On parenthood, fighting with our kids, and redemption

Claire McCarthy,MD

My son and I were fighting the other morning on the way to the train.

This is nothing new. I love Zack desperately and am really proud of his accomplishments, but we haven’t been getting along since he came home from his freshman year at college.

He, I think he would tell you, feels misunderstood and constrained. He misses his independence. He misses his friends. He misses his girlfriend. He is annoyed at being asked where he is going. He doesn’t like having to do chores or share space with his parents and four siblings. He really doesn’t like working around our schedules.

I don’t like tripping over dirty dishes and dirty clothes. I don’t like the extra food shopping and dry cleaning, especially when it’s expected rather than requested. I don’t like being late because he’s not ready on time. I get annoyed when he ignores me, and the attitude he cops can be tough to take. Given how much money we are paying for his education, I feel remarkably entitled to gratitude and helpfulness.

So there we were, arguing our way from the parking lot to the subway station, where we got separated while I bought my ticket. When I got down to the platform, a train was pulling away and I didn’t see him anywhere.

He had left without me.

I called him. “I didn’t realize the train was going to leave so quickly,” he said. This was almost plausible; our stop is the end of the line, so we get on whatever train is sitting there and wait for it to leave. But it’s a big train, with lots of cars. If you want to ride with someone, you wait for them before you get on—otherwise they would have trouble finding you. He didn’t want to ride with me.

He had never done something like this before. He never would have.

“I am sad,” I said. “I’d hoped we could talk on the train.” I sounded pathetic. Silence from Zack. “See you later,” I said, and hung up.

I got on the train that was sitting at the platform and sat down. I wanted to cry.

Fighting with our kids feels bad. It feels bad because when our kids do something like leave us behind on a train platform, or hit somebody, or talk back, or lie, or whatever it is that upsets us, we can’t help thinking: are they turning out badly? What did I do wrong?

Because, after all, they are ours to mold and teach. That’s our job as parents: we are supposed to turn our children into responsible, kind, successful adults. It’s not as easy as it sounds, for all sorts of simple and complicated reasons. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling that we should be able to get it right.

“I sat there on the train thinking: Zack isn’t the person I thought he was. I should have seen it and done something. I screwed up.”

Fighting with our kids feels bad, too, because often when we do we behave badly—and we know it. Our anger is justified, of course. But usually when we fight with our kids we are tired, or stressed, or frustrated or just sad—for some other reason that is absolutely not our child’s fault or problem. There is nearly always a calmer, more patient, more loving way of dealing with a child’s misbehavior—but because we’re human, we can’t always pull it off.

I sat there on the train thinking: Zack isn’t the person I thought he was. I should have seen it and done something. I screwed up.

And I screwed up, too, by letting my stress get in the way of my relationship with him. Yes, he’s been annoying. But it has upset me mostly because I’ve got so much going on with work and the other kids. I have reacted more angrily than the situation really warranted.

I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone on the train. I’ll write him an email, I thought. I started composing one on my phone, about how I understand how he feels, how I wish he understood how we feel. The train came to the next station. Lots of people got on; it was crowded, with people moving and jostling around as the train moved forward again. I looked up.

Zack was standing in front of me.

“I got off at the next station so I could find you,” he said.

My heart was so full. I wished he were little again so I could gather him up in my lap and just hold him. My boy was the person I thought he was. And he still loved me.

We talked a little, as much as you can talk on a crowded train. I gave him a big hug when we got off. It felt so much better between us.

I’m not going to say that all has been perfect since. But he is trying. And I am too. Really, that’s all we can do as parents and as children: love with all our hearts, and keep trying to do better. And sometimes, when we do that, we get moments of redemption.