This past Monday my 18-year-old son left to begin the process of boot camp in the Marines. It’s taken weeks to process what this means to me for so many complex reasons. It wasn't just saying goodbye to my son, it was a flash of all we have experienced in our relationship from the start and what potentially will come next for our dynamic. It’s his journey and his life, but I am also experiencing parts of it and have been trying to figure out the emotions I have been grappling with. This piece is where it took me.
I got married on September 15, 2001, with my one-year-old son in the ceremony. In October 2001, I discovered I was pregnant with baby number two. It was an unexpected pregnancy, but welcome because this time I would share the experience from the start with my husband and the father of my children. As a twenty-two-year-old, I was naively filled with hope and excitement and completely clueless about the reality of having two babies. Like many parents, I assumed the second child would have a similar experience with my oldest. That was as far from the truth as ever. On June 11th, 2002 my second son came into this world making his unique mark from the start in our lives.
He entered the world the way he has shown up in it ever since with a lot of surprises and few warnings. No time for an epidural, when he was ready to come he was ready and the rest of us just needed to sit back and be prepared. Labor was less than two hours and to this day the most physical pain I have ever experienced. From the start, he was independent and on the move. As a newborn, he would push his legs against my body when I held him as though he wanted to escape my grip. He preferred sleeping on his own to a family bed and lost interest in nursing after 7 months. The shortest stint I had with any of my four children. He was destined to be an original in every way and has always been searching for his niche in the world.
I have tons of hilarious stories that frame his childhood and the way his personality unfolded over the course of the years. Starting at infancy from him moving from an army crawl to the most unusual Tarzan walk all the while skipping the crawling stage altogether. Or his first week of school when he played hooky in Kindergarten. But lately, what I have been thinking about is our relationship over the years. I know each of my children better than anyone, but it took me a long time to know what our relationship was because of my own emotional and mental state throughout most of my marriage.
I am ashamed to say, but amid being a mom who took care of all three children with cooking, school support, and activities, my years of mothering him were also spent making hurtful choices at times due to resentment. My ex was clearly grateful to witness the beginning of one of his children’s lives from pregnancy on. That is something he missed with my oldest due to his own decision not to be present. So there was a combination of guilt and an intense desire to be a better father. The challenge with being a better father for him though was that he struggled with loving more than one person at times, and his devotion for his second son was coupled with his resentment towards me and my oldest because he missed those same moments with our firstborn. I was twenty-two and this was my first long-term relationship ever. I bought into the resentment and thought the only control I had was to fiercely love my oldest to make up for the affection I watched his father withhold and openly give to his younger brother. In turn, I was visibly and at times unnecessarily harder on my second son. This damaged our relationship.
As I am sitting and typing this I can see how my reaction to my ex’s behavior sounds ridiculous on so many levels. But in the type of marriage, I was in, the tone was set by the insane reality of my ex, which at times made life feel like a constant battle. When I had the drive and energy in true Capricorn style, I fought to win. I just lost sight of what winning for the children would have really looked like because it was in the reality of a narcissist framing our marriage and child-rearing dynamics.
The beautiful thing about mistakes in life is that we can always correct them. And if we are open to change those corrections might lead to a new path. When my second son was fourteen I admitted this burden I had carried for years that had become the backdrop of our relationship. It came out because I began to see his father shifting his similar behaviors of withholding and mind games towards my second child. This time I had to protect a child again, but I needed to make a better choice. So I chose the truth, took a risk, and showed my vulnerability and culpability.
I explained to my son that the chasm in our relationship was my fault because of how I reacted when I was a young mother and continued to do it even as I got older because I felt he had his father and he didn’t need me the way his older brother did. The thing with those moments of honesty is that they can surprise us. Either it's because the other person completely invalidates what you have said, or they know what you have said is true and saw it as well. In this case, he knew it. He sensed that I defended and loved my eldest more than him. He knew the way his father was harder and much more critical and judgemental of everything about his older brother. He knew that he was seen as his father’s golden child until his baby brother was born. He knew that his father’s behavior towards him had changed as he grew up and started to speak out. My truth was not comforting to hear, but it modeled honesty and ownership for mistakes. More than anything at that time, my son needed someone that was consistent and stable to love him and he knew that I could give him that. We moved past this painful and prickly threshold of resentment and choosing sides to just being us and developing our own relationship clear of the competition and resentment.
For the past 4 years, that relationship has deepened. The first year after I left my husband, my son was the rock I leaned on. My oldest was away at school and he and I had already started to drift far apart in our relationship with all that happened with his father. So my second son probably felt he needed to be there for me, but also needed me to be there with him. His start to the new life was filled with opportunity right away but also expected challenges. He landed the lead role in a musical based on the story of the main male lead. It was busy and involved and I was there with him through running lines, helping him practice songs, and even volunteering regularly for his shows and events. But he was also navigating new relationships and discoveries about his own identity. We had a connection that allowed us both to talk freely at times about how things made us feel (with the exception of conversations about his father and me. I did my best to avoid those unless they were brought up). We were close and connected until we once again were pulled apart by their father’s need to compete.
Loyalty towards me is an affront to being a good child to their father and he made sure there was once again a divide between another child and me. I never fault my children for this because I know the power of having my ex’s love. He carries it like a carrot to dangle in front of the people who love him and takes it away abruptly when he feels any lack of allegiance to his needs and desires. The children are conditioned to give him deference and honor his needs because his love has a cost and can be taken away at a whim. I know that world, I escaped that world, my children haven’t.
It impacted the past month with my son on the heels of his departure. So as I spent the last few weeks preparing for my son to begin his shipment to enlist in the Marines and be away for 6 months, I have been crushed by a return to this energy of deference for their father. Especially with my second child. The hard part is that he is the one who for the past year would come to lay down on my bed like a girlfriend gossiping with me to share hilarious work stories of customers at his restaurant or the business suggestions he had for the owners. We binged Netflix together, talked about politics and he even inquired about the work I did in my role as a specialist on race and equity in our school system. He is the only child (over the age of 4) that treats me like a person and lets me be human with him without judgment. Or at least he was until the past few weeks. This is why my goodbye was so hard.
He left with our relationship in flux and now I sit and wonder if the one person in my home who I could let my guard down with has shifted how he sees our relationship. The difference now is I don’t have time or space to repair any of it because he is gone. I know he will be back, but I also know the boy who left will come back as a man that’s different. I know that will come with good changes for him but I also wonder what will become of us. And then I realize this is one of those moments where I have to let go of it all . . .Let go of my baby and let him be the man he is meant to be and let go of my vision of what our relationship should be to accept what it will be.
He is brave and resilient in making the choice to join the Marines and find a clear path in life. He will thrive because he is dedicated, a people person, and responsible. He is taking his claim of manhood and being a responsible adult into his own hands. I am beaming with pride and filled with hope. I know he will always be the heartbeat of my children and the glue that makes sure they stay strong and connected. He will continue to love me even when he is lashing out because he knows I always love him. All these complexities in our relationship can and do exist at the same time. At this point, I have to learn how to manage all of it and still move on while owning my role however, it may shift, as his mother. He will come back to me when he needs support and a safe place to land because I am his Mama and he is my little boy and always will be.