The main thing I noticed during the Parent Workshop at Luca’s boarding school last weekend was how respectable the parents appeared. For instance, Julia from Seattle, with her chic bob and hand-knit poncho, you just would not have expected her to utter with a resigned shrug, “Dylan held a knife to my throat. Twice.”
And Beth, the elegant blonde from Savannah with the unlined face, this was not a woman you would have imagined admitting that her son sat across from her at the kitchen island, watching porn on his laptop.
And Paola, whose husband, it was rumored, owned a lot of Spain. Who would have thought this mother would not be able to get her son to go to school for six months?
For four days, I sat in rooms with parents of the forty boys, aged ten to 14, who attend Luca’s therapeutic boarding school. We had flown in from all over the country, and in Paola’s case from out of the country, to a state that few of us would have had occasion to visit if our sons’ school hadn’t sat nestled there in a rarely-traveled canyon.
In those rooms, therapists taught us how to turn our Hearts of War into Hearts of Peace, and the benefit this could have on those around us, even ragingly non-compliant teenagers. The school psychiatrist answered questions about ADHD, why he thinks pediatric bipolar disorder is overdiagnosed, and his judicious approach to medication. Teachers explained not only the curriculum, but the accomodations they made for sensory-overloaded kids.
During the Parent Support Group, we sat in a circle and shared where we were on the continuum of raising challenging children. One mother burst into tears, confessing that she was afraid her son would never be able to come home.
One mother stated, dry-eyed, that she did not want her son to come home.
Two single mothers of only children described what it was like to have all their maternal eggs in one basket, to grieve the loss of the child who had been their “everything,” to avoid church functions and family reunions because they couldn’t bear being around families who looked the way they had dreamt theirs would.
One gray-haired father leaned back in his chair and said he didn’t give a shit what anyone thought anymore.
My own husband, Luca’s stepfather, raised the issue of parental trauma: the physical and psychological impact of years spent trying to raise children who refused to be parented.
Thirteen years ago, when Luca was a golden-haired toddler who giggled and cuddled and slept through the night, I attended a different kind of mommy group. While our children played with wooden toys and chewed on Goldfish and Cheerios, we basking-in-the-glow-of-new-motherhood moms traded stories of toilet-training, preschool applications, who was vaccinating and who wasn’t.
During one playgroup, a boy hurled a truck at Luca, barely missing his head. As I wrapped my arms around my son, I glared at the boy’s mother, who, I thought, did not demonstrate an appropriately chagrined reaction.
All manner of judgments raced through my mind. The boys’ parents were too permissive. They argued in front of their kid. Perhaps they hit each other! The boy, age three, showed no remorse for almost decapitating Luca. This was an ominous sign, a sure prediction of this boy’s future as a teenage hoodlum.
And now, what seems like eons later, I am that parent who is the recipient of Mother Blame, the societal finger-pointing at parents, but mothers especially, who clearly must have done something to mess up their kids.
Shame was the theme that bubbled up and coalesced during the Parent Support Group. Everyone seemed to have a story of being blamed for their child’s behavior problems: by their own parents, by siblings, by neighbors, by spouses.
Shame was the thread that bound us together; but seeing ourselves reflected in others let us toss off the albatross that is blame, if only for a weekend.
In the evenings, the moms congregated by the fireplace in the hotel lobby, drinking wine and exchanging “why is your kid here?” tales. Save for the fact that I was the lone middle-class parent (the dire economy apparently had leapfrogged over these folks, who, like my ex-husband, were shelling out ten grand a month to keep their boys at this school), I nestled in the comfort of being with mothers like me.
One night, I got into it with Luca. Feeling rejected by a group of boys who did not want to hang out with him, he had vehemently argued with me when I told him he could not run around the hotel unsupervised. Back in our hotel room, I finally made Luca draw a “card” for arguing, with instructions for a positive behavior replacement on the back. I left him in the room stewing while I slogged down to the lobby and collapsed onto a couch next to some other mothers.
“I listened to him beat you down for an hour,” one said.
“You should have given him that card an hour ago,” said another, directly, without a smidgen of judgment.
“I know,” I sighed. “But we were standing in front of everyone, and I guess…I don’t know, I was afraid if I gave him a card, he would make a scene.”
“Are you kidding?” said Julia, the mom whose twelve-year-old had held a kitchen knife to her throat. “Do you think any of us in this room would have thought less of you if Luca tore up the lobby?”
And in that moment, my self-judgments — I screwed up my kid because I got divorced, work full-time, got remarried, was too lax, too reactive, too tired, too, too, too — melted away with a few sips of robust Cabernet and the metaphorical embrace of mothers who knew:
Some children cannot be raised at home.
Sending your kid to residential placement is usually a symbol of commitment, not rejection.
There are nurturing residential placements out there; research, and the aid of a qualified educational consultant, will steer parents clear of facilities that utilize harsh discipline.
At the end of the workshop, when I drove Luca up the long, winding hillside that crested to reveal several ski-lodge type dwellings that comprise his boarding school, I inventoried the events of the weekend.
One blow-up. No skirmishes with Luca and his stepdad. The fear on my 7-year-old stepson’s face when he first saw Luca at the airport subsiding, replaced by smiles and laughter. Franny hugging Luca goodbye.
“What was the workshop like for you, Luca?” I asked.
He didn’t even hesitate.
“Fun,” he nodded. “I liked it.”
So did I.