Stuck: A Parenting Slice of Life

slice of life

He is stuck.

Every day, we have a breakthrough. But by the next morning, he is back in the same place.

His morning hug may be warm enough, but by the time he sits at the table for breakfast, the fog has settled over him. He’s back in it. Whatever it is. Wherever he is stuck. I don’t know what that place is exactly, because he doesn’t let me in. He keeps his secrets. Secrets have power. Keeping them held tight is one thing he can control.

Maybe it’s a particularly thorny patch of his past that he treads again and again in his mind until he can push his way through to the other side. Maybe it’s some emotion that he’s trying to manage, control, steel himself against. Because this is a child who spent years hardening himself, trying to feel nothing. Feelings are the ultimate enemy. If you feel, you can be hurt. Maybe it’s this perfect storm of too many changes, too many triggers, too many new feelings. By nightfall, he’s gotten control of it, but every morning, the storm washes over him again and threatens to drown him.

All I know is that by the time I sit down at the table to read to him, I’ve already lost him.

It begins.

He looks for a fight. Anything will do. I neatly feint and dodge. I agree with the most outrageous statements. I apologize–sincerely–for all kinds of things that are not my fault, that are not even actual problems. He will not find resistance in me. He will not find a target.

But eventually he finds some flimsy excuse to explode and storm upstairs to his room. Only he realizes once he’s there, he doesn’t want to be there. There’s no one to fight with up in his room.

There’s also no one to fix him.

He stalks back downstairs a few minutes later, and then the elaborate dance begins for real. I know most of the steps by now. He comes into the kitchen where I’m working, glares at me, sighs elaborately. He won’t use words for awhile now. It’s all in his eyes and his body. He carefully positions himself in my line of vision, but if I look at him, he slaps his hand against the wall and storms out of the room. He flops onto the couch, still where I can see him, and there is more elaborate sighing, more attempts at intense eye contact that I have to ignore. He isn’t ready yet. He’s still aching for a fight. If I go to him now, I know what he will do. Lash out, push me away, shove me.

And so I try to wait him out. I dance my steps, walking through the living room several times on mostly manufactured errands: carrying a book from the dining room to the hall, straightening the cord on my laptop, refolding a blanket, moving the remotes from the tv tray to the table. I’m gauging his response, seeing how much of my presence he can tolerate.

He isn’t looking at me anymore, isn’t smirking or sighing or scowling. I sit down at the other end of the couch to see if he’s ready. Without looking at me, he gets up and walks into the dining room.

Not ready yet.

I open my notebook and start writing. He settles into a chair in the dining room, again in my line of vision. We sit like that–me writing, him stewing–for twenty minutes, thirty. I am willing myself to recognize the sweet spot when he’s ready.

He begins to chew on a finger. He digs his teeth in again and again until he finds a purchase on the skin and can peel a piece off. He checks to make sure I’m looking, then makes an exaggerated face of pain, shakes his finger in the air, sucks on it where it’s probably bleeding.

Sometimes this is the final cry for help. Will she come? Will she see that I’m hurt and come do something about it? Is she really my mom? When I come to him and sympathize, he wants Band-Aids, hugs, comfort, and then he is calm.

But sometimes, like today, it’s a trap, intended to draw me in and to start a new round of the fight. I reach out to see his finger and he jerks his arm away. I barely avoid getting knocked in the head by a flailing limb.

“Don’t touch me. You don’t deserve to touch me.” He spits the words. “You’re not my real mom.”

I’ve waited too long. He’s spinning the stories in his mind now. She doesn’t love me. Look at her. She’s a liar. Everything she says to me is a lie. She doesn’t care. She isn’t my mom. I don’t care. I don’t need her. I don’t want her. I don’t need anybody.

When he was smaller, I could hold him while he kicked and punched and flailed and screamed. He could fight and still be safe from hurting himself or someone else. It was the only way he knew to calm the rage inside. But now he is as tall as I am and nearly as heavy. I can’t hold him anymore. Not safely.

Now I have only my voice, my energy to calm him. It is slow, patient work. I think of all the times I’ve tried to tame wild cats, sitting still as they creep closer and closer. Sitting still when they’re within reach but not touching them because they aren’t ready. They don’t trust yet. Finally reaching out, ever so slowly, only to have the cat–SCRAM!–back to her hiding place under the shed because I gauged my moment wrong and made my move too early. And then I have to start all over again.

He looks at me with wild eyes. He isn’t fully here with me anymore. I’m not sure where he is. I begin to talk him back to me. Now my words are the dance, and I vary them, fast then slow, wild then gentle, as I try to bring him back to himself. Back to me. I take a step towards him and he darts away.

Don’t touch me, he yells.

I step back. Too soon. I begin the dance with words again and talk longer this time.

Eventually I take a step toward him. He doesn’t move. Another step. More words. When I am close enough to touch him and he hasn’t moved, I pause. I settle here and wait some more.

We’re near the end when I can rest my palm on his arm and he doesn’t flinch. Then the words stop. We sit together in silence. He lets me stroke his hair, rub his back. He covers his face with his hands, but he allows me to comfort him, to mother him.

I exhale.

We can sit like that for an hour or more, breathing quietly together, until he is calm, regulated, fully himself.

Then suddenly he will pop up and grin, hug me, and say “Let’s go get some ice cream.”

For the rest of the evening, he is a delight. Witty, affectionate, brave, gracious. Tender. Relieved. He jokes about the morning and afternoon. He apologizes. He tries to find some words to make sense of his experience, but he doesn’t have any. I was mad, he might say, and makes up something he could have been mad at. He looks at me to see if I’m buying it. I try to make my eyes neutral, but he knows what I see when I look at him. His fear. His terror. He looks away.

I don’t need to know his secrets to know him. It makes him so angry. It makes him so scared. And it gives him hope. Someone sees him. Someone finally sees him, and they don’t look away. They see him and they accept what they see. They see him and somehow, in one of the great mysteries of his life, they love him. And, maybe an even greater mystery, he loves them too.

At bedtime, after I hug him goodnight, he takes my face into his hands and presses my cheek to his. Every night he holds my face there as long as I will let him. Sometimes I think he would hold me there for hours.

And tomorrow morning, he will greet me with a warm hug and a good morning. But by the time he sits down at the table, his face will have clouded over as the fog settles in.

He is stuck.

Slice of Life is a weekly writing event hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

16 responses to “Stuck: A Parenting Slice of Life”

  1. I am speechless! This is such a beautiful, raw look inside your son! While my little guy isn’t adopted, he and I have engaged in a similar dance! Thank you for sharing such a heart-wrenching, yet hopeful story!

  2. I can’t think of a more powerful slice of life essay that I’ve ever read. It was so long, but I hung on every word, wanting to figure out — like you do, like you must want to fully figure out — where he goes to, what his experience is like…why, why, why does this happen? This was so well written, so suspenseful, so gripping because you shared such an intimate question with us. No answer, really, just a question and a really deep experience. It left me wondering: who is this gifted writer, this patient parent? When a reader wants to know answers to that, you know you’ve done really, really well.

  3. The power in this slice is just amazing – the feeling is raw and true, and yet your stance is so clear eyed and precise. Kate is right – yo are a gifted writer…and a brave mom.

  4. Elisabeth- I agree with Tara and Kate. This piece of writing is breathtaking. And as the single mom of two boys adopted from the foster care system at 7 and 9, I know this scene all too well. We have been there many times. Hang in there!

    • Thanks, Carol. I am sure we share many similar experiences with our kids! The day I write about in this piece is very mild compared to many other days I’ve had with my son. I’m sure you could relate to those tougher times too!

  5. Wow this rings – brave, true, invested. I don’t think I breathed while reading it. I know I will read it multiple times. This piece has future and past all wrapped up in the now. Powerful. And yours. I am sorry and I am in awe. Thank you for this intimate sharing, Elisabeth. How I wish I could invite you over for a long coffee and sigh session.

    • This is a piece I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. I wasn’t sure I was going to take a risk and publish it on my blog. But I’m glad I did. And yes to that long coffee and sigh session. When we finally do manage to meet up, we are going to have so much to talk about!

  6. You show such courage in sharing, Elisabeth, and from what you are doing/have done also. Courage to do the right thing for your son, anything/everything. My brother has/had such a son. He is now grown with 4 children, a wonderful wife, and a good career. It was a dance, I understand, and it did change for the better, for parents and child. I wish you well, good moments every chance you can make them.

    • We certainly do cherish the good moments! I love hearing “success” stories of challenging kids who grow up to be functional adults, so thank you for sharing about your nephew.

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