On Mother’s Day, May 13 2018, I attended the graduation of my youngest daughter from medical school. While this is surely an occasion of joy and pride for all families, in this case it is especially so. Rose had a long, hard struggle through her adolescence and teen years. As her (single, working) mother, I couldn’t wave a magic wand and make her problems go away; what she needed was patience and love, especially my unwavering belief that she was resourceful enough to cope her challenges. One of the things that helped me during those difficult years was hearing from another mother about the rough time her son had gone through, but that he had come through those times, rebuilt his life, and was now a successful emergency room physician. (Both our kids becoming doctors is an interesting coincidence.)
For quite a while, I blamed myself for Rose’s difficulties. She’d been an intense, fiery toddler, than an easy-going child. When my mother was murdered, Rose was only 3 months old, so she grew up with me struggling through initial PTSD recovery. It was sheer awful luck that her puberty and my crisis (after the first parole hearing of the man who did it) and subsequent breakup of the family happened about the same time. She and I ended up moving to a different part of the state, both of us trying to restart our lives. Marion Zimmer Bradley had invited me to collaborate with her on Darkover, so my writing career was getting started again. I was dating the man I eventually married, so many aspects of our lives were happier and more stable. Except, of course, for adolescent hormones.
After doing well in middle school, Rose starting having difficulty, including self-harm. It was clear to me that if I got on her case about it, the only result would be that she would stop talking to me and I would lose any chance to help her. So I took my worries elsewhere, including to the friend who told me about how her son had overcome drug addition and other serious problems, then finished college and went on to medical school. Another story I heard involved a kid who was living at home and not doing much. When his parents issued an ultimatum to either go to school or get a job. the kid moved out, became a drug dealer, and ended up in prison. The friend who told me this story was at a loss to do with her own son, who had dropped out of college and moved back home. Her thought was that at least she knew where her son was, and he was in a safe place until he could figure things out.
My daughter, too, was in a safe place. But just having a roof over her head wasn’t enough. I found psychiatric help for her and transferred her into the independent studies program at her high school when she was unable to attend classes regularly. I consider those basic parental responsibilities. But most of all, I found ways to deal with my own fears without inflicting them on her. My therapist pointed out that my daughter did not need to hear from me how worried I was for her future; what she needed to hear was my faith in her ability to deal with whatever problems she had, in her innate resourcefulness, determination, and creativity. At first it felt strange to say that aloud to her, and I had to work hard to find occasions and ways of speaking that were appropriate. Sometimes it felt as if I were “faking it until I could make it.” But with repetition, my perceptions changed. Even if I didn’t say “I believe in you” aloud, I thought it over and over, until believing in her became part of me. I noticed the times she was handling things well, in her own inimitable fashion, instead of focusing on when she was overwhelmed. Then I could offer her genuine praise. And, on occasion, outright admiration.
Those times felt as if they would never end, but end they did. I can’t claim credit. It was all Rose’s doing. She saved herself. What I did was keep her alive and safe until all the parts of her life came together. I kept myself sane so that I could love her.
I tell this story so that some other parent might read it and hold on to it through the dark times. There are no guarantees, and not all stories end as well as my daughter’s (or my friend’s son’s). But yours just might.
The painting is by Pierre-August Renoir, Maternite, 1887.