Tempered by love (an Enough essay for my son)
I picked my son up from his father’s a few Sunday mornings ago. The mechanics of that particular statement just boggle my mind. That I have a child — a sixteen year old, no less — is one of the more astounding facts of the universe. That I have a sixteen year old and have not yet managed to break him — no sprains, no breaks, no major illnesses — that’s even more miraculous. He’s navigated a trauma or two, but they’ve been no more than the small dramas that are part of growing up.
I fear breaking him. I remember when we weaned him from his bottle. I sat outside his room while he screeched and screamed for hours, begging wordlessly for his bottle. What kind of mother was I, for God’s sake? How could I deprive him of the one thing that would bring him any comfort during that long dark night? If I just gave in, if I would only relent– silence! Blessed silence and a happy, sleepy, sleeping boy! My actions were sure to produce some hell-spawn, I was sure of it. I whimpered hopelessly to my mother on my cell phone, “Please tell me this will not be fodder for some therapy session when he gets all sociopathic on me in a few years, all because I wouldn’t give him his bottle.”
I could hear my mother, who has suddenly become infinitely wiser over the years, roll her eyes. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You all went through it, you all turned out just fine. You all wound up in therapy for completely different reasons.”
Oh yay. Something to look forward to.
He has been amazingly resilient, this not-so-small-anymore man-child of mine. He’s weathered a lot in his young life. Nothing big and dramatic, just the normal flotsam that seems to comprise struggling middle class suburbia in the 21st century.
From the time he was born, his dad (then my husband, now my ex) and I both worked full time, leaving the house before sun up, coming home in the dark. Our son shared that schedule, off to daycare at the crack of oh dark thirty, where he interacted with strangers for 11+ hours a day. And in time, we were the strangers. We were absentee parents and we lived under the same roof as our son.
He survived the barely noticeable tension of two parents coming together from two completely different worlds, that just-below-hearing-level buzz that sets your teeth on edge for reasons you can’t quite pinpoint until you’re exhausted from trying to find the cause. Everything was an issue, because neither of us realized there were any issues to be had. Discipline. Religion. Family. Holidays. Friends. School. Even his diet became an issue during his first twelve months. Pick something, anything. We approached life so differently and our son became the unwitting battlefield for our philosophical disagreements.
At five, he was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss. Now there are some words you never want to hear in the same sentence, uttered by a doctor: Neurological. Profound. Congenital. And the best words of them all: We don’t know. They ran every test imaginable and they still don’t know how or why he has an 80% loss of hearing in his left ear and a 20% loss in his right.
At six, things between his father and me started to get tense. By seven, our family life was rapidly deteriorating. Despite my best intentions, my son was witness to our private hell writ large. And loud. We yelled and screamed and stomped and struggled. We did it all wrong. There are lessons in conflict resolution that he has learned that will take God only knows how long for me to unteach, if that’s even possible. Fodder for my own therapy sessions, I think…
By eight, it was all over but the shouting. Even separated, my ex and I continued to shout. We fought and argued and cried and repeated it all, again and again. Life got dicey in ways I couldn’t ever have imagined. This was not the life of a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs, dammit. I shielded my son as best I could, but I could not shield him from everything. Things got worse. Things got better. It was an emotional tug-o’-war, and I was tangled in that taut rope, straining to get my end clear from the muddy middle. Sometimes I think I even succeeded.
My son seems to have survived all of this. He may not even be the worse for wear. He is sixteen, taking his first steps – sometimes giant leaps, sometimes a small stutter step — at independence from me. He is at once shy and bold and friendly and mean and smart and smart alecky and happy and sad and whiny and a thousand other emotional adjectives. There are days when I want to sell him to the highest bidder. Okay, not days — minutes, maybe an hour at most. When he gives me the sixteen year old equivalent to being weaned from the bottle and all I want is blessed relief from that incessant incantation of Mommommommommommom. Just five minutes, I want to plead. Give me five minutes of peace, a chance to breathe.
But mostly, he is this incredible gift — fragile as a soap bubble that floats, higher and higher, catching the sunlight, reflecting clouds and sky. But tough as steel, as leather. Enduring as love. I love him fiercely, passionately, wholly. Without reservation. Unconditionally. I, who swore I would never have children, who was convinced that the maternal instinct had skipped me entirely, I have been gifted with the care and feeding of this boy, this almost man.
I tell him every day, and have, since the day he was born — nothing you do or say could ever make me love you any less than I do now, and I love you more than the earth and sky put together. I may be afraid that I will break him in some way, but I also have made it my mission to let him know that he is enough. Ever and always, he is enough, and he is loved. And wonder of wonders, despite my faults and failings, he knows. So, while I may provide him with endless fodder for some therapist’s couch some day, that fodder will ever and always be tempered with love.