The horror stories about junior year are urban lore. Cautionary tales spread far and wide about overburdened students pressured by parents to score high on college entrance exams and AP tests, while simultaneously compiling a long list of noteworthy extracurricular achievements.
I’m not objecting to parents pushing for excellence. I’ve seen it lead to success when it suited the child. But I’ve also seen it level kids and wreak havoc on their families. Excellence by definition is to be outstanding, to be set apart from the mean. I think we’ve lost sight of that.
Yet, in spite of all the warnings I’d heard about junior year, my son’s outbursts that year took me by surprise.
The harder I tried to help him, the more doors he slammed in my face. Any advice I tossed his way burned up in his red-hot force field. I confessed to my husband my fear that our son was not equipped for college much less life in the real world.
Then, the August before his senior year, I had an epiphany.
I was downstairs cringing at my son’s gut-wrenching cries followed by the crash of objects hurled against his wall; like the disquiet between a lightning strike and a thunder-clap. We had already gathered a graveyard of collateral damage from his previous meltdowns: a cracked photograph, decapitated trophies, numerous divots and a fist-sized crater that defaced the walls of his room.
When my son was small, I would wrap myself around his squishy, little body and hold him until his temper died down. But he was taller and stronger now so I paced helplessly instead, wincing with every thud, and waiting for the right time to intervene.
After the last projectile landed, I walked upstairs and put my ear to his door. Silence. I took a deep breath and cracked the portal open. His bed was covered in strewn papers and splayed out textbooks but was otherwise empty. As I opened the door further, I heard a small cry, something between a gasp and a choke. First I spotted his feet and then his legs, stiff and sticking out from the beanbag chair that until then had only been used as a way station for his dirty laundry. Warily, I stepped inside. His face was flushed and swollen from crying. He looked defeated. I moved toward him and to my surprise, he didn’t resist my offer to help him stand.
He looked into my eyes, a sad shell of the studious and levelheaded boy I knew. He pleaded with me to let him drop out of school.
Decades earlier, when I’d imagined myself a mom, I vowed I would do a better job than my parents by doing everything the opposite. Where my mom and dad had been absent, I quit my career to be with my children 24/7. Where my parents had not understood or appreciated my traits, I encouraged my kids to be exactly who they were. Where I had rarely been shown affection, I expressed and verbalized my love to my children, every single day.
But looking at my broken boy this August day, seventeen and already waving the white flag on life, I felt ashamed. Being his mother had been my only job, a job I’d worked so hard to perfect, and I’d screwed it up big time. In my desperation to out-parent my parents, somehow I’d failed my son.
I wondered if my peers and I were justified in casting aspersions on the laissez-faire child-rearing style of our parents’ generation. Maybe they were onto something by letting their children roam unsupervised and having a less exacting approach to college. Maybe the latchkey kids of the twentieth century were better off than our helicoptered heirs.
I questioned which carried more weight, nature or nurture, genetics or environment. I had read articles about the effect of ancestors’ stress and anxiety on their descendants. Maybe no matter how secure a situation I had created for my child, I was no match for his DNA. If that was true, then neither were my parents, or their parents before them. Fact or fiction, I began to feel better, enough to stop blaming myself and start helping my son.
That day I agreed, along with my husband, to step back. It was counterintuitive; contrary to so much of the parenting advice I’d read or heard. But by heeding that counsel, I’d lost what was most important to me, open communication with my son. I had nothing to lose by trying. I needed to accept that my son had to walk his own path, however winding and full of rocks. If that meant he didn’t perform to his potential (as I measured it) and chose a road in life that I hadn’t desired for him, then so be it.
The change was swift. My son’s tantrums trickled down to few. He stopped hiding in his room and resumed speaking in full sentences. I came to know and appreciate him as a maturing, young man – his wit, his charm, his intelligence. With glee, I admit, we started liking each other again. Without my hovering, he sought me out for advice. I listened, offered my opinion, and then told him the final decision was his. He continued his work in school and sent in his college applications on time.
I’m not going to lie. It’s been a nail-biter and I haven’t been perfect. I’ve spoken up on occasion when I thought my son stumbled. I made a phone call in a situation that I should have let him handle. Countless times I’ve had to hold myself back when every cell in my body screamed to lean in. But I am doing my best and learning as I go along. Just like my son.
Fran Bell Baruch quit her career in television to focus full-time on being the perfect mom. She quickly realized the foolishness of that notion and returned to her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Her essays have been published in Newsweek’s My Turn, The Sacramento Bee, LA Mom’s Blog, as well as linked to in NYT’s Motherlode. She was also an Assistant Editor at Narrative Magazine.
Fran is a soon-to-be empty nester who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of twenty-five years, one of her two children, and her two rescued Labrador Retrievers. When she’s not writing, hiking with her dogs, or sharing adoption photos of canines on social media, she’s developing projects for television and features. Fran can be found on Linked In.