IT IS A PAINFUL BOND, she says, a fragile and tentative one, yet it is the only bond that remains between her and her oldest son. She calls it the bond of broken trust.
This mother is 44 years old now and has been working full time for the past two years. Before that, she was a full-time homemaker, raising her oldest son, now 22, a daughter, now 20, and a son who is 12. They were years of tension, anxiety, and frustration, she says, in which she measured her success as a person by the achievements or failures of her children. They were years of hysterical overreaction to children's mistakes, something she is determined not to repeat in raising her last child.
Her oldest son got into trouble with drugs, booze, shoplifting, girls. Through it all, says his mother, she was too judgmental, siding with society, school authorities, neighbors, never with her son, never trying to help him sort out his troubles and get back on his feet. She didn't trust him then, she says, and how he doesn't trust her, and "I don't think he trusts himself. That's one of the things that happened and I think is sad. I don't think he has a good feeling about himself. We were always very on edge.
"He came home from college and didn't go to work right away. Every day, he felt he had to apologize. He felt we were making the assumption that he wasn't trying to get a job, that he was shirking. We really haven't gotten very far in pulling him back, into making him feel we're on his side. He's still very quick to say, "What's the matter, don't you trust me?" And in my heart of hearts, I don't think we do trust him."
Last spring, with her third child headed toward adolescence, this mother took a course on adolescent behavior offered by the Montgomery County school system. There were 30 or 40 other parents in the course, two-thirds mothers, a third fathers. In the course, she says, she learned that adolescents have no skills with which to deal with the demands of the adult world or the mistakes they make in their own worlds. And she learned that adolescents need their parents to be on their side. They do not need their parents hollering at them about how bad they are. What they need is help in getting out of trouble.
"You're bound to be dissapointed when kids do things they said they'd never do, but they know that," she says. "I think you have to trust that a kid knows when you think he's really done you in. There are times [with her younger children] when I threw up my hands and said 'I can't believe you did this,' but then you say, 'Okay, you did it, let's straighten it out together.'
"The difference between me and the 12-year-old and me with the older two kids is I now know where I stand. Before, I was deep into what will society say, what will mother say, what will the school say, what will the neighbors think.
"I've decided, looking back, that my biggest mistake as a parent was not knowing how I felt about some really basic things and not thinking it through - what the incidents involved - before I allowed other forces to determine the punishment. Forces like society or the school authorities or the grandparents.
"I remember things even with my own family, when I'd take my kids to visit my parents' cabin and my parents would be furious at my kids for doing something normal. And I would side with my parents instead of saying, 'Look, they're just doing something normal. They're kids.' I can't believe it, but I did.
"I always felt a sense of alienation about myself and about my children, whenever I took the other side. But I rejected that, figuring it was my duty as a parent to stand for the traditional values of society. The thing that's made me so much more content as a parent is I've found out how I felt about things and then acted on how I felt . . . One of the things I've done over the years is to be able to separate my own need for achievement from my children's need for achievement."
Her oldest son, she says, was "just an extension of me. It was as if there was some sense I had failed. I had failed to teach him properly, to know where he was after school, whatever it was it was a massive failure on my part.
"The most alienated I ever got was telling my kid at the age of 17 or 18 that if he couldn't live by my rules, I didn't want him to live at home. Imagine, saying that to your child. He was so devastated, it was just awful. I just swore that that was the gravestone of my parenting in the old way. . . . That's as far down as I ever want to get as a parent. When you get to that pit, when you see yourself telling your own child he ought to go someplace else to live, then you know something is really out of whack.
"My rules now are to listen carefully and to listen to the child's perception and to trust it and to get away. One of the most wonderful things about parenting when you're working is that literally you can't get to the kid or the problem for a while, and that's wonderful.
And she tells the story of her 12-year-old and a problem he recently had in school. His teacher called with one version of the incident, he told her another. His version, she says, made much more sense. The next morning, she called the counselor, told the child's version and asked for further explanation from the school. "They all backed off. They said maybe they'd been a little hasty." She found she could trust her son, and that trusting could pay off.
"The first step can be an embracing step," she says. "Okay, we'll get out of it. You got a D, okay, let's you and me go talk to the teacher. Let's do this together . . . I had some really raw pain about my parenting. It was enough to make me change, to make me reevaluate . . . I look back now on it and realize we were hysterical beyond what was happening.
And then she says the most painful thing of all, something she says she would never want her oldest son to know. "I really think he did not have the best of it. I think he had insufficient parenting at least from me. I was 21 when he was born. I don't feel guilty about it. I feel sad. I think the kid is going to be okay, but I don't think our relationship is ever going to be what I would hope."