I measure up my life in Hallmark days: Valentines, birthdays, Mother’s Day. Today is the latter, in 2015, and I recall that last year was a not-bad Mom’s day. My son, Ty (not his real name), now 22, wasn’t then in jail, his second home from age 17. Instead, he was on probation, living with his girlfriend in my ex-husband’s basement, and, we hoped, based on a few faint signs into which we read too much, contemplating a fresh start. But his dad and I, desperate for Ty to dump his gangsta guise, specialize in misreading the tea leaves.
I figured I’d got it right, however, in expecting him not to notice Mother’s Day. But Ty surprised me. In the evening, he texted “Happy Mother’s Day”.
Turned out that his girlfriend made him do it. But no matter. While not exactly brunch or bouquets, for me his tweet was sweet. Admittedly, my bar is very low. It has to be. My son and only child, adopted and adored – except, that is, when I can’t stand him – lost the genetic lottery, poor kid. He didn’t ask to be born with bum neuro-circuitry. I call what’s wrong with him “alphabet jumble disorder” or ADHDLDMIDRADCD. Everyone knows about ADHD but don’t even try to decipher the rest.
Ty’s brutal combo pack of inborn and acquired wreckers predispose to being troubled and to making trouble. I include in the acquired list, adoption, in Ty’s case both transracial and transnational, as my son is African-American from Missouri. He was newborn when his 16-year-old, underclass birthmother, already parenting a toddler, entrusted him to us, white baby boomers in Toronto. Given his DNA, I’m not suggesting he’d necessarily have turned out better had his bio mom raised him. There were trade-offs, some losses, some gains. From the entrails, impossible to predict what might have been.
But from pre-school on, Ty was hell on wheels, all chaos, drama and crises. That’s why I see red when parents get all the credit for perfect kids, as if parenting is decisive. My ex and I were/are loving, devoted parents, normally dysfunctional certainly, but no more defective than the parents next door. Maybe I’m not Mother Teresa – actually Ty needs a cross between her and Maggie Thatcher – but I’ve been walking over hot coals for Ty all his life, trying to give him a fighting chance.
Ty was four when he first threatened us with a knife.
That’s also when we began to recognize the symptoms of his collective disorders, including intense self-absorption. As a tyke, Ty had empathy, provided he wasn’t involved in the other child’s suffering. On seeing another kid in distress, so long as he hadn’t caused the tears, he’d race over to offer comfort. But there was no apologizing or making peace if his tiny fists or mean words, as was often the case, caused the problem in the first place. Even when he was little, with his big, hyper-social personality and off-the-Richter-scale cuteness, Ty always hogged the limelight. Sure, his dad engaged Ty in planning Valentines, birthday and Mother’s Day surprises for me, but once my ex stopped doing all the work, Ty simply ignored holidays, even though he knew they mattered to me.
That’s not entirely true. I have two Mother’s day greeting cards from youth jail – given the psalms printed on the back, probably provided by chaplains – and pinned prominently on the bulletin board above my desk. I know their messages, written in Ty’s laboured scrawl, by heart. One of them reads:
You never gave me life
You give me something better a since of belogng
What I call my famly
I have put you through hell and haven
And ur still right behind me supporting me
You are truly my heart even though
Sometimes I don’t act like you are
I thank God everyday I have a mother like you.
Mercifully, Ty has a soft side and moments of gratitude. He also has spurts of progress in which he tries really hard to turn his life around. We’re eight months into one of those spurts now. Though I’m an atheist, I’m in a state of constant prayer.
And what is Ty’s state this Mother’s Day? He’s in crisis. He and his girlfriend are mourning her recent miscarriage. His dad and I are rejoicing. News of the pregnancy, which devastated us, catapulted Ty into babydaddy bliss. We urged abortion. For that, his girlfriend despises us, and we are now, to quote Ty, her “nemesis”. (Evidence he grew up in our literate home surfaces now and then.) These two, in a tempestuous and unstable relationship, not a penny to their names, scraping by on miserly disability and welfare – and on us – couldn’t grasp that adding a baby to their volatile mix and their poverty was just plain nuts.
Outraged at our hostile reaction, which deepened the rift between us, Ty recently spit out “You didn’t have to ask your parents for permission to have me, so why do I need your permission to have a baby?”
“Because, sweetheart, I was an independent adult with enough money to raise a kid. You’re dependent and have no money. If you have a baby, it involves us.”
Ty doesn’t get it, and storms out, which makes me furious – and furiously sad.
Parenting, I’m told, is agony and ecstasy. Problem is, we’re steeped in the agony, relieved only rarely by fleeting moments of hope or happiness. Ty’s intermittent attempts to clean up his act. Cards from jail. Spontaneous shoulder rubs Ty proffers when he’s in a good mood. Occasional family dinners when all’s well enough in Ty’s world that he’s able to lay off his never-ending angry blame game.
But most days, year in and year out, my ex and I live on a rollercoaster of hope and despair. Our relationship with Ty is a one-way street. We give, he takes. Sometimes he thanks us, most times he disses us.
Despite my fierce, dumb mother’s love for Ty, it’s easy to be angry and frustrated with my son, which, true confession, I too often am. It’s hard to be empathic, patient and kind. I try. I struggle every day to remind myself that his control centre is a chemistry class gone awry.
I’m not the only one struggling every day. When Ty’s in turnaround mode, as he is now, his daily struggle to better himself sobers me. A poster boy for the precariat, he drifts from one temp agency to the next. They tell him come in, we have a warehouse job for you. He calls me, excited, he has a job. Like mothers everywhere, I wait on tenterhooks.
Ty calls me back. He showed up, a long bus ride from his apartment. Sorry, no work today. Come back tomorrow. My heart sinks. I ache for him.
And on Mother’s Day, I ache for myself too. It’s a day for painful solidarity with all my sisters out there parenting children with mental disorders, in many cases in jail or heading there, the kind of kids only their mothers love.
I dream of another kind of Mother’s Day. No hearts and flowers. Just Ty doing something pro-social and productive – a program or part-time job – and feeling proud of himself. And sending me a text: Happy Mother’s Day. I love you.
Meantime, I have Mother’s Day blues every day.
– Thea Thomas (penname of a Toronto writer)