I prayed for God to take her pain away. If you’re a parent, you’ve bargained with God like this, too. Somehow, if pain could be cosmically transferred from child to parent, we think we’d suffer less taking the pain than watching the suffering of a child.
Talking her off the ledge
“Dad, I don’t want to be a grown-up anymore,” Charity said on the phone. After we moved to Eureka, Charity still had to go to court in San Francisco for final custody rulings in Allie’s case. “Allie’s not my baby anymore.”
“I’m so sorry, honey,” I said to my baby.
“Being a grown up is too hard. Why should I do it?” she asked.
I had no words. “Honey, we are going to get through this. I promise.” That was the best I could do.
The pain my daughter Charity was walking through was too much for us to bear. When Charity was a little girl, I hurt when she hurt. Now that she was a young adult being crushed under the weight of adult-sized burdens, it was even more painful for us. Susan said that she couldn’t imagine how Charity must feel as the mother of Allie to have her child hurt so badly, and then have parental rights terminated. The despair was overwhelming.
“There’s no way to get through this. I’ll never be Allie’s mommy again,” Charity said.
Susan and I did trade places with her. Now we were Allie’s parents. It made Charity’s pain worse.
“I’m not going to keep on doing it,” Charity said.
“What are you saying, honey?” I asked. I knew what she was saying.
“There’s no reason to live.” It was a statement she made so matter of factly. This was not Charity being dramatic. Charity was always a hopeful dreamer. But now she was resigned.
“We are going to get through this,” I said, pleading now. “We will figure this out.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“How much do you think we can handle?” I asked. “What are your mother and I supposed to do? Live with Allie suffering and lose you? What kind of life will you leave us with?” I asked, desperately, starting to panic. I was surprised at how raw my emotions were. I’ve never had so much anxiety so near the surface.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to do it,” she said. “I can’t see how I can do this. I can’t.”
We talked for another hour until my phone battery beeped warnings at me. I got her to promise me that she would go to bed and call again in the morning.
This was not the last phone call like this I’d have to take from her. I received several more throughout the next year. I learned to become calmer and more hopeful. Susan also became very capable at firmly and compassionately talking Charity through these crises. Susan has a calming affect on her daughter. She’s still the mom.
Parenting doesn’t end at eighteen
Being the parent doesn’t gradually go away as your child grows through adolescence and becomes a young adult. Parenting never ends. As you parent, when they are little, you give your child the ability to make small decisions and take ownership of outcomes. The idea is that you are preparing this young person for “life in the real world.” Sometimes, your child makes a decision that causes her frustration or pain, and instinctively, you want to relieve your child of painful consequences. Sometimes the pain your child is going through is a teaching tool. A painful consequence causes your child to adjust her thinking. It brings future attitudes and expectations into alignment. So you train yourself, as your child matures, to push through your own parental pain of watching your child suffer. You’ve learned that experience is the best teacher. You’ve been there. You’ve done that.
As your child matures into adulthood, you watch the road you’ve traveled together split into separate paths. After that, your role changes from enforcer to tutor; you can offer guidance, the effectiveness of which is directly related to whether guidance was sought or invited, or coerced.
Your platform as a parent is built on a foundation of experience, life-lessons, and hard-knocks resulting from your own mistakes (many of which could have been avoided had you listened to your parents’ nagging advice). From your vantage point, you can see your adult child heading down a path that makes empty promises. Your kid is heading for greater hardship. Instinctively, you want to protect her; you want to trade places with them and take the hardship upon yourself. You want to take away the pain.
Sometimes consequences are out of proportion to choices made. Choices are booby-trapped. You can choose your choices but you can’t choose your consequences. Maybe you haven’t been there or you haven’t done that, but you still want to take the pain away. You still want to trade.
These results don’t resolve into a happy ending. They shape the future.
Charity processed the crisis she was in slowly. An internal protective mechanism kicked in and over-rode her instincts. She was in a state of shock as well as a state of grace. The full weight of the situation was going to take time to fully settle. If the pain hit her all at once, she would be obliterated.
As she processed all information, she learned to function and survive, but it was a rough road. In the beginning, relationships fell apart, she couldn’t deal with customers at work, and her ability to provide an income for herself was stunted. Suicidal impulses would force conversations a dad was never built to have with his daughter. Her path took her into dangerous isolation and homelessness. This would be the “new normal” for our family over the next two years.
The path Susan and I had taken was new, too. We were now foster parents intent on adopting Allie. Our actions and living conditions were under scrutiny. No matter how much I wanted to trade places to “save” my daughter, it couldn’t happen. We had to let our girl navigate her new path.
We’re amazed at how well she’s done. More about this later.