No mother shall be harmed on account of her child, nor shall the father be harmed because of his child. – Quran 2:233
The best thing my mom ever did for me was throw me out of the house when I was seventeen years old.
I wasn’t done with school; I wasn’t going. I didn’t have anywhere else to live. During the daytime I wandered around downtown bumming cigarettes, and at night I looked for places to crash with my 25-year-old boyfriend, a homeless dude who claimed to be some sort of Navy SEAL with an IQ of “over 180”.
For a while we had a van, and occasionally a motel room, but there were times when we crashed on kitchen floors or on porches, and we spent nearly a year living in a tent.
My mom and I didn’t even have a fight. I had been spending multiple nights away from home anyway, just dropping by to raid the fridge and do laundry and hope my mom didn’t notice I was sneaking in some of the boyfriend’s laundry. Then I didn’t come home for over a week. Years later I learned that my health-nut, anti-corporate, vegetarian mother had been coming to the McDonald’s where I worked and ordering fries as her way of checking up on me, since this was before email or cell phones. If she could see that I had made it to work and was at least sober enough to take fast-food orders, she could rest easy for a few more days.
I know she was relieved that I miraculously never got arrested as a minor. She didn’t want the embarrassment, the responsibility, having to pick me up from jail and tell the police and probably some child welfare people that for her own personal reasons, her daughter is not welcome in her home. But I don’t know the true extent of her anxiety as she hid at the McDonald’s until she could know for certain that, for another day, I was still around. What was it like for her to know that her teenage daughter was living through every parent’s top five or so worst nightmares about what can happen to their kid? That not only was I living that way, but that I had largely chosen it, for no reason at all? I had a nice place to live and my own room and pets and friends and hobbies and instead I wanted the grungy dude and the uncertainty about where I was sleeping from one night to the next and the highly addictive and lethal substance that, 25 years later, is still my first thought every morning.
Sometimes I think that whole Navy SEAL thing might not have even been true.
And plenty of others, including my dad, have said that my mom should have done more to help; that kicking your kid out is the lazy way to deal with a problem. But take it from the kid who was kicked out – I disagree. I didn’t want help, because I already had the world all figured out. I was going to keep living in the van while all you other losers had to pay rent, and maybe I’d go to community college and become a nature photographer or mortician or office lady, and Scott and I would get married because he was going to be rich as soon as Clinton was out of office.
My mom did offer me help, in the only way she knew. I agreed to go to a rehab center, we met with the counselor together, and after the first day, I realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t really have a problem, drugs were just a personal interest of mine and it took a really complex person to understand that. Also, I didn’t really agree with their approach of “stopping all drug use” because it sounded extreme. I couldn’t deal with those kind of restrictions, decided the program wasn’t for me, and that was when my mom’s parenting responsibilities ended. It was no longer up to her to provide me with everything I took for granted, and in those moments perhaps she realized she was now off the hook for things like cars and apartments too.
In many parts of the world, children are an economic asset to the family. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to limit the number of children born to them, because the family is not thrown into financial ruin with every new birth. A kid who can walk and talk is someone else who can provide something of value to the family, rather than simply consume resources. My Pakistani inlaws would laugh at the thought of a child costing them a quarter million to raise to adulthood. They worry about how I can possibly get by without four sons.
Can there be a happy medium between forcing a six-year-old to work in the cigarette factory and giving a seventeen-year-old an allowance to watch TV while the parents do manual labor to keep the house? Evidently not. Are child labor laws unjust when the “child” can drive a car and shop and cook? If you buy a car for your child and pay all the expenses, why are you considered an abusive tyrant if you expect the child to use the car in a way that benefits the rest of the family? Why is it that you’re “not letting a kid be a kid” if you want them to cook dinner, but that buying them advanced technology you may not even know how to use isn’t another way to impede normal childhood?
I was later able to piece together that my mom ran away from home quickly after high school and lived a nomadic existence as a hippie in San Francisco, which is where she met my dad, another hippie. She also lived on the streets, stole food and used drugs before she and my dad made their way to rural Oregon where they built the barn where I was born, and started a small farm. My mom’s homeless experience was a nightmare compared to mine, as was her home life.
My mom learned from her parents how to be a parent, and I have very clear and vivid memories from as young as age 3. I was sent to a special school for autistic kids, the kind where some kids are in cages and harnesses. I remember being left in a group home for days at a time, and this being used as a threat against me. I remember fingernails in my neck, my face repeatedly hitting the floor, until I was about fourteen and at that point bigger than her. I was sore about it for years until one day I realized I wasn’t mad anymore. Not that the behavior was warranted or justified, but that I just wasn’t mad about it.
To get back at her, I gave her the silent treatment. We didn’t speak for over a year. Imagine my shock when I learned I was actually doing her a favor. She didn’t want to speak to me, on account of my attitude and behavior. I will never get back at her, never have the upper hand, never win, because she is simply more clever than I and knows things I never will. I think a good life can be attained by knowing when to take second, and the natural order of things is that a daughter is second to her mother.
My mom’s terrible home life didn’t stop when she got bigger. Her father just started to use weapons instead, and also beat her mother. I may have been angered and embarrassed from being hit as a child but I was never endangered. I had never been hit by my father, nor had I ever seen my mother be hit by a man. But that was how she grew up. She ran toward a destructive lifestyle as an escape. I did it largely out of boredom and a sense of chronic mental under-stimulation.
The years of my mom’s life that weren’t terrible were still very hard. She worked in beanfields for a few dollars a day. She’s 5’2” and she worked on farms and hauled wood. I remember her having five jobs at one point – teacher aide, landscaper, construction, newspaper delivery and nighttime tutor. She finished school at age 40-something, and had to bring the kids to class a lot. Then, when I was in high school, she was in a serious car accident that left her with chronic pain and disability, and her lame kids didn’t even help her around the house or visit her in the hospital.
Basically she worked extremely hard her whole life, during the times she wasn’t living in absolute terror. She deserves a chance at an easy life if she can get it. And I think that’s what she took for herself when she decided I can no longer raise this child. She had a moment of clarity when she realized that having a child doesn’t mean you then have to allow that child to wreck your life, and living with a drug addict will absolutely wreck your life. Addicts are no longer the people you once knew, and they can’t be reasoned with while they are using.
By age 19, I was sick of it all and I took care of it. I got my GED and paid for my first apartment by myself and somehow didn’t get Hep C. I did the cold-turkey detox with a bucket and then found a rehab center for homeless people and I have not used heroin for 25 years now, although I would never trust myself around it and I won’t go to an overdose death scene if there are drugs there. And I’m not some amazing success story; I’ve struggled with other substances and currently have only about 4 years sober. My longest stretch was 9 years.
But I know my mom helped. She helped me a lot more than the parents who pay for food and hotels and other bills after they kick their kids out, and she certainly helped more than the parents who acquiesce to letting their child turn the home into a crash pad for their drug-using friends. I wish more parents would take this option; would understand that it is an option. You are allowed to reclaim your home. There are social norms I just don’t understand, and one of them is the notion that you don’t ever deny shelter or other basic needs to your own child no matter what they are doing or how detrimental they are to be around. I really think most cases of “my kid is a jerk” could be fixed by the kid spending one night outside, as close to a “homeless for real” experience as possible. Not crashing on a friend’s couch and eating his mom’s food, but being out there by themselves, and having the police run them out of the park for sleeping, and standing in line at a church for a meal. If you have a child who knows the security patrol schedule for a particular parking garage and which food banks don’t make you prove income, I’m guessing that child might have learned that behaving in your home really is an easier way to live.
Think about how you want to spend your retirement years. I know most of you will choose suicide or prison, but the other five – do you want to spend your sixties dealing with your at-home 38-year-old son selling your microwave so he can feel normal, or had you always envisioned other types of plans?
One thing my mom has going for her – though largely due to her own hard labor – is she always had a nice home. What she can do with a shell of an old house would outshine anything you can see on one of those reality shows (not incl Kardashians). And she does it all by herself! She never remarried. No hired help, no contractor, not even a blueprint. The garden, the fancy tiles, setting up a wood stove, keeping a truck with 400k miles on it running with no problems. Keeping her antique and heirloom furniture nice, all so her strange daughter can take a knife to one of the chairs and scratch the other kid’s name. (It didn’t occur to me he’d just say he didn’t do it.) I also poured black wax all over my bedroom carpet and then ripped it up in large sheets before getting bored and abandoning the project. I twice burned down a large portion of the kitchen. I broke all the appliances. I demanded large numbers of pets that I didn’t care for or clean up after, at one point having seventeen rabbits, four cats, nine gerbils and a Husky. Why do parents just kind of accept that as their lot in life?
She knows she doesn’t have to live in the woods by herself at 75 years old. She doesn’t have to work, but she likes teaching Kindergarten. I couldn’t buy her a home, but I could support her. I can be a better daughter, except that now, she does not want or need anything. The only thing in her life that she ever wanted and consistently got was a nice home that she created, and she still has that.
I’m glad we are in each other’s lives.