Back when he was just four, kicked out of daycare, running into the street because he wanted to be hit by a car, my friends and family were already asking questions about my son’s future. Did I think he’d be able to go to college, get a real job? I felt furious at them for asking, for making room for any doubt. Of course he would. With all my loving care, all the psychological knowledge I brought to raising him, I couldn’t allow myself to imagine otherwise.
But now, when he is eighteen, that future they wondered about, is unfolding. And I admit to being truly worried. What will happen? Whenever I am not pre-occupied with something else, my mind spins back to those questions. Will he end up in jail? Can he graduate high school? Is he on the right medication? The worries have worn a groove so deep, they invade my dreams. When I wake up at night to use the bathroom, they are my first cogent thoughts. What will happen in court next week? Will he sign himself out of the program? Fall in love and forget the rules of his probation in his quest to see a new boyfriend? I wake up plotting, planning. How can I convince him to follow the rules? Stop him from jumping off the Mass Pike or assaulting someone? Who else can I enlist in this fight to save him?
I am tired of endlessly replaying what has already happened, as if in the next version the ending will be different and we will not be here, just a hairs breadth away from prison. What if I had been stricter when he was four? What if I’d made him go back and return that first toy he stole (but then I remember, I did carry him back, kicking and screaming, to the confused store clerk who seemed not to understand what we were doing). What if I had taken his stealing really seriously right from the start, never cracked a smile at his misbehaviors? Never felt a glimmer of identification? Never given him a dime after the first time he took five dollars from my pocketbook left on the counter? What if I had been consistent with those star charts, consistently stern but loving? Consistently holding him accountable for his own actions?
My worry, my love, my pity for him has too often overriden my logic. I was in Berkeley, California for New Year’s visiting my sister who has adopted her own abused and neglected daughter (after seeing our example?) My son calls, threatening to either run from the program which would trigger the alarm on his electronic ankle bracelet, or kill himself. “I’d rather be in jail,” he says. “Anything would be better than this.” He hates the program where he’s lived for the last three years. “I will kill myself,” he threatens. “One day, it will happen.” That is, unless I let him sleep in our house which I have left locked up tight against him while I am here, away on vacation.
Do I remind him that while he was home on pass on Christmas Day, he stole that gift card from me? Or do I simply listen to his threats, empathize and acknowledge his feelings? These are the same threats he has made dozens and dozens of times before. But I am forever afraid not to listen. If I hang up will he feel rejected? Maybe this is the time he will evade staff and actually jump out a window. Or cut out someone’s eyes with a knife as he has promised? And, truth be told, I like that he needs me, that he calls when he is desperate and I can sometimes calm him.
Lately my biggest worries are about avoiding jail. We must avoid even twenty-four hours behind bars. Above all else, we must avoid that last trauma of prison rape. It has become my mantra. I will do anything to make sure my gay delinquent son doesn’t land in Nashua Street with the sadistic older criminals I imagine are just waiting for him. I will do anything. And then I wonder, where is he in all this, why am I the only one trying?
Our guest blogger, Randi Schalet, is a psychologist and an adoptive mother of her twenty-two year old daughter and eighteen year old son . She credits her ability to carry on with parenting her challenging son to the support of friends, family and, especially, other parents.