A mother's love

My adopted son, already the father of three, faces a future of dead-end jobs and near poverty. What do I owe him and my unexpected, fragile grandchildren?

Published November 29, 2006 12:45PM (EST)

It started six years ago, when my eldest son met Corina. He was 23, and living on the disability payments he receives because of profound deafness. She was just 21, with a 4-year-old daughter. They lived in subsidized housing while Corina took a few community college classes and collected welfare. Within a few months, Rafael had moved into the apartment in a small city in Oregon, an hour's drive from our home in Portland. A few months later, they announced happily that Corina was pregnant.

Austin was born. Corina dropped out of school.

A year later, Taylor was born. They borrowed $500 from us to pay the deposit, and moved into a duplex. Rafael somehow managed to get a loan for a car. They found seasonal jobs, went back to unemployment, signed up for classes, dropped out of classes. They spent their days with the babies, in the directionless leisure of poverty.

Ups, and downs. Rafael got a job, a real job, stocking the soup shelves in a big-box grocery discount store. They moved again, into a house. Corina worked part-time at a deli; they took different shifts, shared childcare, stayed sober, kept the house clean. Then Kaylee was born, and they moved again.

There was never enough money for all the things they wanted to buy. They started charging things -- clothes, televisions, bicycles. The car was repossessed. They dodged creditors; the phone was disconnected.

And in what seemed an almost inevitable way, things got physical. She threw all his clothes out the window; he slept in the car. He packed and left for a few days. When he knocked her down and kicked her, she called me and I told her to call the police. Rafael was arrested and thrown into a draconian probation agreement that prevented him from having any contact with Corina for more than a year. During that long year, she fell in love with Tyson, a mutual friend who has two small children of his own.

When Rafael was finally allowed to return, he found Tyson living there, with Corina and the children. Tyson and Corina broke up last week, though, and both the living arrangements and the partnerships are in flux. Corina is pregnant again, by Tyson.

With Austin, the first baby, I began to practice the delicate task of helping out and minding my own business at the same time. I struggled as well with guilt -- that somehow I had failed as his parent, that he could do no better than this. We adopted him from Guatemala when he was 9 years old, after a painfully deprived childhood. He had no education until then, and I had hoped that he would learn to love school, and take as much as he could. I had imagined that I could heal some of his wounds. But the difficult early years, the loss of his family, the long years without attachment or security, were much stronger influences than we could be in the long run. In a way that I can witness but not control, he feels much more at home in the drifting world of the lower class than in the settled middle class where we live. He feels a biting sense of entitlement still; the belief that he is owed something, that he should not have to work so hard for his life anymore, eats away at him. He resents any implication that he is responsible for his problems.

But I could vividly see his and Corina's bleak future of small apartments, dead-end jobs, no education, and never enough money. I knew they needed more help than I wanted to give. I told myself they were young, that people make mistakes, that we are all entitled to at least a second chance. But I saw as well their total dependence on outside help -- not only help from family, but on public assistance of several kinds. They seemed not only unable to support themselves, but unable or unwilling to do much about it.

The task of children is differentiation, and that means difference -- different values, different goals. The struggle of a child is partly the struggle to be seen as something other than a child, until it becomes true. The struggle of a parent is that we never stop feeling like a parent, and a little responsible for their behavior. These are complex and textured relationships; we want them to grow, we want them to stay, and they want the same impossible things.

It took me years to get to know Corina, who is shy and seemed abysmally ignorant about the world. She has been on multiple forms of government aid since her first child was born at 17, and what she knows is waiting rooms, filling out forms, going from day to day with few plans, and those plans often knocked awry.

When Corina got pregnant the second time, I took her out to lunch. I didn't know her very well at that time, but she had told me once, in an unguarded moment, that her life was going fairly well before she met my son. At lunch, I asked if she really wanted another child, and told her I would help her terminate this pregnancy if she wanted.

I could tell she'd thought about it. But she is also adopted, and her parents are divorced, and like Rafael she dreams of a family of her own. She was weary and a little surprised at where life had taken her, but she was used to taking things as they came, without protest. Her passivity is immense.

"I don't know, things just happen to me," she said. Then she sighed. "I just hadn't thought it would happen like this." I began to realize they can't really see a different kind of life for themselves. This is what they know, and neither of them has a lot of imagination.

When Taylor was born, I sank into a dispirited silence for days, unable to celebrate. I could meet them only through a fog of opinion and worry, full of conflict. I found myself falling in love with the babies, and fighting it, and enjoying our visits, and leaving brokenhearted. Often, I couldn't think of anything to do or say that wasn't somehow the wrong thing.

When I found out about Kaylee coming, I didn't say much on the phone. I didn't even feel surprised. But when I hung up the phone, I started to cry, and then I shouted a little -- at the ceiling, at some distant god. At them.

They needed money all the time. The bills were always higher than expected. An overdue bill somehow never mentioned before went to a collection agency; the checking account somehow got overdrawn and the unstoppable fees piled up.

They fell for a "no-down-payment" commercial, and bought a used car at 30 percent interest. They had no idea what they'd signed. They hadn't asked for help because, as Rafael reminded me, everyone was always telling them to grow up and take care of themselves.

They asked us to help pay for the car. They asked us to help buy a different car. They asked us to give them $1,000, having never paid back the $500. They asked us to buy shoes, clothes, gifts, to pay this bill or that one. Every time they asked, we went back to the beginning. Get rid of the car. Budget and plan. Pare down a life already pared down.

Finally, we bought them a used van, no payments, on the condition that Rafael get a vasectomy. The central problem of family planning is that those people least equipped to be parents are for all the same reasons least equipped to keep themselves from getting pregnant in the first place. The fact is that they both know about birth control. They tried, but not hard enough.

I took Corina shopping. (She doesn't know how to drive.) I showed her that a bag of baby carrots costs five times as much as loose ones. She didn't know that there were prices posted for each item, or that many things were priced by weight. She didn't know that one kind of macaroni was twice as expensive as another. She didn't want to buy a bag of rice, because she didn't know how to cook it. I've given her recipes and offered lessons; she doesn't want to learn.

For years, I've swung along an arc of love and exasperation for these decent, immature young people. I missed the kids, and wanted nothing to do with their parents. I wanted to help; I wanted to scream. They had only their parents and a weak net of welfare holding them above homelessness. They have never had any idea how lucky they are -- to have a clean and spacious apartment subsidized, to have the food stamps and the aid check and the free healthcare and the WIC coupons. Instead they wished for much more, running up credit at Sears and buying a load of toys at Wal-Mart and new Nikes and a shelf full of DVDs. Corina's solution, for months at a time, was to block incoming phone calls so the creditors can't find them.

I worried a lot about the kids, who were slow to walk and slow to speak and spent their days in front of a television in a dark room, drinking soda. How could I not be responsible for my own child's children? What do I owe my fragile, unexpected grandbabies? What do I owe my step-granddaughter? What do I owe Tyson's children, or this baby to come?

What do the rest of you owe them?

Kaylee is crying, Taylor is pulling at my hand, Austin chews thoughtfully on a crayon. I pick up Kaylee, take the crayon away from Austin, ask Taylor to wait a moment. Kaylee quiets down against my shoulder. Austin stares at me, his goofy hair sticking up sideways, mouth open in a dark O. Then he reaches his arms up toward me with a soft, amiable smile. Kaylee folds into me precisely, and the scent of her fine black hair is haunting and familiar. But she is more than one too many.

"I don't like to be alone," Corina told me once. "It's boring." This is what brought them together, I think. They hate to be left to their own devices. There are no books in the apartment, no magazines. They shop at Wal-Mart and Costco, because their friends do. They want the kids to wear clothes with cartoon characters on them, because this is what the commercials show. They buy Hamburger Helper, Pepsi and frozen pizzas, because they see these things on television. Because they are easy and comforting in a hard world.

They lack imagination, seek entertainment, cultivate the familiar, even while they long for luxury. After we bought them the van so they wouldn't have to make car payments, they sold it and bought something better, on credit. When our children are young, we imagine that they will not be like other people's children. They will never grow up to be irresponsible or incompetent like the other children we see, who should have known better. They will not, in other words, be like we are sometimes. But they are. They grow up to be ordinary people like the rest of us, and we have to learn to love them as they are and not as we would have them be. We have to let go of all the fantasies, if we can.

I know that in some important way, the babies are not accidents, not just youthful mistakes. The same mistake made enough times is really a choice, and these bad choices drive us crazy. I suspect this is one way conservatives are made: by meeting the sticky imperfection of people, by knowing better. In hindsight, we can call ourselves wise when many of us were just lucky. Looking at other people, we can call them foolish when many are just unable. It is hard to admit that many people out there, people like Corina and Rafael, can both know better and have no idea how to do things differently.

They have stopped asking us for money, because we always say no. The phone is still disconnected, and I can't figure out where the big-screen television and new couch came from, or how they paid for the computer. When creditors call me, asking for Rafael, I tell them he doesn't live here anymore.

Six years later, with yet another baby on the way, things are actually looking up. Sort of. Rafael found a job, though it is 20 miles away. Corina is back in school. They still have a good apartment and the children are all in school or Head Start. The latter has been a huge help; they've become active and talkative children. We helped them carve pumpkins for Halloween a few weeks ago; it is the first time the children have ever had jack-o'-lanterns.

If they keep trying, if they keep their jobs, if the subsidies don't disappear, if they don't make any more big mistakes, they may get by. But they will never be safe. Maybe none of us really are.

I don't know what my relationship to my son's possibly ex-girlfriend's baby by a different man will be. But I know the peculiar work of parents lasts forever; it never ends, but it never stays the same. I know they are just beginning to face the long consequences of family, the ones that I know well.

By Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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