I’m going to say some things in this piece that may deviate from what I believe we are conditioned in society to believe what parenting should be, but seeing how I’m not in the habit of silencing my voice, this should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog.
First, as I documented in a previous piece (here), my elder children and I have had a rough go at it lately due to some poor choices on their part, a breakdown of communication, and a refusal to follow rules. I offered them a contract, which pretty much was just a commitment to responsibilities I have been repeatedly asking them to follow through with, and I gave them a weekend to decide. They declined to sign it.
So, for the week of their spring break, my kids were on their own, and I was with my younger two children for the earlier part, before heading to Texas for a conference generously sponsored by my employer. It was devastating to hear my kids say aloud that they didn’t want to come home. The twins and I have always been close, and I have been the one mark of stability in their entire lives. We have muddled through some very dirty waters and always managed to come out on the other side unscathed. And I am incredibly protective of them, and their hearts, because I have been their ‘person’.
The weekend they were gone prior to their decision (because they just opted not to come home, which is part of the pattern of behavior that I was hoping to cease) I spent a lot of time by myself. Doing things for myself I don’t feel I get to do as often as I should. I cleaned my entire house. I read. I spent time with friends. I wrote. And the quiet that descended, which I felt would mark their absence with profound desolation, surprised me. For the first time in ages, I felt such bliss and peace that I didn’t know how to process it.
We are taught to revel in the ‘joy’ of our children and parenting. What we aren’t taught is how to cope when parenting feels like it may drown you. How when you are waddling in so much emotion of your own while simultaneously worrying about how to manage the emotions of others, it’s a miracle that our ships aren’t collapsing and sinking. Or maybe they just are, more than we realize, and many of us spend more time underwater, holding our breath, than we feel we can admit without receiving scrutiny and judgement from others.
I was able, for the first time in months, to enjoy quiet. When my younger children were with me at the beginning of the week, I could engage in their presence in a way that I haven’t for a while, because I wasn’t worried about interfacing with the twins, and the tension surrounding our relationship. It gave me time to think, examine, and critically evaluate what elements of our relationship I was okay with and what I was not. It also gave me time to address the situation with my younger kids and have some deeply difficult conversations. My son asked me outright if his siblings were using drugs, and we had an open talk about the choice to use substances, and what that means for someone still in the throes of development versus an adult, and the consequences that can come of that. It also created an enormous amount of anxiety for my younger kids who were genuinely concerned for the safety of their brother and sister, and who vocalized it often. Both I, and their father, addressed this with honest conversation and additional counseling. As my six-year old told me, “I can’t get through this without my therapist.”
This is not to say that I abandoned my older kids entirely. Even without phone service, I was in touch with my daughter via messenger, and asked her daily if they were safe, and if they had a place to stay. But I didn’t spend all my time mentally fussing over what they were doing, or where they were. They returned the Monday after deciding to leave, looking worse for the wear from the weekend, packing up new clothes and gathering what they might need for the week ahead. I hugged them, told them that I loved them and that when they were ready to sign the contract, they could come home, and then I wished them well as they left.
By that point, I had three days of peace behind me, and I felt much stronger about my decision, which was an excruciatingly hard one to make. But what I am realizing more and more post-divorce is how essential and necessary boundaries are for me to thrive, and how intolerant I have become of toxicity in any form. Our relationship had become a cesspool where I felt walked on and over, and I am done, as a human, and particularly a woman, with accepting those situations for myself in the name of keeping peace. To me, it feels like a form of suppression that women constantly receive the message that they must be the ones who must hold the fabrics of family and society together, as if men can’t grab some corners of the cloth rather than focus on tearing off the pieces that no longer suit them. So, I decided that I am finished with relationships where healthy boundaries don’t exist, and that must be a full-blown effort in every aspect of my life, including with my children. And truth be told, I feel I am making the best parenting choice I could ever make by showing them how to advocate for what they need emotionally, and by modeling what it means to decide for yourself how you feel you should be treated and what you deserve.
When I came home on Wednesday, my daughter was in the house, doing laundry and eating cookies her siblings had baked. I informed her that I would have someone staying with the dog when I was out of town, so they couldn’t come and go as they pleased. She sounded slightly unsure of where they would be staying past that evening. As I approached leaving the next day for my conference, I had a strong moment where I freaked over the interstate travel and distance, and I worried if they would be okay in my absence. The thought of canceling crossed my mind, because I felt guilt at the thought of leaving. But I also reminded myself that I worked diligently to receive a grant to attend, and that my professional career, as well as my other passions, were just as important for me as my children. Despite things being rocky and uncertain, I could not put my life on hold while my kids were struggling with their own discovery and journey. They will be graduating high school in a year, and leaving as legal adults to really be on their own, and I am not doing them any justice by putting myself in a position of being ‘on-call’ only when they feel they need me. I, too, have a life that deserves tending and love.
I was very thankful to receive a great deal of emotional support from many of my fellow conference friends, who encouraged me that I was being the best parent I felt I could. The physical separation was exactly what I needed. It felt good to be in a space where I could take time for myself outside of feeling responsible to a job, child, or dog, and it was sorely needed to give me strength and perspective, especially as I pondered that my kids may not choose to come home at all. One of my favorite moments came when I engaged an older couple in the hotel lobby in conversation over the woman’s unique wooden watch, and we got thick into a discussion of parenting. She turned to me and said, “I think it’s bullshit when people say you can’t divorce your kids. We certainly did with one of ours. Sometimes you just need to say I can’t do this anymore.”
On the way back, I received a message from my daughter as my plane prepared to take off, that she and her brother were ready to sign the contract, and wanted to come back. I told them I would in later that night, and would meet them at home. We were all exhausted, and agreed to discuss the contract the next night.
When I woke Monday, I began to feel some of my original stressors creeping. They had left dishes everywhere although I had asked them to place them in the dishwasher. My daughter had been in my room the night before without permission and took my phone charger cord. The couch was askew, and their items were scattered all over the living room I had scrubbed clean. That night, we talked over the contract, negotiating a few items, but I was annoyed that they kept turning to watch television rather than giving their full focus. I asked my son to take out the garbage, and for them to load the dishwasher.
By Tuesday, I was feeling tense as similar behavior continued. When I woke Wednesday morning to find the garbage had still not been removed, I sent a message warning them that they would lose the privileges of technology for 24 hours, per our signed agreement. I returned home that evening and nothing I had asked to have completed was done. My younger children assisted me with cleaning up, but I was also clear that it was not their responsibility. The other side of the coin is trying to make sure that they do not overcompensate to make everything feel more stable, because that’s not healthy either. When they got home, I asked my older son to hand over his phone, and he aggressively refused. He asked me why I didn’t just take the garbage out myself, and why must he, since he was tired from dancing, worry about any of these requests? And then he told me to fuck off, and that I was crazy. My younger son, still awake upstairs, after I left to go to my room, was lying in bed crying himself to sleep, and my heart just cracked.
Once more, I was DONE. So, I calmly told them if they did not want to participate in following the contract, they could not stay with me and would find another place to stay, again. The next day, they informed me that would be choosing to leave. This time, I took their keys, and repeating myself, told them I would prefer they live with me, but I understood if they felt they couldn’t live by my rules and boundaries and needed to be elsewhere. It was clear to me that living on their own and finding places to stay was probably harder than they expected, and they came home expecting us to just fall back into our previous routine without them having to make a solid effort to change or shoulder the responsibilities I was asking. I believe they felt I would just be grateful they decided to return, and would let the same negative patterns slide in exchange for their presence.
So, I found myself living without them once again. I informed their school guidance counselor, whom I have been consistently in touch with since this started, to make sure they are getting support in school, as I had received notice that grades were dropping. This being round two, I took solace in the silence left behind, and felt my own anxiety and stress begin to dissipate at a much faster rate. Over the weekend, my daughter was in touch to let me know they needed to get clothes, and I gave them windows of time when I would be available, but they never appeared. At one point, she said that she would just call my friend she had previously asked to help her get a key from me, and I made it clear that would not be happening. On Sunday, I sent them a message that I would be home with their siblings and I had Easter baskets for them, if they wanted to stop by.
They got there in the afternoon, looking ragged and exhausted when I pulled into my parking lot. Instantly, my son began picking a fight about his longboard I have stashed in my trunk, which I confiscated a month ago, and I almost asked them to leave, except my daughter interceded calmly. We got inside and I asked how they were, and my son made a snarky comment about his failing grades. While living on his own, he also missed submitting a scholarship video for a dance program he hopes to attend this summer, and a deadline for another application. My daughter was also behind in submitting paperwork for the overseas trip she hopes to attend. Real life consequences were beginning to catch up. I asked if they were staying, but they weren’t sure.
The kids all sat to watch a movie, and it felt good to have them all in one place. The twins left after a bit to try to get my son’s computer, which he left with a friend and needs for school, and my daughter came in a couple hours later, saying my son was having an anxiety attack about coming home. She took him some ashwagandha, and they returned in the evening, informing me that they were not staying but would be back the next day, maybe. As I must think of not just them, but all my kids, and the effect of this situation on each of them, I told the twins that the back and forth wasn’t working. They were going to need, soon, to make a solid decision about what their plans were. Either they were stay and follow the rules/boundaries, or they were going to need to be on their own, without vacillating for convenience. My son again told me I was crazy for kicking my own kids out, and they grabbed their bags and left to stay at a friend’s house.
I settled in to watch a movie with my dog, and just try to unwind and shut my mind off from the continuous tug of war. About half an hour later, I heard a knock at the door. The twins stood in the door frame with their bags, and said they decided they wanted to stay. I stepped back to allow them in.
We’re three days in, and while things aren’t as blissful as when I was on my own, I’m not seeking perfect peace, or a perfect home. I will have time enough for that when they leave next year, and I now have a taste of what I can look forward to. But I am asking for a healthy dose of respect, and recognition of boundaries, which I will be the first to acknowledge I have failed to provide at times when they were younger. I was raised to believe that self-sacrifice was the ultimate hallmark of womanhood, especially when it came to being a ‘good’ mother, and with the end of my marriage, struggling on my own, I can now see what a huge disservice I, and others, have been given. This is not to say that parenting doesn’t require giving up certain aspects of who you are or were that should be surrendered, but it also doesn’t mean that we exempt our children from the list of toxic contributors simply because they were born. Or that we allow the notion of ‘family’ to override our abilities to feel healthy in our relationships.
I’ve been told by well-meaning people that I shouldn’t be writing about this with such openness, and I’ve had to tell them that I am tired of following a model where we pretend that parenting is an endless joy that we should all just revel in 24/7. I couldn’t survive if I sat with all of this and had nowhere to put it into the world. As someone who comes from a family wrought with substance abuse and enabling, I feel that the best gift I can offer myself and others is the power to be public about my struggles rather than hide it behind a veil of ‘doing fine’. There is no greater way to continue an unhealthy cycle of denial than to just sweep it under the rug of ‘not airing our business’.
I’m also tired of people putting parents on a pedestal, as if our relationships with our children are any different than those we engage in the real world. Yes, raising children is meaningful, and chock full of beautiful moments. But parents need to have permission to feel imperfect, without feeling judged and criticized for needing the basic things that all humans should be asking for and giving in our love based relationships: respect, kindness, compassion, and joy. And if you are childless and judging, I am going to tell you straight up to fuck off, because unless you are in the thick of raising independent humans that you are required to keep alive for 18 years, you don’t get to say a fucking word about what I should be doing, how I do it, or when I do it.
What makes putting these words on paper worthwhile are the people who have approached me about their own stories, and connected with words of support. About substance abuse in their own families that they don’t feel they can discuss openly, how they were horrible, shitty teenagers but now love their parents, or how they are struggling with similar issues with their own children. We live in a world that is more connected than ever but where people seem to feel more and more loneliness as the pressure to maintain public perfection bears down greater and greater. It’s not worth the effort to preserve the façade, and it only drives us further apart from recognizing our own imperfect humanity in others.
I’m optimistic my kids are planning to stay, because I know that we all love each other an enormous amount, but just need to learn where our borders lie. It’s putting in the work to figure out how we navigate where we do not intrude on each other too much, allowing us to live in healthy, individual spaces that still touch. Yesterday, I only had to ask once for my daughter to empty the dishwasher, and for my son to take out the garbage. That’s a damn good start from where we were a week ago, and I’ll take it. Here’s hoping we’re learning to tread water where we were once drowning, with enough love to keep us all afloat.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...