My oldest kid is turning 13 in less than a week. By itself this doesn’t really mean a lot because age is just a number. It is not so much that I feel like, as common parenting tropes would suggest, that it all goes by so fast. No, I would not trade an “ok boomer” eye roll for a 2am feeding session with bleeding nipples, or a toddler tantrum for a surly teen refusing to do household chores because “he doesn’t really need the allowance money.” We had a sort of tense interaction yesterday because I was, frankly, in a snit that I had to drive him to an activity that I find a little wasteful and bougie [skiiing] on my day off when he had a ride that fell through [not even a little his fault], and he was not doing a great job of making this not an additionally onerous task for me by being at all helpful. Normal parenting a teen stuff really.
In these scenarios my teenager is more like a person, a familiar, less of a strange parasite [I do always paint such a vivid picture of mothering the under 5 set…], and so the unsavory things that he does are more like the unsavory things another adult might inflict upon me. Irritating, unpleasant, but ultimately the time for intervention is nearly passed. My ability to influence the decisions that my kid makes for the rest of his life are mostly about whether or not I made the impression that I needed to have made before he was about 5.
So I have been casting my mind back to what his home life was like from the ages of 0-5, and there is much left to be desired. It was a rocky time, where I was unhappy, and as the oldest kid he absorbed a lot of that anxiety, dissatisfaction and anger. Don’t get me wrong, I understand about the mechanics of a truly shitty childhood [my ACE score is a 7 – I am exceptional!], and this is not what we are dealing with here. My kids haven’t been abused or neglected and though their parents are divorced they have been the recipients of the love and support of four devoted parents. I don’t want to minimize the struggles that they have gone through, but I have a certain amount of empathy for my mother’s confession that she didn’t consider what I went through to be child “abuse” because I was never beaten with a belt. Though non-belt beatings were a common occurrence in my own childhood the absence of the belt was an indicator to my mother of the severity of the violence, as if children beaten with hands and conveniently positioned props, didn’t hurt just as much. If the arc is beaten with belt, generally beaten, not beaten then this is an improvement [certainly for my kids]. I guess.
In my mother’s defense, she does understand intellectually that it was still abuse, but it remains difficult to compare our experiences as if there is some sort of child abuse olympics and I’m like the bronze medalist to her gold. We both know, her more so having worked as a nurse in an in-patient adolescent psych unit, that the actual child abuse gold medalists did not win anything. That they mostly got eaten alive before the reached the ages that we both have. This is not a sport you want to win. There is no award for being more fucked up. Still today was the first day that my kids had heard the story of second grade me hitch-hiking to school with my mother in my ladybug Halloween costume because the car would not start again. That kind of childhood insecurity doesn’t make visceral sense to them, children with iPads and chromebooks and name brand shoes and skiing and art lessons and vacations. They said it makes them feel bad to know their mother went through things like this. Rather than saying “it’s ok, other people had it worse,” and deflecting their pity as undeserved or irrelevant I said, “don’t feel bad because I don’t feel bad. Just resolve to not be asshole rich people. Understand where people are coming from.”
Rich white people guilt is not going to improve outcomes for people who are suffering. I don’t want to teach my kids that their responsibility to be good people ends with occasionally feeling thankful that they are not homeless whenever they pass a panhandler. Or the more insidious acculturation which is to see someone worse off than themselves and to assume that somehow that person must deserve their life’s circumstances. Even growing up as I did, I remember it being clear that we might be poor but we were not trash. Trash people were lazy, trash people liked to be on welfare, trash people were not trying to better themselves, trash people did not go to college because they did not believe in education.
I would say that a childhood of unreliable material resources and reliable abuse builds character, but that is really just the story of the survivors. We do not all survive. And it is difficult to tell my kids stories about the family members who are not surviving without framing those outcomes as somehow being about personal choices. Yes, I can tell them that their uncle went to jail and will probably never have a driver’s license again and is unable to hold down a steady job and that his issues with substance abuse are part chemistry and part choices. But it still feels like a moralistic tale. What is the difference between me and my brother? Sometimes I think it is that the adults around him allowed him to believe that he was not really responsible for his own actions, that they would always bail him out, other times I think it’s more remarkable that I am not in the same situation, that he could have been a lot worse. Am I here because of what I did or is he there because of what he didn’t do? [It is probably the PACEs]
And so, as I drove my surly nearly-teenager to the ski hill in my nice, insured, reliable cross-over SUV with its thick all-season tires, I found myself irritated with my inner self for being so oblivious to the gifts in my life as to be grouchy that I was spending my Saturday shuttling an almost ungrateful preteen to participate in the lofty and inaccessible hobby of skiing. There is a part of me that sees the things that I have been through as the price that I had to pay to get to here, where things are nice, and I don’t want to be inconvenienced any more. I want to enjoy my fuck you money and my comfortable life. Not all the time, but definitely on my weekends, made possible by the blood and sweat and lives of united workers. This is my sense of entitlement that my brother often sums up with the comment, “it must be nice,” as if I had no hand in the comfort in my own life and he has had no hand in the discomfort of his. This cush life was what my parents wanted for me when they said I needed to go to college. The Middle Class Holy Grail: surly teen, SUV, ski school.
My dad, who is not much of a traveler, came out to visit us this summer. He had never been west of the Rockies [I have lived here for 15 years]. I drove him around in my SUV for a week after buying him a plane ticket, and he said, several times, “this is a nice car.” He did not know what to make of meals with lentils in them, but he was very polite about it. I had been instructed to let him buy things for me, so that he wouldn’t feel bad about the airfare. The most salient thing he said to me about his time at our house was, “you’re all so nice to each other.” It was a very good visit, despite how this sounds. All things being equal, being affluent makes it easier to be nice to people. In our house we do not have to fight about money, we are not stuck together because we can’t afford to be separated, which means we choose to be here. We like each other. And when you like people it isn’t [much] work [most of the time] to be nice to them. I have a nice family. We do not throw dishes. We do not yell, “I hate you,” or “shit your mouth, you worthless little piece of shit.” Not because we are walking on eggshells to avoid conflict, but because there is very little to conflict over. All that takes is a modest existence in a two income household where no one has a drinking problem and everyone has health insurance so they have been to therapy. The real Middle Class Holy Grail.
So when I turned to my kid after about 5 minutes of strained silence where we were both clearly avoiding dealing with our large feelings, and said “I am sorry I was a grouchy asshole back there [I swear a lot around my kids and do not feel bad about it]. I get to be irritated that my Saturday is not what I wanted, but I don’t get to take it out on you,” he was not surprised because his mother has had the emotional maturity to apologize to him for her short comings countless times. I’m the generational trauma survivor gold medalist at apologizing. Not at all like my mother who, upon learning three years ago about my ASD diagnosis told me that I didn’t have ASD, but had depression and PTSD and daddy issues and needed to stop being a whiner [I’m not bitter], and has not only not apologized in all that time but has also never mentioned that this even happened since. I do not bring it up to her because I imagine having to sift through the justifications for why this should have been allowed to be ignored, and it makes me more tired to think of confronting her than to just take it. But I think about this, and countless other instances where no one apologized with a startling frequency for someone who is “healthy.”
He shrugged at me, “it’s ok mom, you don’t need to be sorry.” Yes I do you little bastard, I am trying to win the gold medal for emotional maturity here. “Well,”I respectfully disagree. “If some other asshole treated you that way, I would hope that you would stand up for yourself and not take that shit.” Another surly teen shrug, “well, I do stand up to those people, but you’re like my mom, so you know.” Yeah, I do know, buddy. “It is ok to politely tell your mother to fuck off sometimes, you know. I promise, I have been told worse things by people I like less.” He then proceeded to do an admirably sophisticated impression of a person with the emotional intelligence to do just that, and because he is not really a duplicitous person I have to conclude that I raised him well enough to actually be a person who can politely tell his mother to fuck off. Shit.
I worry a lot about this kid. He’s very sensitive in a world that I have experienced eats sensitive boys alive. I keep waiting for him to be bullied but it keeps not happening. He is also impossible to motivate to do most things that I, as his parent, think he needs to learn how to do in order to be a functional adult. Things like turning his homework in on time, or cleaning his damned ears. I am concerned that his affluence and the material support of 4 parents [and many grandparents] has made him a little entitled to things like skiing and cellphones. I do not want him to be one of those white men who assumes that he has a seat at a prestigious university while women and people of color are hustling to get in. I worry that the security that I have worked for in my life is going to make him soft. That he doesn’t have the hunger, even though I am not sure what good “the hunger” really does for all of us other than make us strive for the unexamined trophies of a post-capitalist existence.
I’m not really in a position anymore to understand what he, and his generation, are going to want from life. I don’t know what advice they are going to take from their forebears and what advice [such as “get a liberal arts degree, it doesn’t matter what it’s in, college is never a bad investment”] they are going to decide is Millennial garbage [because if Boomers can be morons, so can we]. I do know that I am in the period of letting go of those outcomes, because the world in increasingly not mine – even if sometimes it seems like I have not yet succeeded in elbowing my parent’s generation out of the driver’s seat of our society. Having a teenager means letting go of the hubristic notion that you have control over what another person does with their life, that you have the equipment to truly understand what is best for them. Sure, there are things that I can still do as a parent, but I’ve gotta get ready to recede into the background of his life. I was a useful character in his origin story, but I am just there to establish first principles.
It was, ironically, my mother who told teenage me that she saw her own journey through therapy as about trying to do better than her parents had done. So that I could manage to do better than she had done. Strangely, it seems that this was achieved. It has been rather a messy process, strictly nonlinear, where it feels like all I have done is the very hard thing over and over again for no real reward. I am certain that there is more angst to come, more simmering car rides where people try hard to not be assholes while they get their emotional needs met by the people they love and rely on. It is a dirty business, this growing up and growing old.