learned in adolescence. Those lessons will serve him well.

As I continue to think about his written words, I’m coming to the realization that my kids are not really mine. They are my responsibility to take care of until they can grow into independent adults. They are never going to be mine. I do not, nor will I ever, own them. They have their own experiences, and they see the world through their own lens. I can’t change that lens, no matter how much I want to.

As for me, I am telling myself that I was doing the best job I could with what I had at the time. My mom always said that hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s the truth. If I could go back, yes, I would have done things differently. I would have tried harder to suck it up and find a way to be a better mom during that time. But I can’t go back. All I can do is move forward. All I can do is open up a conversation about forgiveness and grace, and I am hoping that is enough. I hope my son can forgive me and give me grace.

We are all just doing our best. Even when our best doesn’t feel like it’s good enough, it’s still our best. There is no manual for perfect parenting, and we are all “winging it.” Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. Well, I think things always work out… just not always how we want them to. Being a parent is hard. It is heartbreaking at times.

And like the rest of life, it is a learning experience. We are doing our best. We learn. And we do better next time.

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