My 17-year-old son only barely survived the bullying and misery of being stuck between two angry siblings: a sister and a step-sister, the three of them less than two years apart. He thus perfected a non-confrontational façade to create an easement for himself around an environment thick with fury and profanity, keeping his role in the family by ruffling as few feathers as possible, often at his own expense.
No one felt great about hurting him, but we all did it sometimes. His hurt feelings were his only weapon. He was tender-hearted in the way I was tender-hearted as a child and it couldn’t last. Weaponized misery is not sustainable.
No question there’s a thing between mothers and sons and I’m no different: I adore my boy. Mothers and daughters have so much at stake. There is danger everywhere for a girl becoming a woman. The repulsive lies that you know she will uncover, the depressing lies you know she will tell. My love for my daughters is impassioned and fierce. My love for my son, is like golden September sunshine: all gratitude and mild shock at my good fortune.
As a little one, my son was a math whiz. It’s not terribly surprising; his paternal grandparents are notable scientists, both nominated for the Nobel Prize for their work grafting third eyes on rats to solve blindness. The boy had a genetic win from the start. He would read to me with a book upside down or right side up (it was equally easy for him) and would thrill in the special classes he got to take through the talented and gifted program.
We would ask him to multiply big numbers like 62 and 87 in the car on the way to kindergarten and he would do the arithmetic in his head. It was objectively adorable the way his blond hair flopped over his forehead to be brushed impatiently out of his deep green-blue eyes.
By 6th grade, he was in high school math and had a short lifetime of practice as teacher’s pet. Friendly, kind, anxious to please, smart as hell; what’s not to love? His sisters despised him for not joining the teen girl We-Hate-Mom army. If you don’t know what that is, you don’t have a teen girl in your house.
My son’s diplomacy skills gained little recognition, as our tumultuous not-so-blended family moved towards the gathering storm of adolescence, a war of many battles against everyone, won decisively by the girls. All of the bandwidth we could muster went to exploding sisters and poisonous exes who always seemed to have a new Baba Yaga plan to steal our children.
Middle school ended and 9th grade began. Instead of the 105% as per normal, he got a D in math on his report card. The D’s continued throughout high school. Each time I got another report, I sat down and talked to him about how to do better. We planned out his organization, a tutor, help from the teacher. I tried yelling at him. I wrote him letters and reminders. I tried rewarding him. I tried taking away video games, phone, screen time.
He disappeared into his room and it seemed harder all the time both to reach him and to have time to even try. He felt like my other half and it was easier to ignore myself than a teenaged enemy combatant with a heart-shaped grenade in her hand.
During his junior year of high school, my oldest daughter started college and my step-daughter moved in permanently with her mother. The twins were still babies so he was the only talking offspring in the house. Very quickly, I saw my beautiful boy grow into himself and develop a confidence which had been out of reach for several years.
As he’s a senior, I have been freaking out about his GPA because how the hell is he now supposed to get into college? Musing this, I opened his bedroom door to see how many of my mugs, small plates and forks were being held hostage in his room. On the floor was a large glass bong. GODDAMNIT.
I have some history with drug paraphernalia in my home. I don’t know how many small pipes: giant glass pipes, bongs, chillums, etc I confiscated from my daughters, but MANY. During this time, pot was illegal. Also, I didn’t smoke it. I was constantly in a state of fury and terror when I thought about the girls. Finding a pipe led me directly to “what are they doing in their rooms! It’s probably meth next! And FUCK them!”
This series of thoughts would then lead to me taking the pipes, putting them in a paper bag and smashing them with a hammer. It was cheap therapy. It made the girls furious — they would also tell me how much they spent on them as if that would make me feel guilty. It did not make me feel guilty.
I took the bong downstairs and thought about smashing it. I set it on the kitchen counter while I emptied a load of dishes from the dishwasher. As I looked over at it I realized it was really dirty. Who wants that in the kitchen? I started to scrub off the inside but couldn’t reach all the way inside and I had just gotten rid of the babies’ bottle brushes since they started on cups. I thought a moment — dishwasher detergent. I filled the bong with the gel detergent but realized I couldn’t leave it out in the kitchen. I brought it into my bedroom and stuck it in the closet to soak overnight.
That evening, I told him I saw the bong, that it was ridiculous, he absolutely could NOT have a bong in his room. I understand that teens experiment, it was just that the giant bong was too much of a statement for me not to respond. He’s supposedly A.D.D. for christ’s sake! He had recently been diagnosed, and he was supposedly on a new action plan. “OK,” he said. No arguments because he’s basically a genius at dodge and weave.
The next morning, he went to school and I brought out the bong. The gel detergent worked perfectly. The shiny, pristine bong looked great. Pot was still not my thing but it was legal now and I had five little envelopes of it I never managed to try, so what the hell, I had a bong hit.
My son came back from school that afternoon. An hour or so later he came downstairs from his room. “Mom, do you have a sec, I want to talk.” “Yep” says I.
“I want my bong back”
“That’s insane! What mother gives her child a bong??!?”
“What mother keeps her kid’s bong for herself?”
“A thrifty mom?”
“I spent so much money on it!”
“That argument does nothing for me”
“Give it back and I’ll sell it to a friend”
“Sell it to me, then”
“You’re cheap, I’ll get more from a friend”
“You can not have a bong in your room!”
“Because it means you smoke pot in your room. Which means you smoke pot more often than if it wasn’t in your room. And it makes me look bad. Seriously, you need to do well in school! And it’s illegal… for you!”
“OK, how about this. I will keep a 4.0 average and show you proof of this every week if you let me have my bong.”
“This is insane but also very logical.”
“Logic is your thing and I’m not responding to comments about insanity.” said my son.
“Well, I’m only doing this because I care so much about your grades, NOT because I agree with you smoking pot.”
“I will remember that. Where is it?”
I went to my room to go get the bong. My son started laughing.
“You cleaned it. I mean, you really really cleaned it. Who does that??”
“If you tell your sisters that I not only gave you a bong but I cleaned it first they will kill me in cold blood.”
“Totally.” he said.
To this day I have no idea whether the subsequent change in his grades had to do with finally getting help for ADD or letting him have the bong in his room. Jury’s out.
Jessie Glenn attended Reed College in Portland Oregon and started her book publicity company in 2005. She’s working on her debut collection of essays about taboo and motherhood. Teaching publicity at Portland State University in their Masters of publishing program, Jessie also serves as a volunteer treasurer on the board of directors for OHSU’s low income clinic, Richmond Clinic OHSU. Jessie has a blended family including five children with an 18 year age span. Gordon Ramsey likes her Hollandaise.