Illustration by Lauren Tamaki
If life’s a game, what is the object?” When he was in seventh grade, my son asked me that question on the car ride home from school. He’d been talking nonstop, building a case about what a waste of time organized education was in a child’s life. I told him the object of the game—at least momentarily—was to finish junior high. I rarely felt prepared to answer the life debates he prompted, but his uniquely inquisitive mind had kept the two of us connected and engaged since the day he learned to talk.
OTHER ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:
- I Am the Spouse With a Short Fuse
- Why I Ghosted—and Later Made Up With—a Good Friend
- I Was the Know-It-All in the Next Cubicle—Until I Took This Advice
- Are You There, Dad? It’s Me, the Guy Just Getting to Know You
Until the following year—when he turned 13, and something seemed to shift. He and I were not seeing eye-to-eye on anything, and for us, that was unusual.
We’d had a rough trek: a divorce and a custody battle that ended in my receiving full physical custody of my three kids. I think inside all of us there lived an unspoken thanks that we were together, the kind of thanks you can’t teach, you have to live. If there is a silver lining to the emotional tsunami of divorce, for us it was that small fights and struggles never found a way in.
But now my quiet, funny, deep-running-river son, who’d come into the world with a soul older than my own, became unresponsive and somewhat miserable to me in a few ways. I tried what I knew to do to move us. I talked to him; I talked with his friends more. I even reread Animal Farm and The Autobiography of Malcolm X because he was reading them at the time and I thought it might help us engage. I tried to ask about video games I knew absolutely nothing about.
Eventually I got very frustrated. I started getting that horrible feeling, the one parents have when their kid begins to morph into someone they don’t recognize. We try to ignore what’s happening, hoping it will pass—then we defend it, justify it, get righteous about it. But all we really want is to make it right.
So I decided to write my son a letter. I tried to explain the kind of love I had for him, which he might not understand until way later in his life, and then I asked him—begged him, actually—to write down three things I could do to be a better mom. I told him that no matter what he wrote I would not be mad, I would not be hurt and, most important, I would never speak of any of it to him. I just wanted to know. To my shock, he slipped his reply under my door that night, having carefully numbered and written three things.
The first was “Listen when I tell you something important, like about school.” He’d been telling me on and off for a year that he wanted to go to a school with more diversity, that he didn’t like his private school’s way of teaching and thinking. I’d moved mountains to make sure he was getting what I believed was the best education. I thought his complaints were him being him, the sort of alternative-thinking person he was. I had never considered that he actually wanted to leave.
I learned more about myself and my son that night than I probably ever would. The next year I let him transfer to a public charter school. To this day—it’s six years later now—I heed the other things he asked of me, things I’ll keep between him and me.
Was it fun to hear three ways I had failed as a mom? No, hell no. But weighed against slowly losing him over time or crossing my fingers and hoping it would pass, it was worth every exposed, self-reflecting second.