It’s a clear night in June, and I’m sitting in the bleachers at the high school, watching my daughter march onto the field, when I begin to cry.
It comes on fiercely, like the moon-pulled surf; and once I start I can’t stop. But I’m not crying for her, my beautiful, black-robed girl. She has a brilliant life ahead of her, starting with the out-of-state university that wooed her with scholarships and where I encouraged her to go.
I’m weeping for myself, for the woman I am now and the one I was when my first child was born. For the naive man who became my ex-husband and now sits across the field, on the opposing team’s side. For my older son who was lying in a hospital bed — as close to dead as a living person can be — when he should have been a senior. And for my younger son who carried his brother’s pain and was, secretly, soothing it with drugs when he graduated from this very same school.
The sadness that settles in is deep and profound and as immovable as time. Because my opportunity to change what once seemed like an endless childhood is over. I am done “raising” children. Countless women before me have had this realization, but we never quite believe it will arrive until it is right in front of us -- the point at which you can no longer try harder. And this comes so much sooner than you think.
At 46 — an age when many of my friends still have grade-schoolers — my youngest child is leaving home. I’ve been a mother for as long as I’ve been an adult. But 25 years are gone, already written, and I can never get them back. A quarter-century through which I bumbled and pushed, making stupid, wrongheaded decisions: losing two boys, each for years at a time. Occasionally, as with this girl, getting it right.
Dear 21-Year-Old Me … I am desperate for the chance to write a letter and send it back through time. Maybe it would help other headstrong young women from making the same mistakes. Slow down, be gentler, trust what you know deep down to be true. You think you’re so smart. But years from now you’ll realize you were worried about all the wrong things.
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For a quarter of a century, I’ve described my pregnancy at age 20 as an “accident.” It was easier and more socially acceptable than the truth, which is that I graduated from college early, had no idea what to do with my life and desperately didn’t want to move back home.
I was dating a strange man I loved, despite the fact that he drank himself into a coma every Friday and Saturday night. Together, we were deliberately slipshod with the birth control and everything in our life since — and the lives of our three children — has stemmed from that one hopeful, stupid, irresponsible act.
When our son was born, I joined a very active and militant branch of the La Leche League. And I dove into motherhood with all the zeal my peers were applying to Greenpeace and graduate school. I adopted all the absolutist positions: co-sleeping and attachment parenting; organic food from a cooperative buying club; breast-feeding on demand until the child himself elected to stop.
I wish I could say to myself: That little boy you’re holding? You think you can control what happens by carrying him in a sling and playing Mozart for his developing brain? But nature beat you to him, some hidden cerebral glitch. At 3, he’ll spiral away from you, losing all the words he’s been collecting — even the funny ones like “asparagus” and “marsupial” — flapping one hand in front of his face and staring at it with stony, vacant eyes. You’ll watch this, the horror unfolding right in front of you, but no one will believe you when you tell him and there will be nothing you can do.
I did take him to the pediatrician once and told her something seemed wrong. This was 1989 and I was, again, hugely pregnant — another outcome of my earth mother, breast-feeding-as-natural-birth-control attitude. The doctor rolled her eyes and told me I was too young and inexperienced to be a mother and not to come back unless my baby was really sick. Even some doctors weren’t familiar with the word “autism.” Hot-faced and bulky, I gathered my boy and shuffled out the door.
Later, a team of preschool screeners became alarmed by his symptoms and came to check out our home. We were ragged and poor — now the parents of two small children — and I admitted to the social worker that my husband and I had been fighting about his drinking. Withdrawal was our first son’s response to the disorder in our household, she told me. So for a year we attended court-ordered parenting classes. It would take until he was 5 for our son to be diagnosed.
My husband’s drinking waxed and waned. There were quiet married periods followed by bursts of badness: random rages, unexplained job losses, unpayable bills that showed up in the mail. And yes, it was hard on me. But no matter how troubled his behavior, mine was equally wrong.
If I could, this is what I’d say to the young wife I was: Your husband will drink away the rent money, over and over, for the next dozen years. So you’ll scream and threaten and demand that he change and one day he’ll get tired of all this and decide to leave. What you don’t seem to get is that you can respond differently. It is possible to be kind even when someone has done something destructive. Your husband’s alcoholism does not equal permission to become a raving bitch.
Meantime, our second sweet little boy behaved like a sentry where his brother was concerned. They were always together, engaged in a strange kind of play that took place in a private language. I would hear the baby murmuring, turning the rules of whatever they did — making walls of blocks, for instance — into English. At least twice a day, he would come and get me, tugging at my clothes so I would bend down, then reporting seriously what his brother needed. A cookie, a Kleenex, a different shirt with a tag that wouldn’t scratch his back.
Pay heed because this child will surprise you, I would warn my harried, oblivious young mother self. He’ll be your rock until he’s 16, dutifully shepherding his older brother through life and taking on too much sadness. Then suddenly, in his junior year of high school, he’ll become slinky. Grades will plummet and money will disappear. Yet, you will believe him when he swears that he’s never tried drugs. For Christ’s sake, learn to trust your gut. Be brave. And when you know something is true, act on it. Don’t hide.
We were doting but erratic parents, full of hubris, always walking a random line. We allowed services we believed would make our older son’s life easier—like occupational therapy—but resisted the autism label and kept him out of the programs that were full of other silent, flapping children. We tried a myriad of experimental therapies: biofeedback, auditory conditioning, special diets, brain gym. Our methods seemed to be working. My husband got sober for a few years and our marriage was never so good. We had a little house with a yard and two cute boys and everything seemed possible. So we went ahead — purposefully, this time — and conceived baby No. 3.
There was a time when our older son was around 10 that I actually called him “cured.” But it was if some universal scale recalibrated and as the boy rose from his fugue, the man had to go down. Credit card statements on which my name had been expertly forged began to arrive in the mail. My husband would disappear for weekends and come back looking haunted. He became so dark and intensely angry I was actually, for the first time, afraid.
Did I try Al-Anon? Of course. But I’m not a joiner. I hated the hand holding and I sucked at “working the steps.” Looking back, I wish I’d taken the grain of what they had to offer: You cannot control someone else. That alone might have been enough.
Instead, we came up with a new plan: I would go back to school and once I was done, more employable, he would quit working and stay home with the kids. We moved south and the children were so happy! A quaint college town: safe, bookish, bikable. What followed was our best year—followed by our worst. Picture now, the man who had failed to support his family, watching his wife publish and teach and begin to make a life of her own. While I wrote and attended seminars, he picked up the pace of his drinking. C’mon! I want to scream at the 33-year-old me. You’re fading away, losing track, leaving a broken man in charge.
It was he who actually left me, though I’d been checking out of our relationship for a while. After her father walked out the door my daughter (now 17 and trustworthy) insists I never explained a thing. Stubbornly insistent that nothing would change — that I would carry on — I left those children wondering. Lonely. Half-abandoned. Thinking of it now, I cringe and detest my blighted 33-year-old self.
Yes, I took her brother, then 9, to a counselor when he told me he was thinking “bad things.” But the other two — the older one seemingly oblivious, the other heartbreakingly young — I left to cope on their own. And they did. Gamely, they moved east when I took a job in Providence, R.I., and they never questioned it when their father, my ex-husband, appeared at our bayside home the following year and moved back in.
He had been through treatment for the last time, he said. Gaunt, haggard with the work of fighting addiction, he was my hero. We admitted to each other that we were still in love. We wanted to raise our children together. So we remarried. For six weeks, the five of us were a family again. Then the bills began streaming in again, only this time they were huge, bankrupting ones.
Finally, now 36, I found it in myself to be gentle. We talked softly and agreed that he needed to leave. But one night he called me, words slurring loosely, from a roadside somewhere. Finally he faded away, telling me before he did so that he had given up hope.
Those children lost their dad a second time, even more abruptly than the first. Again, I uprooted them, taking them from Providence — where I finally realized it was impossible to support them on a visiting professor salary — back to Minneapolis, where we’d started so many years before.
Stability. That was my goal. I bought a house and got a real job at a magazine and vowed that I’d stay put for five years. But oddly that’s when the boys began to unwind, each of them, in their own way.
What would I tell myself, the 38-year-old me, about how to prevent this from happening? It seems impossible that after coming so far my older son would begin to withdraw again and eventually be seized by catatonia, a rare but related autism complication. Or that my younger would join a “synagogue youth” group whose main activity was smoking pot.
I was still the young mother and it was an identity I wore like a badge. Our house was the fun one, where kids hung out playing Risk until the early-morning hours. Teenage boys confided in me about their shrill, strict parents and I sympathized. I always had plenty of hummus on hand. Deliberately relaxed with their profanity and loud voices, I became too accessible. It was easy to charm me into believing it was only incense I smelled.
But here’s the other part: I met a man. I became distracted and less vigilant as I was falling in love. I let my older son move in with his father, who had resurfaced and wanted to help. Before we knew it, our sweet once-verbal teen was wandering the streets in a catatonic trance and being picked up for vagrancy by the police. And I allowed the younger far too much leeway; when he told me he was “studying late,” I went along.
Their stepfather and I spent the first five years of our marriage seeking and repairing those two boys. Three solid months at the Mayo Clinic with the older, sitting alongside the bed where he was tightly strapped down. And — just when that crisis had lifted — an intervention with the younger boy who had, in our absence, hooked up with a heroin-snorting crowd.
Would I change it if I could, go back just six years and tell the 40-year-old me to dump the guy and concentrate on the kids? I don’t know. It’s a Solomonic question. Because he came into the life of my daughter at precisely the right time.
She was 12, alienated and depressed, uncomfortable with herself. He is not — has never pretended to be — her father. But he was there, helping with math homework, running to the drugstore at midnight for Advil and pads. We sent her to a summer camp I never could have afforded on my own and there she learned to like herself — a little. Then the next three summers a little more. She made friends and found out she was a leader. At home she joined a youth advisory board, got a part-time job and earned straight A’s.
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I’m middle-aged now and sitting in those bleachers, my memory is a hurtling rush of babies and poverty and grad school and young divorce. I would make any Faustian deal if I could go only back and do better. Shield the children from our money troubles and marital problems. Show special attention to my daughter after her dad left. Sit my younger son down at the first bleary, bloodshot sign and have a tough love talk. Get up in the middle of a winter’s night, circa 1988, to rock that first perfect, curly-haired baby one more time.
The sun is slipping behind the trees and though I am still crying, twilight helps me soften toward my younger self. I feel both frustration and affection for her. Damn, that girl tried hard.
Be kinder and less trusting, I ache to tell her. Understand how powerless you are. Slow down. Don’t lie to yourself. Do the right thing. These are the changes that are within your control to make. You will never fret over how another person behaved, only over how you did. Be vigilant with yourself. As for the rest, there is nothing — no pregnancy, baby, marriage, hope or loving thought — that you will ever want to take back.
Listen carefully: The thing about regret is, it’s rarely centered around large, life-changing events. You will never rue having a son with autism or marrying a quixotic drunk and dreamer — twice. You won’t beat yourself up for hanging onto a kid through two years of alcohol and drug abuse, sitting next to him in court or draining your bank account to send him to treatment. In the end, you certainly won’t care if your books sell or your name is known. All of this is circumstance. It’s not yours to dictate. It’s life.
The events you will lie awake and replay in your head are the small wrong turns you made — independent of anyone else — that did damage. The moments you lost your temper, the selfish days of writing, the unkind words you knew were foul even as they left your mouth.
Dear young me, you’re worrying about all the wrong things. Now, take a breath. Stand still. And as you live the rest of your life, please, remember this. When you are my age, you will regret only the ways you failed the people you love.