On the Sins of the Father

I really lost it this morning. As with all things, over something simple, yet irritating.

My son is a good kid. Ten years of struggling to find his personality, his voice, his passions constantly buffeted by two strong-willed, opinionated, and sometimes overbearing parents. Two parents who are now “ex-” and “co-” and I am so much better for it.

He is *almost* there. Each day, I see what he will be when he is 12. 15. A licensed driver. A boyfriend. A college student. An employee. I see glimpses of the values he has, the choices he will make, the team member and partner he will become. 

When kids are young, it is so very difficult to picture them any older than they are in that moment. Resistance to let go of chubby neck rolls and wobbly knees, adorably mispronounced words, or pockets full of rocks in your laundry keeps you from seeing a man inside the boy.

Sometimes he still plays like a little boy.

But as shoelaces replace velcro, buttons replace snaps, and video games replace cute cartoons, I can start to see it. That man shows up every time he independently makes himself a healthy snack and flops on the couch to read a comic book. The man arrives when he gets in the car after school and tells me all about how he Googled something today. The man arrives when he collects all the garbage and takes it down to the curb on Tuesday mornings, without prompting. The man arrives when I see him fight through exhaustion to cross the finish line at a race and immediately turn to support and congratulate me, just as I hope he does to his partner someday.

And then other times, here is the glimpse of the teenager to come.

And then, all of a sudden, I am trapped. Trapped between the mom I was and the mom I need to be now. I’ve always been a “hands-on” mom, most satisfied when I can follow him on all his journeys, participate in every aspect of his life, and be his teacher and his sounding board. And he’s always allowed me to be that for him.

As he grows, discipline and punishment is less and less necessary and instead has been overtaken by boundary-setting, gentle guidance, and helping him think critically about difficult situations. Instead of me walking ahead and dragging him behind, we walk together. Because he is “the only”, he is more often treated as a peer than a child in my house, given decision making ability, responsibilities, and involved in heavy conversations.

The flipside is that I still need to be the mom to the kid, and not the man, sometimes. The mom who nags. And yells. And threatens and disciplines. And makes decisions “because I said so.”

I *HATE* being that mom. She arrives in a storm cloud, and makes everyone in the house dark and swirling.

It also means that time we used to spend together playing and adventuring is not as exciting as it used to be. Things are “boring” now, a word that symbolizes a life of privilege in which most childhood mysteries have been solved and “first times” have been had. Wonderment has waned. Nothing new to see here, folks.

To old for public kisses, mom.

I have to work harder and harder to capture his interest. I go out of my way to plan special excursions or events, only to be heartbroken when the nearly pre-teen black cloud in the back seat does nothing but complain. I suggest new activities for us to do together, only to be met with a “Nah”.

How crushing it must have been every time he asked me to play with him when he was little and I denied him. That pain is now revisited on me whenever he argues with me, ignores me, or barters for more time watching TV. All normal, I know. But no less devastating for a mom who treats time with her kid as the world’s most precious resource.

It is these times when I see evidence of something darker that plagues me. When the man that thinks he needs to be the “class clown” shows up. The man who ignores me when I’m speaking to him. The man who engages in attention-seeking behavior when he feels like someone else might be getting more of it than him. The man who forwards his own agenda, argues with authority, and throws a fit when someone else’s plans take precedence. The man who can be destructive, distracted, defiant, and flippant. The man…who is his father.

As a (happily) divorced mom, there is an additional, more complicated element to parenting a maturing child: the fervent desire to ensure all the worst qualities of your ex do NOT manifest themselves in your impressionable son. The lack of empathy. The narcissism. The presence and acceptance of lies, exaggerations, and secrets. The lack of boundaries. The backstabbing, name calling, bullying, and manipulation. How, pray tell, do I silence the sins of the father?

And that’s how I came to lose it this morning. Four times in the span of 90 minutes while getting ready for school, he just didn’t listen. I know he heard; he even repeated to me what it was that he was supposed to do, but thought his own agenda and rules were more important than what I was asking. What I requested was simple – dirty laundry removed from the bathroom, get ready as per usual, do morning chores, and most egregious of all – put on a coat. Like, all the way on your body. (Why, why is this so difficult, I wonder?)

So I flipped when I got in the car and saw his coat, hood draped over his forehead, arms limply dangling at the sides. Hardly qualifying as “on”.

“Why don’t you ever respect me enough to listen to me!” I yelled. “It’s like I’m not even here, like you don’t even care that I asked you to do something!”

The angry lecture continued on the way to school, enumerating all the things he had done just that morning as an affront to my authority. The old wounds of my dysfunctional and emotionally abusive marriage scratched open by that boy who had acted just like his father. Failing to listen, failing to validate my needs, failing to care about anyone but himself. In fact, doing the exact opposite of what I needed, making me convinced that he didn’t love me at all. Like his father had, over and over again.

Until I looked in the rearview mirror and caught sight of a shocked and broken little boy. Face screwed up in an impending sob, tears forming at the creases. Not his father. Not a man. Not an independent, mouthy pre-teen. But a little boy. MY little boy.

And I had just crushed him.

On his way to school, to start his day.

On a Friday, no less.

And even worse, on a Friday preceding a weekend with his dad.

On a Friday, when I wouldn’t see him again until Monday after school.

And this is the other complication of being a divorced mom. The constant, pernicious dread that someday that beautiful boy will reject and abandon me – the same way my father did, the same way his father did – and utter the words I fear most: “I want to go live with dad.” A fear that not only divides him from me, but increases his father’s influence and impact in his life.

So you spend every moment of your time together creating happiness, harmony, memories, closeness, and comfort in hopes that things can stay the way they are right now. “It’s like you both cherish the time you get now *more* because I’m not with you all the time,” he said on one of our long, bonding runs one day.

Except, when I don’t. When I forget. When I lose it. It’s thankfully rare, but the guilt pounds on my heart for an uncomfortably long time.

We both apologized and lingered in the car outside school drop off for a few extra moments. We gave extra hugs, I wiped his tears, and I saw him off with our usual chain of hand signals meaning “I Love You” in our own nonverbal language.

Did I do anything wrong? No, not really. I did what all normal parents do from time to time. We get angry, we lay into our kids when the irritation mounts up, we seek attention and to be heard in the same juvenile ways our children do: we throw tantrums. And we apologize, immediately and sincerely, hoping against hope they don’t remember.

Will this be the weekend he doesn’t want to come home to me? Probably not. Nearly 6 hours after the incident this morning, does he even remember? Most definitely not.

These are the demons I wrestle. This is the work I have done, and still have to do, to be free and clear from those who have hurt me. I should not allow their ill treatment of me to invade the way I parent my child.

He is a boy with a man inside. It is my responsibility to help him excavate his better nature. To help him dig through the rubble of the sins of his father and rise above them, not atone for them in his mother’s court. To help him explore how his actions, behaviors, and choices impact others, and lead him toward empathy.

And at the very least, how to put his arms all the way into a coat and zip it.

One thought on “On the Sins of the Father

  1. Emily, your amazing reflection stirred my heart and as a woman old enough to be your mother— maybe even grandmother— I want to console you. Yes, this happens to all parents who love their children and wish them happiness, success, and fulfillment of their greatest potential. It is your wishes for your child that prompt your reaction. Your son loves you and realizes that even mommy can have a bad day. You are a kind, caring mother. Your son knows this.


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