I used to be white trash. I say this, not to put myself down, but rather to let you know on which shelf of society’s bookcase I once rested (cheap paperbacks perhaps?). This was before I travelled the world, before I got my Master’s degree, before I became a crunchy organic foodie. I was a white trash processed-foods-eatin’, divorced, oversexed, teenage welfare mama who had been molested by my hick pedophile daddy (and one of his good friends). I watched Jerry Springer with zeal, both because I could relate and because at least I wasn’t as low as those people.
I was also a clueless, immature, uneducated mommy. I knew zero about human behavior, especially my own.
Even so, I had high hopes for my baby boy. While pregnant I imagined myself a real earth mama. I saw my happy snugly baby suckling peacefully at my breast and sleeping soundly in my arms. I saw him becoming the kind of sweet, quiet, thoughtful, rational, peace-loving adult man that made me beam with pride. I figured we’d be so close that he’d be a lot like me – not into the army and guns like his dad, not a lazy macho hick like his dad. Yeah, by that time I’d already begun to hate just about everything about my lying cheating baby-daddy. And there was no way MY son would be anything like him.
But I messed it up. What is my son like now? He’s a good person. But he has anger issues. Big time. He’s possessive and jealous in all his relationships with the opposite sex. He won’t talk to me unless he needs something, and even then he will let me know that he really doesn’t want to talk to me. He writes to me IN ALL CAPS most of the time. He wants nothing to do with higher education or art or anything that has anything to do with mom.
And I’ll take the blame for it. I was a completely incompetent parent for too long. I let this kid down. I’ll give you the rundown on the stuff that today makes me so ashamed that I want to puke.
1.) I gave up on breastfeeding.
First, I was having so much trouble breastfeeding that I switched to formula within two months. My son screamed on and off the breast. I had him on a schedule – every 2 hours like the nurse had instructed. I had been a straight A student because I knew how to follow directions well, so I did as I was told. If he cried outside the scheduled feeding time, I thought there was no way he could be hungry. And by the time I put him to my engorged breasts, he sputtered and choked from the overactive letdown. I also pumped, as instructed. That did not help with the oversupply issue! [Note to breastfeeding mamas: leave the pump alone for the first couple of months, please! It will mess up the breastfeeding relationship and make you feel like a factory cow.]
I began to resent this little creature who I felt was sucking the very life out of me, not letting me sleep, and screaming at me all the time. I wept constantly. I had incredible PPD, with thoughts of suicide.
It didn’t help that my labor and birth went nothing like I had wanted, and my poor little one was whisked away right after birth [more on this when I tell you my two birth stories]. I remember the nurse telling me that I could see my baby only after the epidural wore off and I could stand on my own. That’s the moment the depression began. I had read that I was supposed to nurse right away! But they had my son in the nursery with daddy and a bottle of formula, while I awkwardly learned to use a breast pump alone in my room. I remember thinking, how did this happen? What just happened to me? Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Why was I so timid?
Anyway, as soon as I started the formula, my son seemed happier. I remember his relieved face as he frantically gulped the stuff down. I also remember the hurt I felt. My baby didn’t like my milk. He rejected me. I was not a natural mama. I was already failing.
What resulted was a lot more opportunities for me to slip further and further out of the mother-baby bond and hand him off to my mom or his father whenever I wanted to. Being a soggy weeping unhealthy mess, that was more often than it should have been.
2.) I let my baby Cry It Out.
I tried it three times. The first time, I decided to lay him in his crib at nap time and go to my word processor (you know those old typewriter-like thingies) and try to start a writing career. That lasted ten minutes. Ten excruciating minutes wherein I could write nothing and my poor baby’s cries escalated to a desperate panic. Every cell in my body told me to go to him. I tried to resist. But in the end I picked him back up, tears in my own eyes, and apologized for making him feel afraid.
One thing I did right was bed-sharing with my baby boy. He let me know right off the bat that he was not happy trying to go to sleep alone. So keeping him at my side was easier. I followed my instincts, and it worked out well.
The second time I tried the crying thing, I thought I would be smarter about it. I hired a high school student to babysit while I sat in the next room, again trying to write. I figured if someone were holding him – anyone – he would not feel afraid and would be ok. I was wrong. Babies need their primary caregiver, not just any caregiver. Mommy is baby’s natural habitat after all. I handed my happy baby over to the teenager and went to the bedroom with my word processor, again trying to launch a writing career. He screamed. He screamed and screamed. I came back to soothe him and tried again. He screamed some more. I made it a full 30 minutes while the poor young lady tried her best to quiet my son. It didn’t work. I gave up. As soon as he was back in my arms he was able to relax again. The writing would just have to wait. It was time to shift focus outside of myself.
The final time, he was a little over 2 years old. I had transitioned him to a toddler bed in his own room so I could resume some kind of love life, post-divorce. Before my boyfriend K came along, I would sit and rub my baby’s back and sing to him as he drifted off to sleep. Sometimes it took an hour or more, but I stayed there. In the wee hours, he would come into my room and crawl into bed with me. It worked out well. But when K came into the picture he told me that I was coddling him. How many moms have heard that ignorant refrain?
I so wanted to please my boyfriend. He had two daughters of his own. I figured he knew how to be a parent. I knew nothing. So I tucked my son in bed, spent ten minutes singing songs and then left him alone in his room. He cried. He called for me. He sobbed. I could not take it. Much to the annoyance of K, I went back in, scooped my boy up and cuddled with him in front of his favorite movie until he went to sleep. K came into the living room at 2am and woke me from my slumber on the floor in front of the TV. I tucked my son into his bed. The next morning K was very stearn with me. He thought I was messing my son up, that he would never self-soothe, and that he’d be depending on me to get to sleep til he was in high school. Instinctively, I felt all of that was a crock. Only now, 20 years later, I have research to back me up. But none-the-less, I gradually worked on spending less and less time helping my baby get to sleep. He still crawled into bed with me early in the morning, though. I wouldn’t budge on that one.
Had I been left alone without my boyfriend’s advice (and without the opinions of my state-funded psychologist and just about everyone else) my son would have fallen asleep in my arms until he grew out of it naturally. This is how I’m treating my daughter. She and daddy and I happily share a bed with a smaller bed off to the side so she can stretch out when she feels like it. I now know that crying it out alone causes stress hormones to surge throughout baby’s body making them prone to anxiety and more difficult to calm. I know now that it has a detrimental effect on their brain development. I know now my boyfriend was dead wrong.
3.) I screamed at my baby
I only did it once, but I will never forget how bad it felt. We were in the car. My son hated the car seat. As it turned out the seat itself was horrible on his little back. It hurt and he was letting me know in no uncertain terms. I didn’t get it. I just thought he was being difficult because he didn’t like being strapped down. I thought babies cried sometimes just because they were stubborn (I now know that babies usually only cry when something is truly wrong). But one day, just blocks away from home, I was doing and saying all I could to calm him. His screams were escalating until I couldn’t concentrate on the road. Out of nowhere a scream came out of me so loud and full of angst that I frightened even myself. My son was startled into silence for 30 seconds. Then of course his screams became even more desperate, as he was both in pain and scared. I felt so horrible I couldn’t stand myself for days.
4.) I had the TV on all the time
From morning til night, the screen flickered. I was bored. I put on the PBS kids’ shows, I watched daytime talk shows, and when nothing else was on I popped in a tape of a kid’s movie (I can probably still quote Land Before Time word for word). I could clean my entire house while my son sat in his walker glued to the screen. [He would later fall down a flight of stairs while in the care of his paternal grandmother because he was in that stupid walker – another BIG parenting mistake].
This time around, I sold my TV. I now know, just as the science shows and the APA knows, that TV before age two is not good for a child’s brain. My son now calls computer games his “happy place.” We’ve had issues with video game addiction to the point where he crapped his pants rather than walk away from the screen to use the restroom. That’s probably due to my lazy parenting and his many happy memories of a babyhood in front of the world’s cheapest babysitter.
5.) I allowed him to be spanked.
This is one of my worst parenting sins ever! Before my boyfriend K came around I was adamantly against spanking. I thought it barbaric. I told K so. I thought he would surely agree with me. He was a pacifist, a Taoist, and a meditator. He did not believe violence solved anything. He was so sweet to me, so giving, so encouraging and gentle. It seemed there was not a mean bone in this man’s body. So it struck me as completely out of character when he insisted that spanking was the only way to get through to my son.
Because I was a depressed and disconnected young mama, my son was quite a handful. He had what researchers now know as anxious attachment. He was not quite sure he could rely on me, his primary caregiver, to make the world right when it felt scary and out of control. Sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn’t. He never knew what to expect. I was hot and cold. He was clingy and quick to tantrum. Everything was a power struggle. He wouldn’t brush his teeth or pick up his toys. He acted out to get attention. He was difficult.
K was so sure of himself. He asserted that my son needed discipline of the strictest kind to bring him back in line, and he was more than happy to be the disciplinarian. I told him that I would never ever lay a hand on my boy, but that his relationship with the child, as a step-parent, was his own. So I consented to allow him to try spanking.
Again he was older and more experienced than I. I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t, even though everything within me knew it just wasn’t right. K lost a lifelong friend because of his insistence on spanking my son. Her name was Terri. She argued with K about it over and over until she finally told him she could not be friends with a striker of children. She wrote me a note in support of my parenting instincts and wishing me well. I still love her for that. If you’re out there, Terri, thank you.
I remember my son’s face when I’d go in to his room to soothe him after a spanking. There was hurt, anger, resentment, confusion all boiling under the surface. I would talk to him about what he did wrong and what to do differently so he would not be spanked again. I could tell it wasn’t getting through. Any instruction I had to give was blocked by his sense of betrayal. I had allowed someone to hit him. At 4 years old, it’s not something he could make sense of.
I want to cry when I think about it. I was weak, spineless. I so wanted to please my boyfriend. I so trusted this man. I let him do what I knew was wrong, at my son’s expense. It was the second-to-worst thing I did as a mom (I’ll talk about the worst in a moment).
The result was predictable. My son was regularly reprimanded in kindergarten for hitting other kids, and even hit his teacher. Violence was now a way to get things done quickly. Want the toy, and you’re not getting it? Hit the other kid. Want the adult’s attention quickly? Hit them! He was play-acting, doing the very thing that was done to him. K had modeled the worst strategy known to man. It was the beginning of my child’s anger issues.
As my son’s behavior worsened, my boyfriend became even meaner, graduating from a simple swat on the butt to pulling him around by the ear when he got on his nerves. I lost more and more respect for the man. The final straw was the day I was to leave my son with his grandparents to go away to graduate school. My son was seven years old. He was being just a bit too snarky for K’s taste, and K had to get in one last violent and angry release before sending my son off (I’m convinced now it was all much more for K’s benefit than anything else. He needed a place to direct all his anger and frustration and my son was a convenient target.).
We were in the car. K pulled over and reached back to slap my son. I grabbed his hand. Even K’s 9-year-old daughter grabbed his hand. She had hadn’t been spanked since she was a toddler, and she knew her dad was acting out in anger. The two of us trying to restrain him made K even more angry. He broke free from our grasp. He yanked my son from the car and lifted him by one arm while hitting his butt over and over.
I got out of the car, as did K’s young daughter, and I put my arm around my son. We all three started to walk down the road, disgusted with my boyfriend. We were in the middle of nowhere. Eventually we had to get back into the car, but we were all silent and angry. K held onto the belief that he was right. He would later apologize to me. But my respect for him, and to some extent my love for him, had already been demolished. We did not stay together much longer. I would never look at him the same way again.
6.) I used punishment and rewards
Dr. Gabor Mate, in a recent lecture, said something like “if you have to tell a child something over and over again, and it’s still not working, then it’s not the child who has trouble learning.”
Sticker charts, bribes, taking away privileges, time-outs. I tried it all. It didn’t work. I’d give it my all but within a week the new would wear off and we’d be back to square one. I had no tools to figure out how to help my son navigate this big world successfully. I thought I’d been dealt a bad hand. I thought my son was naturally difficult. I labelled him a problem child. This was a big mistake. It was actually our parent-child relationship that had gone bad, not my child.
I now understand that kids are not giving us a hard time, they are themselves having a hard time. They need our help. They need our unconditional undying love and affection to figure out their new big difficult emotions. Our job as parents is not to keep them under control, but to teach them a sense of self control. Not to overpower them, but to empower them. We are already bigger, stronger, more experienced. The power dynamic is already in place. We should never fear being controlled by our child, or letting them “make the rules,” so to speak. It’s a symbiotic relationship. If they feel helpless they will misbehave and push against whomever has control. We are here to guide them, not to force them into submission. Behaviorism – punishing bad behavior and trying to elicit predictable responses through rewards or the conditional showering and withdrawl of affection – just doesn’t work. Actually, it works sometimes in the short term, but it’s ultimately a brick wall that so many parents dash themselves against over and over.
When I got pregnant with my daughter, I was determined that I would crack this code of effective parenting so as not to make the same mistakes and run into the same brick wall. The book that changed my entire view of parenting was Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Cohn. I finally feel I have the tools and the maturity to be an effective mom.
7.) I gave up.
When my son was seven years old, I decided that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was not a good parent. I had no tools, was out of ideas, and was at my wit’s end. My son rarely had a week without some disciplinary action being taken at school. I was frustrated and defeated. I gave up.
I had the opportunity to move away and go to graduate school in Chicago. Since I had no resources in the big city, I left my son with his paternal grandparents in their small town in Missouri. I thought maybe they could mold him better than I. Ultimately it was the beginning a big self-destructive downward spiral for me. I hadn’t dealt with my own issues of abuse and I was acting out in my own ways – taking big personal risks, experimenting with drugs. I was supposed to bring my son to live with me after two years of school. I asked his grandparents to keep him a little longer because I was set to take a job as a web cam girl and had to have cameras installed all over my apartment. I ended up on national TV talking about my role as a well-known sex worker, and that was the last straw. The grandparents took custody away from me.
At the time, I thought it was probably best for him. My lifestyle just was not kid-friendly. Now, I wish I had fought for him. The fact that Ieft him and never came back will always feel to him like the worst kind of abandonment. Though I did try to keep up a relationship with him throughout his childhood (even when I was not allowed to see him without supervision). He refused all my invitations to come live with me later on, as a teen. Who can blame him? How would he be able to trust me? Leaving him was the absolute worst parenting mistake of my life.
8.) I didn’t defend my son.
I know my son’s relationship with his dad was not all that fun, either. Sometimes when I came to visit his dad would put him down and tease him. He’d call him “my daughter” just out of the blue and constantly question his masculinity. Even just the other day, when speaking to my mom, he referred to our child as an “asshole.” I finally, for the first time, wrote to him and asked him to stop with the demeaning language. After all these years. I never stood up for my son to his father. That was a huge fail on my part.
9.) I got agressive.
At 17, my son told me he wanted to join the airforce. This was my worst nightmare. I was now married to an Iraqi man and had recently travelled to the war torn country to meet his family and make a movie about it. Bombs exploded around me, waking me from early morning sleep. Cars were being stopped in the streets where I went to shop, as the soldiers searched for car bombs.
I had a huge falling out with my son over this. I did not want him in harm’s way, and did not want him over there killing Iraqis! I knew what it was like there, and knew it would be a nightmare. In his mind, I thought, it was much like a video game. I thought he just had no clue. I told him that joining the military was a horrible idea, and gave him dozens of reasons why he shouldn’t. I contacted his high school teachers and asked them to discuss other options with him.
I sent him several books written by former soldiers who had terrible experiences. I sent him counter-recruiting materials. He told me that the recruiter reassured him that he would not have to kill anyone. I told him the recruiter was a liar. I went to about a dozen college web sites and had them send him applications. I looked into internships for him in areas in which he showed interest, including a wildlife preserve where they took care of wolves – his favorite animal. I did everything I could think of.
My husband pleaded with him not to join. He emphasized that my son’s new family was there and that some had been the victims of misfired missiles and abuse from soldiers. This family who would love and embrace him if he would only let them, was being harmed by the very institution he wished to join.
All of this, of course, just made him more and more angry. It made him feel more and more distant. I was not supporting his dream. From his perspective, all I was doing was telling him that what he wanted was wrong and stupid. My lack of approval was more devastating than I knew. I was the one who didn’t understand. And he didn’t trust me anyway.
He hasn’t joined yet, but still plans to. I’ve learned to back off. As it turns out my own mother knew better. She told him that she was proud of him no matter what, but she didn’t like knowing he was in harm’s way. She was concerned but very supportive – a role I at first thought would lead my son straight to his death. I should have taken a cue from her.
My son uses this falling out as the reason he’s refused to see or talk to me for the past two years. I know it’s about a lot more than just that, but it is his sticking point. He warned me to back off or he would cut me out of his life. I didn’t. I thought I was being a good mother.
His initial response was very telling. He said that I had not even raised him and now I thought I should have a say in his future. Ouch. But he was right. Who am I? I wasn’t there to influence his decisions before, so why should I have a right now? I’m the parent who walked away.
I’m trying my best to be supportive and loving, and just keep a line of communication open. I’ve apologized for all of my mistakes. So far my relationship with him as an adult is a one way street. But I hope some day he’ll come around and at least start up a dialog with me. I don’t want him to bear the weight of his anger toward me all his life. It’s unhealthy. I don’t care so much that I am forgiven, but that he is able to make himself happier by releasing some of his hurt. I sit here, waiting, hoping, and letting him know that I am here if he needs me.
Do you have a problematic relationship with an adult child? What, in retrospect, were your worst parenting mistakes?