Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth
This picture speaks to my heart when reflecting on troubled times with my children. It’s as if they were a thousand miles away and couldn’t find their way home again. Home referring to the metaphor of the self. Not the potpourri smelling heavily draped house their mother redecorates on a five-year cycle. Redecorating being a metaphor for my healing self.
Home is a resonating metaphor for the secure place within the self where we feel at ease, protected, loved, nourished, and can drift to sleep without worries of malice and harm. How do we guide our children ‘home’ when we they are lost in a sea of weeds? How do we reassure them that coming home is not a trap or obligation, but a choice?
Both of my children went through a ‘lost’ period in their lives, rebelling against authority. As a mother, I feared they might destroy themselves before setting one foot on the path leading home. As painful as it is to suffer our own struggles, there’s nothing comparable to watching a child destroy themselves and you call as loudly as you can and you shout “Come home!” with every ounce of your being but they do not hear you; of if they do, they refuse to trust that you really mean it. So you watch and you pray and you worry yourself into panic attacks during endless nights of feverish thoughts about what you can do to change your children’s alienation. If you’re like myself, you lay in bed tossing and turning and blaming yourself for not being the perfect mother who could protect your kids from a culture than normalizes unhealthy behavior and encourages them to define themselves in ways that ultimately destroy connections to family and self.
“I shoulda done this. I shoulda done that. Had I known how dysfunctional my marriage was, I woulda done x, y and z. It’s my fault they’re drinking and drugging. I caused their problems. If I caused their problems, I can fix those problems. I just need to think of ‘how’.” And off you go on a desperate romp though unfamiliar mental territory becoming very familiar overtime, looking for ways to change your kids so you can sleep through the night knowing they’re safe.
It finally got to the point where I’d reprimand myself sternly by saying out loud in the dark of night, “CZ, you are obsessing. Nothing you can think about right now will change the past.” That realization initiated a separation process from my children, putting my power over them in proper perspective. People make their own choices and unless they have mental problems precluding introspection, they learn from their choices. Especially the bad ones. You might need to grip the sides of your mattress waiting for kids to learn from their mistakes and you might need to grit your teeth or put cushions on bended knees but ultimately, no matter how much we want to pretend we can motivate them to love themselves, the task is not ours to bear.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Finding your way home after losing yourself in a field of weeds appears to be a long stretch beyond the visible horizon. You know those scary dream scenes in movies when the more you walk down the path, the further the destination becomes? A lone and dreary night is like that. One fretful night turns into a year of lone and dreary nights with no end in sight, until suddenly, reality has her way with our illusions and eventually wears us down. You wake up with an epiphany and realize you cannot ‘will’ your children into coming home. They must make that choice themselves.
In the interim, while we watch with broken hearts and a pocket of Prozac, what can we do?
The first place I found support and guidance was a 12-step organization called Alanon. The meetings were oriented towards parents of alcoholic children keeping my scattered mind focused on the problem at hand: my kids. I could not believe what I heard at the first meeting and didn’t exactly respond to other parents in a compassionate or sympathetic way. “How could a parent lock a child out of the house? What kind of parent is that?” I wondered if these folks were justifying bad parenting because you didn’t do stuff like that in my family of origin. Instead of taking definitive action like locking kids out of the house after they pawned the family heirlooms, my family taught me to preach.
I can preach sermons like you can’t believe. Topics like Your Body Is A Temple or You Are A Child of God Why Are You Acting Like Satan's Bar Buddy? You know, the kind of sermons that DISCONNNECT people from one another as if “I” didn’t do self-destructive things myself! The kinds of sermons that teach kids’ all about Control and Criticism. Not Freedom and Love.
“Talk doesn’t matter,” someone said in a meeting, jarring my social programming loose as she went on and on and on about her son’s sincere promises to stop drinking this time. “They have to walk the walk,” she said. Then she added a comment making everyone laugh except me, “and WE as parents have to WALK our TALK.”
There are scores of slogans in 12-step that sound stupid to newcomers who are accustomed to searching for deep and complicated answers to immediate problems. Reducing something as serious as teenage drug addiction to a slogan was ridiculous in my arrogant opinion. Week after week, when all my preaching still had no impact on my kids’ behavior, and my eyes were pocketed with dark circles from sleepless nights, and my brain was so overwhelmed I couldn’t think through another stinkin’ theory about Dysfunctional Families or read another book by John Bradshaw, I finally said to myself, “I didn’t cause it. I can’t cure it. I can’t control it.” And that was a moment of clarity because I knew WHY people related to simple slogans for complicated problems: your brain is fried. You have to stop intellectualizing because your circuits are kapoot which fortunately sets both feet on the path to living from the heart. You learn to trust that ‘everything is unfolding exactly as it should’ because frankly, you can't think your way out of a paper bag. “Turn off the intellectualizing,” I preached to myself, “and heal thy neurosis.”
The 3 C’s slogan was like a giant billboard in my brain and it allowed me enough peace to get a good night’s sleep. I no longer traveled into the mysteries of convoluted thinking because the billboard worked like a Stop sign. Even knowing that somewhere in the city streets, my kids were doing things a mother cannot bear to know, I slept better. Not that I didn’t wake up now and then with the vague sense that Hitler was snoring on the other side of the bed. But that little problem had to wait another few years before my marriage bottomed out.
I had numerous clarifying moments during my children’s fugue from reality, one of them being that a Good Enough Mother was perfect. A good enough mother left some of her children’s needs unmet so they could take care of themselves. A good enough mother allowed her children to grow up which happens much faster if she respects their right to choose for themselves. A good enough mother hugged her kids and loved them, but did not take responsibility for their lives because that was a sure-fire way to keep them crippled in a field of weeds, unable to find their way home, expecting mama to carry them on her back or cut a path through the weeds for them.
A rescuing mother becomes the repository of children’s projected blame and fault, the very things they must reclaim to empower themselves and grow up. As long as mothers are willing to be the cause of a child’s troubles, children infantilize themselves and avoid taking responsibility for their lives.
I had a hard time letting go of my kids, but so did they have a hard time letting go of ‘me’. I sense that this happens frequently in narcissistic families when children feel safe with one of their parents and rejected by the other. They become overly reliant on the empathic parent to meet their emotional needs and at the same time, worry about their lovability because of the narcissistic parent who in their minds, rejects their worth as human beings. Of course, at the time, I had no clue about the importance of empathy, mirroring, attachment, bonding, or the narcissistic personality. And you don't even have to know all that stuff with a program like Alanon in order to restore a healthier perspective on parenting. Which means to me, "LOVE your children, don't LIVE your children's lives for them. "
When I stopped blaming myself for my kids’ problems, they were stuck with being the creator of their own problems, which meant they had to resolve those problems by controlling themselves. Which they did. Eventually. Not before we increased profits for Kleenex, Inc. though.
As synchronicity would have it, my neighbor across the street was going through a similar thing with her son. She didn't attend 12-step meetings with me, which I have to say in retrospect, was a humbling experience. 12-stepping parents admit we are unable to control other people, places and things which feels terrible but it's true! Instead of my good-hearted neighbor accepting her powerlessness to change her son, she continued doing what a lot of people do: cleaning up his messes, showing unconditional love no matter what he did, and rationalizing his abusive behavior as her fault. Alanon members listened to me say similar things (as most newcomers do) and respected my right to slowly process everyone’s stories, not all of them ending in happily ever after fairy tales.
But I was lucky. I was lucky that my kids eventually found themselves in the barrow pit (so to speak), took stock of their messed-up lives and decided to take control because mama refused to do that for them. By that point, they didn’t expect me to come to their rescue and they didn’t expect me to put up with abusive treatment because I caused them to treat me that way.
In a reciprocal manner, the more I respected my role as a mother and a human being, the more they respected themselves. The more they respected themselves and their ‘freedom’ to make their own choices, the less willing they were to live out-of-control lives limiting their freedom. They learned that they only hurt themselves, not me. (You have to extricate yourself from your children’s choices so they are the only ones suffering their consequences. Not that you won’t lay in bed weeping but that’s something they don’t need to know. )
I could write an epistle if I started talking about my relationship with my now-X-husbaNd who never attended Alanon, nor psychiatric counseling with me and the kids. At that point in my life, the children were ‘my’ responsibility and it didn’t appear abnormal for a mother to be driving her kids to 12-step, DUI classes, and even a trip to the attorney’s office without their father taking an active role, too. Because of Alanon though, my son paid his own dues to society, which stripped his savings account of the money he had saved from his paper route. He learned from this experience because he paid the costs without me stepping in to show how much I cared by writing a check. My first impulse, in all truth, was to pay his fines because it hurt me to see a child deplete his savings. I did not walk my thought, though. I considered it but kept my thoughts to myself. I held steady and let him own his problem and write out the check himself. Thank you Alanon.
For my neighbor who continued saving her son no matter what, he eventually ended up robbing his parent’s home for items he could sell for drugs. When they allowed him to return home to live with him after his time in jail, he sold drugs out of their garage, unbeknownst to them though I was pretty wise to his antics. Kids driving up and down the street stopping for five minutes to check out his toolbox didn’t fly past my wizened radar. His mom of course, assumed his friends were really really really interested in his carpentry tools. *grin*
Eventually, they realized what he was doing and changed the locks on their doors because my brother who was working for the DEA at the time, (life is so ironic!) told me in no uncertain terms that should a child sell drugs in his parent’s home, the DEA wouldn’t hesitate confiscating their home. I, of course, being a dutiful neighbor, informed my dear friend about the threat her son was to her security.
At some point and maybe it has to get really bad like my neighbor’s story, parents MUST separate from their children. It got pretty bad across the street before they could do that. They also owned stock in Kleenex, Inc. and we spent many a luncheon crying our eyes out. Her husband resolved his disappointment and pain by disinheriting his only son. *sigh*
Her son ended up being incarcerated and spending time in jail. Twice. He was one of those kids who punched holes in her walls and socked police in the eye if they arrested him. Though we talked nearly every day and consoled one another, nothing she did made any difference and that taught me something else, too: we can change our behavior, change the way we relate to our kids, change and learn and change some more but the child is the ultimate captain of his or her own Titanic. This is the most heartbreaking thing of all, allowing children to self-destruct with no bottom in sight and sometimes, an inadequate number of lifeboats.
My heart goes out to her and all the other wonderful, compassionate, and loving parents I have met whose children would not, or could not, find their way ‘home’.