Luca has agreed to let me take him out for lunch for his 14th birthday tomorrow. It will be the first time I’ve seen him since February, when I took him out for a Valentine’s Dinner that did not go at all well. I have no idea what to expect. I am hoping, since Luca seemed slightly enthusiastic at the prospect of lunch (and the prospect of a present), and since the custody battle is over and his dad gets to make all the decisions, that he will no longer feel he has to slay the Mommy Dragon. I hope that we can just have lunch, and that I can give him his birthday cash, and that we can make some small talk and feel sort of halfway normal.
Below is a journal entry I wrote one year ago, after I took Luca out for a 13th birthday lunch that turned into a fiasco. I am hoping that Friday’s celebration will go better and this post will serve as a yardstick to chart some mother-son progress. We’ll see.
Yesterday, before I took you out for your birthday, I got a call from Shelly, the middle school guidance counselor at Escalade Prep. She told me about an open writing assignment you did in summer school where you had to write about an important event in your life. You wrote about the divorce and how it has affected you, and in particular, how much you don’t like Atticus.
Shelly asked me if you’d been to therapy to deal with your feelings about the divorce. I told her that you had been in lots of individual therapy with lots of different therapists over the past several years, and as far as I could tell, none of it had been particularly helpful. I told her that I thought sticking you back in individual therapy was unfair, as it makes you the “identified patient”; you can’t do anything about the conflict between your dad and me. I said I thought family therapy, or therapy with just your dad and me, was the only thing that might help—although I didn’t say that in truth, I don’t think your dad has any interest in calling a cease-fire.
Shelly said that you had read your assignment to the class, and that this generated a lot of discussion. I wonder if opening up like this was in part a way to get help, to call attention to the conflict. You targeted Atticus as the problem, which is as unfair as targeting you as the problem. The problem doesn’t reside in any one of us, but in the conflict itself. We are all part of it.
Stopping the conflict will take a concerted effort on everyone’s part—including your dad. It will mean accepting things we can’t change—in particular things about other people. It will mean focusing on what each of us can change—our own behaviors and the way we choose to communicate.
You are at an age where it’s hard to have perspective. Problems seem to reside wholly in other people. I understand that you feel angry and scared and probably depressed and hopeless. I feel like that too. But I hope that one day you will understand how those feelings have controlled you and caused you to act in ways that kept the conflict going, or that hurt other people.
Yesterday I took you out for your 13th birthday. I hadn’t seen you in over two weeks—the longest I had ever gone without seeing you. I felt nervous when you got in the car—especially in light of my conversation with Shelly. Would you be glad to see me? Would you be angry with me? Would we have anything to say to each other or would we be stuck in an awkward silence?
The beginning was easy. You seemed happy to see me. You smiled and gave me a hug. I noticed how handsome you looked in your electric blue jeans and matching hoodie and baseball cap. You asked me if I liked your new haircut; we both joked about how you look like Justin Bieber, only better. We chatted about summer school, what you were studying, kids in your class. You asked how everyone at my house was doing. You asked about Atticus. If Shelly and I hadn’t spoken, I would never have known how much anger you harbor towards your stepfather.
I was so relieved to feel close to you again. You wanted to go the magic store to get your birthday present and mentioned different things you wanted. You wanted to know what the budget was. I said $60, but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. I should know by now that I have to be blazingly clear with limits—although when I am, you still won’t accept them.
When we got to the store, you had a hard time narrowing down your selection. You saw several magic trick DVDs that you wanted, as well as a trick called the “Gekko” which you had special-ordered. All of these items totaled twice the budget, and you wanted me to get you everything. I got clearer about the budget; I kept repeating that it was $60, that I knew you were disappointed, but that you would have to make some choices about what you wanted the most.
You were angry and frustrated and petulant and rude. You fought back tears. I was simmering with resentment and embarrassed. The store clerk was patient and seemed to empathize with both of us. It took a long time for you to narrow down your selection, and I ended up spending $75 instead of $60. I was worried you would “explode” in the store—I could see you getting agitated so I wanted to get us out of there.
We got in the car and you were still mad. You said you didn’t want lunch at the gelato store as we’d planned, that you couldn’t think of anything you wanted to do with me, that you wanted to go home. You insisted your dad was there, that I could drop you off. I told you the way I felt: that the only reason you wanted to see me was to get a present, and that you didn’t appreciate what I did get you, or understand that I had a budget. You didn’t seem to take this in. You kept insisting I take you home. I called your dad and he said he did not tell you he would be at home and that no one would be there until 3 pm. You mumbled that you had thought he would be at home, but this was not the truth. This was not the first time you had lied so I would take you back to your dad’s.
So there we were, back to our default setting. Awkward silences, both of us feeling let down by the other. I told you that actually I was hungry and that I needed to go the bathroom. I told you you didn’t have to eat anything, but you would have to come with me to the restaurant since I couldn’t take you back to your dad’s for a couple hours.
We went to the gelato store and you ended up ordering a feta pie, and then a gelato. Eating seemed to perk you up; maybe you were hungrier than you realized. I ate a white hummus panini sandwich and drank espresso. Gradually, the painful silence was punctuated by intermittent conversation. You told me about the required summer book you were reading, NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER. You shared that it was about a teenage boy who stole his dad’s car and ended up on probation. When I asked more questions, such as why he stole the car, you didn’t answer directly, but you mentioned that the boy’s parents were divorced and that he didn’t see his dad much. I considered asking you if you related to the story, but I didn’t want to push it.
We were sitting at a sidewalk table outside the restaurant. It was one of those overcast June days, but the gloom had cleared a bit and the sun was filtering through. You chatted up a woman sitting across from us. She was a comedienne and she had a small dog on a leash. You showed her some of your magic: a disappearing coin and a card trick. She seemed genuinely impressed and asked you lots of questions. She joked that being a magician was probably a good career choice, given the state of the economy.
You were in your element—performing for a rapt adult audience. As I watched you my mind drifted back to memories of earlier birthdays. Your first birthday with your babygroup friends: you wore a white one-piece with shorts. There is a picture of the two of us on the patio, blowing out your candles. Your second birthday: we had a petting zoo party and a big Elmo sheet cake. How different those birthdays were. Delightful, exciting, wondrous, innocent, magical. A petting zoo and an Elmo cake made you so happy—they were more than enough. How gratifying it was for me—and I think your dad too—to be caught up in that magic, to watch as toddlers and parents streamed through the side gate to the backyard, bearing smiles and brightly-wrapped presents.
I thought, too, of the times your dad was away for work for a long stretch. You were three during one of these times. I would awake every morning to feel your little hand on my cheek, turning my face towards you by my bedside. “Mommy, get up!” you would say, with that grin that made me melt. You were so excited to start your day, and I was thrilled to share it with you. Who would we visit on our daily walk through the neighborhood? What games would we play? Would you eat anything besides cheerios and raisins? I had never felt so close to another person. Life seemed so full, bright promises stretching out in front of us like an endless red carpet.
But life takes turns you don’t expect. So here we are, ten years later, at a sidewalk café, living parallel lives. Nothing I do seems to make you happy, and we seem like strangers. I ask you about your dentist appointment earlier in the week, and you seem genuinely surprised that I knew you had one—you had no idea that I had made the appointment, but your dad insisted on taking you.
You have calmed down now, but you ask about the time, and I sense you’re eager to end the birthday “celebration.” I want to end the afternoon on a good note, so I suggest I drive you to your dad’s. We get in the car and you apologize for acting up in the store. This is a frequent pattern: you explode at me when you don’t get what you want, demand to go to your dad’s, then—sometimes—are able to regulate yourself and later apologize. I am never sure if you truly “own” the apology. Do you actually feel sorry? Do you realize you’ve acted badly? Do you understand the impact of your behavior on me? Or is the apology something you know you need to offer, something your dad has rehearsed with you?
I tell you I accept your apology, although I don’t, really, nor do I feel that anything is resolved. After years of being the target of your rage, it is harder and harder to keep coming back, to hold out the hope that one day we will get past this. That you will reach out in a way that doesn’t cause what I think is the opposite of what you want: my retreating into my own anger and frustration.
I feel guilt as well. At times like these, I resent the impossible burden, the myth of motherhood: that mothers are selfless, all-loving, all-forgiving, impervious to attacks from angry children. At times like these, I don’t feel like a mother: I feel vulnerable and rejected. I feel like I’ve failed.
I drive you home. You are polite now. We make small-talk. I think we are both relieved our time is ending. We made it through two hours together. There was damage, but we made a small repair. You get out of the car and stride eagerly across the lawn to your dad’s house. I watch you walk away from me. You don’t look back. I drive away and make a mental note to order NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER on Amazon.