Back to School Blues

Mr. Elliot was wrong. August is the cruelest month. And this one’s been brutal. Dave’s mom died early in the month, we’ve had multiple incidents of dealing with the worst of human nature, and I’ve had to take a hard look at what the future may hold for my little guy whose angry outburst and oppositional behavior may possibly never go away. I’ve spent a long hot summer with two traumatized kids whose favorite activity is to annoy each other and me.  I’m suffering from compassion fatigue—that’s a fancy way of saying I’m burnt out.  And the thing that is going to give me relief also fills me with anxiety.

School is heavy on my mind right now. I know lots of parents count down the days until the kids go back to school. Not me. I hate it. I hate the preparation, I hate the paperwork, I hate the end of summer, I hate surrendering my children to the state, I hate watching them walk away.

My first kids were all home-schooled until at least 7th grade and Big Sister is my lone child who has never been to school and likely never will. If I were allowed one big do over, school would be it. I wouldn’t have let my boys go. All the reasons that made it make sense at the time are now outweighed by all the consequences of that decision.

This year I hate school starting for a whole new set of reasons. Boys one and two have graduated and not going back to school is a poignant reminder of a time that is gone and never coming back. In what we hoped would be a fantastic change, we moved number three son to a small charter high school with a focus on science and technology—areas in which he excels.  He started last week and the change is proving not so fantastic. School is school. All the things I hate about public education are alive and well in the charter system and I’m disappointed.

After wrestling with the idea all summer, I have decided to re-enroll  Little Sister. We withdrew her from school the day we finalized her adoption in hopes that being home would help with attachment and behavior modification. It was nothing short of disastrous. She spent five months with her heels dug firmly in the ground refusing to do anything remotely related to education, having daily screaming tantrums that could last hours, broke everything in her possession, and spit hatred at me and her sister at every opportunity.  I have no interest in going into that arena again even though I know putting her in school is going to at a minimum stall her progress and at worst set her back. This is about preserving my sanity.

She matter of factly informed her therapist last week that she won’t act like that at school it was just for Mom. Well, isn’t that lovely.

I have hopes that her teacher will read the long email that I will be writing as soon as I finish this blog, I hope she will click on the links explaining attachment disorder and developmental trauma and borrow some of my books, and I hope she will become an ally in the healing of my child. I’m hoping for the best, but expect it will go more like this:  

She will skim my email and upon meeting  my superficially charming child will decide that I am bat shit crazy, that she the teacher  is indeed a superior more compassionate human who understands my child better than I do, will ignore all my requests to employ therapeutic interventions, will buy into my child’s manipulations intensifying my child’s belief that all adults are untrustworthy idiots resulting in my child growing weary of putting on the charm and acting out in ways that disrupt class or are directly offensive to the teacher and the other kids at which point teacher will contact me asking if there is a problem at home because my little darling just hasn’t been herself lately.  Believe it, this isn’t my first rodeo.

Then there’s the little guy. It’s been a rough summer. He was kicked out of day camp and the gym childcare due to aggressive outbursts. He struggles with self regulation, sensory integration, slips into “looking for a fight” mode whenever things are not going his way, has poor boundaries, and talks incessantly. You see where this is going. At this point in the game, to school or not to school him is not my decision to make so at least I don’t have to wrestle with the guilt of the decision.

So here on the eve of my 46th birthday—you know the one that moves you closer to the 50 side of the 40-50 timeline—I am deeply anxious of what lies ahead.  I am consciously making a choice that I know may have grave consequences. I’m turning my traumatized child over to a system I don’t believe in and one that will likely undermine my efforts because I can’t do this alone anymore.  

Letting Go

I hope one day, I can watch my adult children walk out the door without feeling like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. I suck at this letting go business. I mean it’s really kicking my ass. My oldest son moved out 3 weeks ago. He didn’t go far and I can and do see him whenever I want. I still fantasize about sneaking over when he’s at work and setting that cute little cottage on fire.

I’ve never been good at this and it’s only gotten worse.  I cried all day on his first birthday. When he tried to abandon his lovey—the cloth diaper he carried everywhere until he was 3 and ½–I would find it and tuck it under his arm while he was sleeping. I still have a small piece of it in my jewelry box. When he and his brother started public school for the first time at 14, and 13, it took me weeks before I could talk about it without welling up. The stomach pang at drop off never went away.

When they graduated from high school this May, I teetered on the edge of bat shit crazy with daily crying jags. It was embarrassing. I’m proud to say, I pulled it together and made it through both ceremonies behaving like a normal human being.

Just when I had regained my composure, Firstborn started talking about moving out. Honestly I didn’t take it all that seriously.  Rent in our area was out of his reach—it would hard to pull off even with the multi-roommate plan that was taking shape. When his buddies backed out, I thought the whole idea would go away until his mother he was better able to handle it.

I was wrong.

He found another way—renting a room in a friend’s place on the river. He announced he was going and started packing.

If my life were a movie, this was the moment when the surroundings would begin spinning and people would speak to me in creepy slow motion voices while I stood locked in horror, probably with my hands pressed against my face and my mouth agape.  It just got real.

He was so excited and happy. I didn’t want to ruin it with my own unresolved crap. So I retreated into self examination and kept my mouth shut. I silently asked the question that begins my internal dialogue when I’m finding myself having an overwhelming emotional response to someone else’s actions.

“Is this him or me?”   There really wasn’t anything to debate about. Clearly it was me.  He is 19, has a full-time job with advancement potential, and a rare opportunity to shelter he can afford in a nice location.  He is happy, safe, and moving forward.  I was the one acting a fool.

Now the harder question—“Why?” 

Now the immensely more difficult answer–Because I’m afraid.  That’s not something I want to say out loud, but I’m committed to keeping it honest here.

I’m afraid that all I love will walk out that door and never look back. I’m terrified of becoming superfluous in the lives of my children.  I’m afraid they will leave me.

Ouch, ouch, ouch. I would have preferred to go back to weeping over baby pictures in the closet, but I am a relentless interviewer. “Is this a rational fear,” I asked myself.” ‘Cause it sounds like some childhood abandonment trauma crap to me.”

Bingo.

The challenge of this quest for emotional maturity and genuine joyful living is to keep the past from taking hold of the present. It takes truth and surrender to vulnerability. It takes faith, risk, and bravery. It’s hard work and it’s scary. I ask my kids from rough starts to do it every day. Damn straight I’m going to ask it of myself.

So the rest of the process goes like this. Now you know what you’re dealing with. What are you going to do about it?  What are your choices?

If you stick with me, you’re going to hear this a lot. I’m pretty big on choices and the necessity of recognizing that you always have them no matter how dire the situation seems.

I couldn’t control the way I felt, but I could control my actions. My son was ready to soar. I didn’t want him to look back and see me weeping. I had to make this not about me. I wanted him to remember this day with a happy heart.

I chose to open my heart to a new chapter.  I put my arm around my scared child self and we stepped forward.

I did all his laundry for him, I helped him pack, and I delivered groceries, and praised his new place. I gave him my blessing.

I must confess, it’s been good for him. He seems to have settled into his own skin. He’s relaxed and confident, and talking about future plans. The space has given him the perspective he needed to plot his path.  I am proud of him.

I’d like to say his absence doesn’t pain me. I’d like to say I’m overjoyed that my son is now a man. I’d like to tell you that I can pass his empty room without my heart slipping into my throat.  But those would be lies.

I miss him. It hurts. I keep the door closed. He visited two days ago and I took a blow to the gut as he walked to his car. I’m a work in progress.