There is no parenting book in the world (although I contemplate writing one) that can prepare you for moments that make you question if you are resilient and able enough to continue to care for someone who utterly pisses you off to the core of your molten being. No manual on how to deal with another human being whose behavior you despise while simultaneously loving the shit out of them because they came from your body. It’s the private moments that we shy away from discussing out of shame and embarrassment that feel as though they can devastate us when they come to fruition.
This was the intersection I found myself at 6:30am the other morning, swiftly knocking on my son’s door and curtly reminding him that he would be accompanying me to work that day. I opened the door to see him balled up in blankets like a fermenting chrysalis, and upped my voice a notch. He heard me, lifted his messy head, and told me no. I stated once more that it wasn’t his option. He again refused, asking me why I was torturing him, and proceeded to go back to bed. We soft footed this dance for the next half hour, where eventually my parental self-control withered into yelling, and he became more and more aggressively defiant. And then I did what any self-respecting parent should do, and broke down into a sobbing mess in the middle of my kitchen. My son came downstairs and remarked that he didn’t want our relationship to be this way, but when I asked him to please just put on some fucking clothes and get ready to leave, the iron wall of teenage resistance locked around him once more, he again refused, and it left me seething. Despite having no desire to leave him home alone, because both he and his twin sister had not shown themselves to be trustworthy recently, I outlined what the consequences would be and gave him a clear choice. Then, giving him a last chance, I left for work alone.
Both of my older children had already been on my shit list two days prior, when they went to spend the night at a friend’s house and left my house a terrific disaster from having a sleep over the previous evening. Then they just decided they weren’t going to come home until 10:00pm, after being expected in the afternoon, and despite everyone around them having cell phones these days, they didn’t take the time to inform me where they were and when they would return. I was livid when they walked through the door like everything was grits and gravy, and threw down their stuff as if I hadn’t just cleaned for an hour and a half, nor had been worried sick about where they had been.
Yet, it was the next day that the air was sucked out of me, when I was asked to meet the vice principal of his high school and guidance counselor to discuss a matter that wasn’t presented over the phone, which usually means something of a higher grade fuck up. I ruminated for hours over what in the world one of my children could have possibly done, and when I finally got to the school, I was a neurotic mess. She sat me down, and began talking about an incident being reported, and I steeled myself for what was coming. And suddenly, the cards were on the table, and my son was being suspended for violating the sexual harassment policy of the school. The vice principal politely handed me Kleenex as she explained it would be two days of out of school suspension, provided he agreed to counseling, which I had been practically begging him to participate in all year, due to our family transition post-divorce. I asked if it would go on his record for college, and yes, it was explained, suspension might need to be listed and explained. I have never felt such an utter feeling of failure as a parent as I did in that moment.
In addition to beating myself up mentally for his behavior, I was furious in a thousand different ways, because I talk to my son about consent ALL THE TIME. Consent and feminism are featured themes throughout my writing, in addition to being a huge advocate for #metoo and Time’s Up. I am a poster child for female advocacy. When my son came home after spending the summer at Ballet Chicago, he couldn’t hold it in to even let me get his suitcase in the trunk before blurting out that he lost his virginity, and we had multiple discussions over the next few months about his experience and how he was processing it. We discussed how it happened, his relationship with the girl that he had sex with, the pleasure they both experienced, and how it felt to date someone afterward whom he felt a much greater affection for but wasn’t intimate with. My favorite moment in our talks was when he shared, “Mom, sex is such hard work though. It was exhausting. I don’t know how people do this all the time.” I also died laughing on the inside when he told me, “She said I made her orgasm, like, 6 times,” knowing all too well that she was likely exaggerating greatly, if not lying outright. Amidst these conversations, I was proud that he opened up to me, and that we spoke with unabashed emotion and truth.
Carrying the weight of my own traumas and experiences with harassment and assault, and having shared these openly with my children, it felt like a slap in the face to suddenly be confronted with this situation. For the rest of the day, I mulled over what was presented, and when I finally got home to discuss the issue with him, I was surprised to find him defensive, and seemingly unwilling to accept accountability for his role in what transpired, which had been described as physical touch that made a girl feel uncomfortable, as well as a sexual request made through a social media app in a separate incident. In addition, his twin sister sat staunchly in his defense, which created a frustrating 2 on 1 scenario where I wasn’t truly able to talk to him and get to the root of what had led to this mess in the first place. It quickly devolved into an argument, where he was then informed he would be hanging out in my workplace for the next two days.
And then came morning, and with it came the staunch refusal to cooperate. I went to work shaken and angry, and more disappointed than my heart could bear to manage. And I began mulling over some of things we had discussed at the meeting. The one aspect that bothered me the most was when I had asked if this was something that would go on his record. I thought of all the men recently who have had the bones of their past actions shaken from their closets, the ones that they intentionally hid and covered up. And I thought of how often women become complicit in covering up their actions, including mothers intent on protecting their sons, and I felt an intense wave of disgust rise up through me. I knew then and there that it wasn’t going to be enough for him to have to just live with the experience of being accused, but I wanted him to take full ownership. I also knew I could never be that parent that sacrifices the discomfort of others for the protection of my own. So, I emailed the authorities at school, explained that I wasn’t sure my son really had enough time to self-reflect, asked for an additional day of suspension, and asked that he produce some sort of educational presentation on consent.
That evening, when I arrived home, my son was very unhappy when I told him what I had asked for. But he also seemed to finally understand how deadly serious I was that he must take complete responsibility for what had transpired, and he finally agreed to accompany me to work, in part because we had been asked to return for another meeting at the school the following afternoon. So, the next day, I woke his reluctant soul and forced him to sit in my office without either a phone or his computer, just solid reflection time. Initially, sitting together, we found ourselves falling down a rabbit hole into a sniping argument that was not going to be a win for either of us. And then, I couldn’t hold back the emotion slowly building inside, and I just burst into tears. I wept for having to be immersed in that conversation, and for my son, and having to guide him on foreign territory while feeling like I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Suddenly my son was hugging me, apologizing, and then we began to talk in earnest. We broke down consent even more. I shared my experience of unintentionally sexually harassing someone in college, and how the discomfort I caused is something I carry with me, always, and how it could have affected my life with a much more negative outcome if it weren’t for the educators who cared for me. I explained that it wasn’t that I felt he was a bad person, because for him, the age and timing to make these grand mistakes is when you are cushioned and supported by those who care for you and can steer you in another direction. We discussed how he may have hurt the individual involved, and how a more formal letter apology was necessary. We discussed how differently this would be affecting him if he were already a legal adult, and it had happened in a work or college environment. And most importantly, we discussed ownership versus shame, and how being the one to set the narrative would allow him to display maturation, growth, and repentance.
By the time we walked into the second meeting, my son was a different man. He talked about how he had never intended to hurt another, and felt horrific for it. The vice principal and counselor, also women, along with myself, reiterated how women often minimize their discomfort in these situations as a method of self-preservation. Even though the girl who reported the action had mentioned not wanting to get my son in ‘trouble’, we talked through why that message might not actually mean what she said on the surface. We discussed the educational piece, and he very willingly agreed, and offered, if it was appropriate, to teach his peers. He completely owned up to using social media to proposition someone, and we discussed how gray and blurry the world of technology is when it comes to sex. And we talked about how often the actions of men have been suppressed and ignored, and that particularly during this intersection in time, his willingness to openly own his mistake was the appropriate course.
After listening to my son, and winding our way through the topic thoroughly, the vice principal decided therapy would be sufficient, and that he could return the next day without adding additional suspension. I was satisfied with that. But mostly, despite the circumstances, I was proud of him, and his ability and willingness to deepen his own perspective and to evaluate himself with a critical eye.
Parenting is by far the most difficult, and rewarding, aspect of my life. I love my children with such fervor, and yet they often challenge me to the brink of emotional despair. We can forget to communicate with each other with heart and empathy. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find a middle ground, and it’s there that you open a door to understanding one another, and find respect for each other as human people. Most importantly, listening and finding empathy go a tremendously long way to cultivating mutual trust, and with that, a sense of respect and compassion for an opposite perspective.
One reason for sharing this is to let other parents know, especially single mothers, that you are not alone in navigating the extreme challenges that parenting can present. It’s okay for us to go through events such as this, but shame has no place at the table. Don’t agonize over mistakes and moments that feel so overwhelming you want to dig a hole and bury yourself. As one friend put it brilliantly, “We aren’t required to like, just love…They know everything, it’s amazing. And then they figure out they did not in fact know shit. Your job is to keep them alive long enough for that lesson.”
With that, I also want to reinforce how important accountability is for men in the here and now, and how the shifting narrative of culture around consent and behavior has created murky waters where our children need us to help them from drowning as they become adults. We need to be having consistent conversations with our kids, because as society continues to work through an age of women claiming greater power over their bodies, sexuality, and power, the dynamic is constantly morphing, and more than ever, they need us to be the adults they look up to answer their tough questions. This also forces us to examine our own biases and feelings, and to invite necessary change into our own perspectives, and behavior.
All I can say is hang in there. Hug your kids as much as they allow. Listen, and share deeply. Don’t be afraid of judgments or making mistakes. Make accountability an expectation for them always, as well as yourself. Know that sometimes things arise that you can’t control, despite your best efforts to offer your own transparency and wisdom. Keeping them alive, sometimes, is more than enough.