"I love my son, and I hate him"

To breed or not to breed: A struggling mother and three other readers tell their stories.

Published May 10, 2003 8:37PM (EDT)

I love my son, and I hate him

If I had my life to live over again, I would choose to remain childless. I wanted my son very much. I loved being pregnant and was besotted with him when he was born. I felt that having this child was the best thing that ever happened to me.

When my son started kindergarten, the troubles began. He refused to obey the teacher. He attacked the other children. I received weekly, sometimes daily, calls from the school. The other parents wouldn't let their kids play with him. I became a scout leader in an effort to cultivate friendships for my son (and because none of the other parents could handle him). I thought the problems were caused by his intelligence, because from an early age, he was smarter than a lot of adults. He was fiercely jealous of my time. I couldn't talk on the phone without multiple interruptions. If I talked to other children, he attacked them.

My marriage broke up, his father disappeared, and the problems in school got worse. He got physical with a teacher in fourth grade. We changed schools. The problems continued. We started therapy when he was 7. He was treated for depression. He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, then that diagnosis was discarded in favor of Affective Disorder, then Borderline Personality Disorder, then Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The professionals told me that he needed more structure, or that I needed to be more flexible, or that I needed to remarry. I read all of the parenting books and tried multiple reward/punishment systems.

Nothing worked.

We changed schools again. By eighth grade, he was failing every subject and was a social outcast. He started cutting his arms and legs with pins and razors. He dyed his hair green, then red, then purple. He assaulted me when I tried to force him to go to his room. I pulled him out of school and home-schooled him. I worried that he would kill himself while I was at work.

Four years after the divorce, I started dating again. One by one, he drove my dates away. My mother was no longer willing to watch him when I needed to travel on business, so I took a demotion that didn't require travel. We went to group therapy for Dialectical Behavior training. He started smoking, experimenting with drugs, and drinking. Last year, he was hospitalized because he had a psychotic break. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since then, he's been hospitalized eight times. When he comes home, he either rages out of control to the point that I lock myself in my bedroom, or he becomes suicidally depressed. We've tried five different medication regimes. He got kicked out of school. He ran away from home and lived on the streets for two weeks before the police finally found him. He's back in the hospital now.

Twenty percent of kids with bipolar disorder end up committing suicide. Sometimes I wish my son would die. Sometimes I wish I would die. I take antidepressants and struggle with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I love him, and I hate him.

In my opinion, nobody should have a child unless they absolutely, unequivocally want to be a parent. Anyone who makes the decision to become a parent should understand that it isn't always the rewarding, life-affirming experience that your friends talk about.

I will continue to care for my son to the best of my ability because I'm a mother and that's what we do. Do I regret the direction that my life might have taken if I had not had this child? Absolutely.

--Name Withheld

Don't have kids if you can't afford them!

Recently a letter writer accused the writers at Salon of being snobbish elitists for assuming that people who are financially incapable of supporting kids shouldn't have them.

I'd like to respond that I don't believe in an inalienable right to reproduce as often as you wish, or at all, and I speak as one of four children of a divorced working mother.

We always got the free school lunches (and had to carry lunch tickets specially marked with a red stripe so all the other kids could tell who the charity cases were), we wore hand-me-down clothes, and we were embarrassed to have Mom pick us up after school in the rusty, junky old car. My mother often worked two jobs, and sometimes cleaned friends' houses for extra money. Yes, there was a lot of love in the family, but it's easy for love to get buried under shame and resentment, when you're too embarrassed to let friends from school see where you live.

When I was 13, I started working about 20-25 hours a week after school just to have money for clothes and books. There was never enough money ... I felt like I always, always, always had to work. I suppose poverty and hard work help build character, but it also breeds bitterness, anger and a pervasive sense of insecurity and shame. This has left me deeply ambivalent about creating children that I fear I won't be able to care for properly. And by properly, I don't mean having their own TV and DVD player and car, I mean growing up without a constant sense of the dread I felt. I just can't describe the horrible sense of knowing that at any minute our family could fall apart due to simple lack of money, or the utter shame of realizing that my parents were about as helpless in dealing with life's hard knocks as the children they were supposed to protect.

I love my mother. She did the best she could do. It's just that sometimes I find it hard to understand, much less respect, the mistakes and decisions she made -- even when one of those decisions was me. Why on earth would you even want to have children you know you cannot afford? How selfish is that? What kind of life do you plan on giving them?

I feel like my childhood was spent in a cloud of anxiety and tension that has carried over into my adult life. A large part of my decision to postpone, and possibly avoid, having children was my own impoverished upbringing. Call me selfish, but I think I've already made my sacrifices. Now that I'm finally, somewhat, financially stable at age 29, I want to relax and enjoy my life.

I am not some snobbish elitist, just a kid who's been there. I think if you're poor and must have kids, have one -- not four.

-- Catherine

Adoption was my first choice

I made the choice to not have biological children a long time ago. I never wanted to be pregnant. The more my friends got pregnant, the more I knew I didn't want to.

But here I am, a mom. My husband and I adopted a 3-year-old out of foster care last year. It was the right decision for us. My husband, seven years into our blissfully childless marriage, tearfully confessed that he wanted kids. I did a lot of soul searching and realized my objection to kids was not raising them but bearing them. I have always been a champion for those left behind, and adopting out of foster care felt so right to me. I mean, why have a kid when there are all these kids waiting for parents!

I am the only adoptive mom I know who deliberately chose to not get pregnant. Adoption was my first choice.

Ever since, I've felt stuck in the middle. I chose not to "breed," but I am still a mom. I feel very different from other moms, not just because of the way I came into motherhood but the child-rearing issues that I deal with -- working with my son's developmental delays, dealing with issues of race (he's African-American, we are white), living with the "ghosts" of raising an adopted child.

When Patrick came into our lives, our friends with kids gave me these "you are one of us now" messages and my friends without kids didn't quite know what to do with me. You just can't throw me into a minivan and send me to playgroup! I wasn't ready for my whole identity to be around mom. And a year and a half later, I don't think I ever will.

Motherhood has been wonderful. You should see the sweet, confident, smart little boy we are raising. He's a completely different kid than the one he was when he joined the family. It's fabulously rewarding -- but it doesn't completely fulfill me. I didn't join the cult of baby and sometimes I feel guilty that I didn't - that looking into his eyes doesn't totally and completely fulfill me, that I still need a social life, that I am still so insecure. Wasn't motherhood supposed to make me so happy that all my latent childhood insecurities and traumas would fade away? Apparently not.

When I would tell people I was adopting, they would say, "That will change everything!" and I didn't quite get it. I mean, I was still going to be going to the same job, living in the same house, married to the same man, so what was going to change? Well, I found out that the change was more internal for me than external. Because my son was older, mothering him wasn't that physically demanding for me. In fact, he was a delight right from the start. So externally my life didn't look that much different. But internally I was a mess. I just didn't understand where I fit in anymore. I am still struggling to figure that out.

I can honestly say I haven't given up much on the road to parenthood. I come from a large family who are falling all over each other to be with my kid, so my husband and I do have a social life. I still get to participate in the two things I love -- karaoke and pro football. OK, I only sing once a month but, hey, I am doing it! And Patrick is now a football fan with the rest of the family. We made that something we all share.

Not having given birth, woken up at 3 a.m. countless nights, or changed hundreds of diapers, I feel like I am almost cheating in a way. My kid came sleeping through the night and was potty trained.

Not doing those things didn't make me less of a parent, it just made it so much easier to incorporate the person I was into the person I am. I am so glad for that. Now if only everyone else could realize that too.

-- Maryanne Dersch

I didn't know how to be a loving father. So I faked it.

Ms. Goldberg has already armored herself against my tale, saying "Motherhood evangelists have a store of conversion stories," and I have no doubt that you are waist-deep in them already. But as a selfish lout, I'm going to tell you my conversion story anyway.

One could describe me as a reluctant parent in much the same way one could describe Charles Manson as a little off-kilter. When I learned my dear wife was (accidentally) pregnant, I was utterly horrified (I'm told my exact words were "Oh, my God!" whereupon I collapsed onto the couch and didn't speak again for a matter of hours). Only the fact that I knew exactly how my staunchly Catholic wife would react to the proposal kept me from suggesting, nay, insisting upon, an abortion.

I had never wanted children. Ever. And now I was to enter the glorious state of fatherhood. Oh, the rapture I felt!

My greatest accomplishment over the next eight months was not freaking out and running away screaming into the night. The failure to be an irresponsible immoral bastard is an odd thing to take pride in, but it was honestly an iron-willed triumph for me. I was utterly useless to my poor wife, who of course had her own fears and could doubtless have used my support. But, alas, I had no support to offer, because as I mentioned, I am a selfish bastard and at that time it was all about me and how my life was about to be wrecked by the impending arrival of the squalling bundle of joy.

And wrecked my life was, with a great and astounding thoroughness. The delivery itself was a nightmare, the labor long and brutal, a visceral and bloody mess at the end, my son finally dragged out with medieval-looking forceps with the cord about his neck, my wife a bleeding, puking, shattered creature.

Some people like infants. They say that as soon as you see your newly delivered baby, there is a great and pure love and angels sing and you become a Republican on the spot.

I, on the other hand, do not like infants. They are incomprehensible, messy, demanding. The next six months were a bleak, awful time, a dark haze of diapers and screaming and sleep deprivation. I was once more proud of not running away. My greatest achievement of this period was not strangling the baby.

The misery of it all eventually receded, and our son mutated from an utterly dependent infant into a toddler with very clear ideas of his own (even if he initially lacked the tools to express them). It was at this point that I became dimly aware that this child had a brain, and it was at least partially my responsibility to fill that brain in a way that would someday make this child into a functional human being.

So I took stock of my life and my skills and considered what it was that I might offer this child. The horrid truth became readily apparent: the pre-infant-bomb life that I had so feared losing contained nothing that I would wish my child to learn. I was a workaholic and a borderline alcoholic, as was my wife. We worked too much, drank too much, and ... well, that was about it, really, apart from watching a lot of bad television. How wisely we'd used our precious liberty!

Well, I thought, I may not be much of a father. But this child is small, its mind is weak. I can fool it! Armed with this brilliant insight, I set about the task of faking my way through fatherhood. A real father, I thought, would show his child the outdoor world. We happen to live in a spot of great beauty, Salt Lake City: From our back yard, I can see six canyons winding up into the grand Wasatch Mountains, the closest not five minutes away. At that time, I couldn't have named one of them, but I was certain that up those canyons lay some great and ineffable truth that I could impart to my impressionable child. He wouldn't know that I couldn't name the place and didn't know what I was doing.

So armed only with impenetrable ignorance, I set off up one of those canyons and managed to find a trailhead. Needless to say, I got us lost (only temporarily, mercifully) and hadn't brought enough water nor any sunscreen, so it was a filthy, dehydrated, sunblasted pair that staggered back down the trail some hours later.

But oh, how my son had loved it! He delighted in dirt, goggled wide-eyed and drooling at the trees, splashed gleeful in the mountain streams. My fakery had been a success! I could, in fact, trick this child into believing I was a worthy father!

So I faked it again the next weekend.

One of my very favorite books is Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night," which has as its theme this: Be careful what you pretend to be, because you will become that thing. Kurt's no dummy. As I pretended to be the sort of man who had something of value to teach a child, I slowly became just that. I came to own backpack child carriers and maps and compasses and sense enough to find a trail, and to my own surprise, I came to genuinely enjoy hiking in the canyons with my child. Where once I begrudged the fact that I couldn't spend my Fridays pounding overpriced vodkas, now I filled them with a simpler joy, one I wasn't ashamed to show a child.

This was only the first of many changes. My wife and I quit smoking, not wanting our child to see our weakness. With the improved health that brought, I discovered a great love for bicycling. I now bicycle commute almost exclusively and ride centuries, hundred-mile recreational rides, an unimaginable feat for the hung-over chain smoker I was before. I took on the task of coaching my son's soccer team, and found honest delight in the task. In trying to share that delight with others, I rediscovered a love for writing that I had let sit dormant since high school. Becoming bored at watching his hockey practice, I became emboldened enough to strap on a pair of ice skates and learn to wobble about the ice, and in turn, that emboldened me enough to enroll the two of us in ski lessons (Imagine! I had already lived in Utah for a decade). I built a playhouse and gained a basic proficiency with power tools that amazed my wife.

In short, the changes fatherhood wrought on me were (are) profound. Where I drove, I ride. Where I watched overpaid professionals play hockey, I now play a weekly game with new friends. Where I was scared to try new things, I teach them. Where I was a spectator in my life, now I participate.

It's the oldest, hokiest story of all. Through giving, I received.

So fatherhood has in the end proved to be a delight, not because of the purity of love or the putative joys of having some creature utterly dependent on you or some hormonal glow, but because of the ways it has improved me. I'm a selfish bastard, you see, and it's all about me. So selfish, in fact, that we just had our second child, a daughter. I can't wait to see what gifts she has for me.

-- Kevin Vigor

By Salon Staff

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