“Mom, can I have some money to go out?” asked my 21-year-old-son, Tracey, after our first family dinner together in four years. My husband gave me a look that said, You don’t have the money to give him. “We just fed him out of a budget he’s not in yet.”
Instantly, my house is at war. This was not the normal everyday family conversation. My oldest son had a different father than my two youngest children, one who I was never married to. Broke, out of school and jobless at the moment, Tracey had just arrived to live with me, my second husband, our two younger children and my elderly mother. While I love him and want to take care of him, I’m already worried I made a mistake.
When he called, months ago to ask if he could live with, us, I didn’t hesitate before I said, “Yes.”
“I’m miserable, Mom,” he told me. “I can’t live here with my Dad and sister and brothers anymore. I want to go to school. I’m already working two jobs. Please, can I come live with you?”
When he asked the same question at age 16, I didn’t hesitate either. But his anger issues and hormones then almost cost me my second marriage and our home on government property. I felt terrible when he left, sorry that I had to parent long distance, but mostly I was sorry that I hadn’t done something sooner that could have saved all that heartache. My guilt was never about finding love with my husband of nine years, but about not insisting that my son come live with us when I married an Army officer, and moved out of state, leaving him with his father and former stepmother.
His dad insisted it would be good for him to be with his biological father once he was 12. I thought my son would benefit from the continued shared custody we worked out on our own nine years before. I also worried about the impact his new stepfather would have on him. With more than a little uncertainly, I left him living primarily with his father; four years later, when he asked to move back in with us, we couldn’t make it work. He didn’t listen. He ditched school and didn’t come home some nights. He was disrespectful to me around his grandmother, often talking back. He never accepted any authority from his stepfather, and they argued constantly. Love wasn’t enough to heal each of our hurts. The living arrangement lasted only six months.
But I never gave up on my child despite the miles that separated us.
In the months and years that passed Tracey and I were able to bond again. He went on to achieve all the things I knew he was capable of, but neglected to make things right with his stepfather. When my husband deployed for 15 months I had a heart-to-heart phone conversation with my son about holding grudges, not apologizing and believing that you have to be right even when you know deep down you are wrong. He never acknowledged it one way or another then, but I could see later that he took my words to heart.
During a holiday visit last year things appeared hopeful. My younger children missed their older brother and I wanted my son home. A fresh start looked doable and the timing seemed to be perfect, but it was clear that more healing between the men was needed and after the Christmas nostalgia wore off old feelings resurfaced.
Now, back under one roof, all those wounds were fresh again
I slipped my son $40 without my husband knowing. “Thanks, Mom,” he said — and I knew I’d made a mistake.
It was wrong for my husband to make my son feel “outside” our food budget. Tracey is my son; he was my son when I married my husband, and my husband cannot pick and choose when and how he wants to be a stepparent now. I don’t separate my love or my money,
But I also couldn’t allow my children to separate my husband and me. We had to be a team. Secretly giving my son money on the side — even if I did want to support all the good choices he has made of late — was no better than trying to exclude him from the food budget. It was wrong.
“I just don’t want it to go like it did last time,” my husband said to me later that night.
“I don’t either,” I said, and I admitted that I had given him the money.
It’s just the first of the difficult but honest conversations that will mark another start, for all of us.
This essay orignally appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog.