(Note to our readers: This is the sixth blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment.)
Families are a unit, a Venn diagram of lives that overlap in every imaginable combination and still retain a space where each member is alone. In their own sphere. When our children are small, their circle of life is so intimately connected with us their distance is barely perceptible. They depend on us entirely, to move through their days and provide for their necessities — food, sleep, shelter.
We are also the caretakers of their emotional development. We coo and talk and attend to their desires so that they feel, without a doubt, that they are ours. The center of our universe.
Even at this young age, there is a small sliver of space that is theirs alone. Their internal wiring has been set. Their personalities appear in the earliest days. They make their likes, and especially their dislikes, known; throwing hats on the floor, using their tongue to move out the smashed peas, retreating to the corner of a crowded room and covering their ears when the music is too loud. These parts of them we must acknowledge and see clearly.
As our children grow, the Venn diagram shifts. That middle sliver of overlap between us and them narrows. They become more of themselves and less of us. As it should be.
I’m talking with some friends the day before I head to Utah. I’m gearing up to attend the next round of therapeutic parent days at my child’s residential treatment center. These are two of my closest people. They are among the handful with whom I can be completely vulnerable. They held steady last year as my family life spun into chaos. I’ve shared honest, raw details. They listen. They pass no judgement. They stay present in my pain.
“How are you feeling about the visit,” she asks.
I feel a tightness in my stomach. My hand channels the nerves and begins tapping on my desk. “Oh, fine,” I reply. “The visit will be fine. You know. Fine.”
I don’t get away with it.
“That’s what you always say. How are you really feeling?”
As a young mother I resented the seamless and perfect images of child rearing, the deceptive magazine ads and articles which promised health and ease with each product. As a teacher I already prized the ability to spend my life with children. I valued their twists and turns and quirks, and did not take their actions personally. Even so, I was not immune to new-mother anxiety and the gnawing belief I was messing up. Slowly, I had to disconnect from my head and feel my body. I had to trust my instincts.
My children are older now, but I make it my business when I meet a young mother, to out myself. To be honest about how hard it is in those early days and also to share the ways that I got on my feet; by listening only to the voices which felt right and by actively ignoring advice that did not connect to my firmest beliefs. I try to strike the reasonable pitch that I needed years ago. I remind mothers that the mess of it all is just reality. The chaos is to be welcomed, or at least accepted as the norm. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. This disruption is an indication that your life has taken on new priorities and areas of attention. That the constellation of all things important in your life is shifting to make room for this new being.
Like all attentive mothers, I have countless stories about both of my children. I used to share them with ease, able to find some strength in retelling the ridiculous things that I did (like we all do) as I felt my way around raising a child for the first (and second) time. This willing narrative was my own little rebellion against the false pretense of possible maternal perfection.
We make sense of our lives through stories. We learn about other worlds, develop our moral sense and broaden our understanding about experiences outside our own. As my child developed, in ways that were unexpected and unusual, I told my stories to try to make sense of our experience.
As the parent of a child who received special education services I got used to talking about this journey with strength. I knew that atypical development was hard to accept, but my role as a parent, demanding atypical education was essential for my child to get the support services they needed. So, I worked through this on my own time and began to speak (mostly), with confidence, about the discoveries we had made and the modifications that helped them* move ahead. When my child left the public school system, unable to get the necessary supports, I shared my relief that we were able to find something that more closely met their needs - to an independent school that specialized in their learning needs, paid for by the NYPS. I talked with other parents who were thinking about this move. I offered support where I had found very little. Then things took a shift. My child started down a spiral and out of control. I felt alone. I stopped talking. When asked about my child, I’d divert attention and avoid details. “Fine. They are just fine.” I’d smile and change the subject.
I found time in private when I needed to share. Whispered talks as I walked home from the subway at the end of the day, or in more desperate times, in the bathroom with the shower running, like a teenager sharing illicit details. I closed the door, except for our closest circle with whom I could share the ugly details and be assured they would offer support and goodwill towards our child.
I could say that I was protecting their privacy as they entered teen treatment in Utah. That our family structure had taken such a turn, that it would not be supportive to share the details. In honesty, I stopped talking out of protection for myself. Our own parenting story was now several deviations away from normal. I was in a territory I had never heard about, and I felt shame. Shame about how I was responding, in these darkest times. Shame about how my child’s actions must somehow reflect on me and my parenting. Shame about decisions I could have made or paths I could have taken that might have redirected all of us.
A family is always connected, even though it morphs and changes. We are a unit. We will always be a unit. I have one child who left home for treatment, years before it was expected. This shift will allow them to flourish and learn the skills they need to shape their future in the way they desire. I have a younger son who has a more steady path. He now balances a relationship between me and his father across different houses, a shift at home that was also unexpected and gives us all a chance to move forward with strength. Life is complicated, and messy if you are doing it right. But if I’m honest, even with these bumps, most days it’s much better than fine.
* The author’s child identifies as ‘they/them.’ The gender identity of the child is not the reason the child is in residential treatment.
If you want to learn more about this author's experiences and reflections, read these blogs:
9/27/17: The Teen Years: Residential Treatment is Filled with Hope
11/17/17: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: We Are All In This Together
11/20/17: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: New Communication Skills Take Shape
12/11/17: Relocate. Repair. Refocus. Required.
2/27/18: “I’m Not Going Anywhere…” When Teen Treatment Gets Messy
5/24/18: It's Fine
5/30/18: Nearly Normal
6/7/18: The Passage of Time
7/16/18: You Have to Work With What You Have
8/10/18: Healthy Teenage Boundaries - Taking Control
3/25/19 Parenting: I Would Like a Do Over
About the Author
The author lives in NYC and is the parent of two fascinating and engaging children, ages 15 and 12. An instructional leader at an elementary school, she has the privilege of spending her days supporting a wide-range of students and teachers.