An Emotional Impasse

It’s a while since I have mentioned Young Donald – a couple of years probably. He left home some years ago and lives in another state. This was a strange adjustment for me to make. One moment, I was excitedly anticipating the arrival of a baby, one that I’d gone to considerable effort and expense to conceive and in the blink of an eye, eighteen years had passed and he was off to face the world on his own.

There was a brief period where he returned home from a few months, but then he was gone again, and our contact was limited to very occasional visits – either me to Perth or him to Adelaide. He always worked over Christmas so that special time was not shared anymore, nor his birthday which followed a few days later. I was always sad that we were apart at this time, but had to accept it.

One of the important lessons in becoming a parent is that we don’t create clones of ourselves; rather we give birth to separate human beings, with their own views, personalities, attitudes, hopes and dreams.  As Gibran said, ‘You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts’. While we are alike in many ways, we are also different in so many others. That, I had to learn to accept.

There have been frequent phone calls over the period of separation. Sometimes it has been to ask advice – how to cook something, what to buy, or some such. The calls that I liked best were those that were simply to have a chat. Not that they were frequent. Usually he was in the car and calling to fill in the time until he reached a destination.

I couldn’t escape from the feeling though that there was a growing distance between us; a separation over which I had no control and couldn’t breach. What caused me the most angst was that it seemed to be an indifference. He was moving onto his new life, one which didn’t really involve me to any great degree.

Gradually, I could see that his ideas and perceptions of the world were changing. Although I’d tried to bring him up with an appreciation of social justice issues, and values which reflected a fair go for all, his interpretations on events around us were developing differently to mine. This meant that we frequently fell into arguments, and when I spoke to him on the phone, I needed to have other topics up my sleeve so that I could quickly move us onto safer ground when it seemed that we were reaching an emotional impasse.

I was dismayed to see these views evolve, but could only surmise that they arose from his current circumstances. He has been living with other young men in shared households and most of them are online gamers. Their interaction is with others of their ilk, and I suspect that many of the views perpetuated in the online forums are conservative and misogynist. His work environment is likewise a manual and male-dominated environment, not known for intellectual debate.

Now we have reached not a point of no-return, but are currently estranged. Part of the problem lies in communicating electronically, where issues and meanings can become distorted. I don’t wish to detail the issue that gave rise to this breakdown in our relationship, but what I thought was a discussion he interpreted differently and responded with astonishing vitriol and hatefulness. He also told me to f*ck off and not speak to him again. So I haven’t.

It was such an inappropriate response to what I had disclosed to him. If it hadn’t been for those final words, I would have attempted to salvage the situation but my heart is shattered into a thousand little pieces. I can’t let the situation remain indefinitely, but am not at the point of mending bridges either. I’m not sure if he even understands how totally inappropriate his response was, but there is another thing that worries me. He has little emotional support. Whatever differences we had, I was still at the end of the phone for him, and now he has no one. I worry about his emotional resilience and ability to cope on his own. Young men don’t always do well with emotionally negotiating their way through life and when you have a person who habitually sees the negative rather than the positive in a situation, that scenario is magnified.

Although he should apologise, I am not sure that he will or will fully understand why he should. I still need to resolve what I will do and when, but until that time, the night hides my tears. He is still my son.

 

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Exasperation

Received a letter from Donald’s school yesterday to say that he has been withdrawn from one of his Year 12 subjects due to lack of attendance.  He has submitted assignments but has not maintained the required attendance.  This happened some months ago also (same subject) and I talked the teacher into taking him back.  I thought that he was attending classes now but clearly that wasn’t the case.

I am so cross, as for the sake of sitting through only a handful of classes, he has blown a year’s study.   I have done my bit for him in relation to this subject so if he wants to salvage the situation it is now up to him.  When I asked him for an explanation, he said he thought that as long as he submitted his work (all past the due dates of course) then he could get away without attending the classes, which he found too boring.  Der!!!  Like regulations don’t apply to him!  I doubt that he will get around to approaching his teacher as he doesn’t really stir himself in these situations, and always has an excuse as to why the teacher was unreasonable and probably wouldn’t listen to him anyway.  I hope that he surprises me though.

*******

Three days later.  I left this post in draft form as I have had such a busy week.  Came home tonight to find another letter from the school, referring to inadequate attendance for another subject – one which he is supposed to enjoy.  Daisy also attends this class and I thought that they were both attending together – the one subject for which they were maintaining attendance.  Just as well he is at work tonight as I would probably say things that I might regret later.

I am torn on treatment of this issue.  One view is to just let him crash and burn.  Donald must learn his own lessons and then figure out how to extricate himself from the bog hole in which he finds himself.  Another part of me says that this simply is not good enough and he needs to man up and learn some self-discipline and develop some moral fibre and backbone.  He is so feckless.  I should make him finish the last term of school and attend every day that he should (how I would do that I don’t quite know).

I have tried very hard not to be a helicopter parent, though probably out of frustration at his continual lack of progress over the years, I have helped him out more than I should.  That means he hasn’t confronted consequences enough.  When we discuss the implications of his actions (or inaction) Donald has a tendency not to accept what I say and to only believe in his own truths, even though they are based on heresay or his own limited experience and un-researched opinion.

As an implication for me (a sole parent) I must support him longer when he repeats school, accepting the resultant financial cost.  There has also been the time and input requirement as I have monitored deadlines, edited assignments and encouraged, pushed and cajoled.  Now we are facing another year of this process.  Ideally, he would have finished Year 12 and would be embarking on a character-forming Gap Year, as he is not ready for any form of post-secondary study.

I am experiencing frustration at the sheer stupidity of it – for the sake of a few hours sitting in class, he has blown a whole year’s worth of study.  If I express these opinions of course, then I am imposing my views or expectations on him and making his life miserable.  At least I give him something to complain to Daisy about.

Donald has totally embraced Daisy and her needs.  His life has been adapted around hers and she seems to fill a basic need that he has to be needed and to be supportive.  I know that this is understandable for a young person on the cusp of adulthood but it appears to me that he is subjugating his needs for hers.

It makes me start to ask questions of myself.  Has our two-person family unit left a gaping hole in his life and emotional well-being?  If Donald had grown up with two parents, would he have had more self-assurance and confidence in himself?  Would he have developed more emotional resilience?  These are impossible questions for me to answer, but they lurk at me through sleepless nights.

Sailing Down the Murray

Resulting from an impulse Cudo Voucher purchase, this morning I took Father for a breakfast cruise in a paddle boat on the River Murray.  The breakfast was a bit average, but it’s the experience that one pays for rather than the food.  We received a glass of local sparking wine at the start of our meal (pleasant but sweet), but were told that coffee is not included and must be paid for at $5.00 a mug.

Just as we were about to board the boat, the sole partially detached itself from my right shoe and I flapped my way up the gangplank.  These shoes, a beautifully comfortable pair of Rockport walkers, belonged to my mother.  After her death in 2003, they found their way into my wardrobe and for the first time since leaving school I found myself wearing black lace-ups.  I have derived an enormous amount of comfort from those shoes, both physical and emotional   I think that I even wrote a poem in the early days titled ‘Walking in my Mother’s Shoes’.

Ever a sandal wearer in both winter and summer, it was a hesitant transition to these shoes but now I love them.  I was adamant therefore that when the soles wore out, they had to be replaced.  Re-soling is a tricky exercise and in my sad experience often not a success.  Slicing off the old sole is tricky and bonding a new sole in its place likewise problematic.  It frequently separates from the shoe again as the bonding does not hold under the stresses of walking.  Frustrating when the upper is still in such good condition.  Perhaps the shoes should be discarded but they are one of my last tangible links to my mother.

The river is relishing the break of the drought, but still flows gently.  As the Captain told us several times, it is the slowest flowing river in the driest continent.  The banks are lined with Willows, planted by early river boat captains, who used them as delineators of the river bank.  In times of flood, when the river spread sideways for huge distances, the trees marked the deep river channel so that boats which had ventured into new waterways could find their way back to the river and the deep water.

The boat was smaller than I expected.  Somehow, the mention of paddle boat brought to mind an image of a massive paddle steamer, playing the Murray tourist trade with faded genteel luxury.  The boat on which we found ourselves was much smaller – intimate even and built in the late 1970s.  It operates seven days a week servicing the tourist and corporate trade, with the Captain and his wife making their home on the lower deck.

It was misting with rain on the river, the day a mixture of greys and murky greens.  The brighter colour of the Willows provided contrast and relief.  Father gave me a potted analysis of the geological history of the cliffs as we passed, analysisng the sandwiched stratas.  Also the history of the river going back pillions of years when perhaps it followed a different path.  In those days, Australia was still connected to Antarctica.

We passed an old house on the cliff top, two straggly looking palm trees framing the view from the river.  We were told that at the time of Federation, the government gave two palm trees to the houses that lived along the river at that time, to be planted in commemoration of the great event.

I excitedly pointed out the high voltage transmission lines that straddled the river as we glided underneath.  Not many people get excited about these giant-like metallic towers that dominate  the landscape in stark silhouette.  In my day job, I acquire land for substations and easements for transmission lines like this and I have learnt to appreciate the geometry and strength of those towers.

I have seen Scandinavian designs of towers in the form of a line of giant men, striding over the landscape and holding the wires aloft with their arms.  Brilliant.  Each tower depicts a different phase of the stride.  I hope they get built some day.  There can still be art form in utility structures.

We watched the river birds, their take-offs and landings and discussed the merits of various river-front houses and houseboats.  We passed houseboats with clotheslines and dog kennels, Australian flags, solar panels and mini wind turbines.  Some were obviously occupied by permanent residents rather than holiday renters.

I nearly cancelled this trip, thinking that father would not be well enough.  He has perked up significantly after his recent hospitalisation with Serum Sickness and the severe allergic reaction is abating.  The Asbestosis is apparent in the breathy response to any exertion,  but he is stoic about that.  Stoic is one of the terms that I used to describe him in my Memorial Reflection blog.  I’m glad that I didn’t cancel and that we got to do the trip together.

Father’s Day 2011

There have been fifty eight Father’s Day celebrations for me.  They have slid past in recent years with little more fanfare than a box of chocolates.  With the intensity of the self-absorbed, it is easy to overlook the significance beyond the day itself.  I spent last Sunday on Eyre Peninsula on a work trip.  Sitting in the sun in Kimba, away from city distractions gave me the space and licence for reflection.

It is said that you only truly appreciate what you have when it’s gone.  Well father is not gone yet, but he is 95, and he has also just been diagnosed with asbestosis.  Both of these factors make it smart to review what I have now rather than later.

My father’s life has spanned truly remarkable social, cultural and technological changes.  He was born during World War I, and was a conscientious objector in World War 2.  (He subsequently accepted the call-up with the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.)  He was born to a single mother, a situation that brought shame and disgrace to her and her family.  Years later, I gave birth through choice to a child on my own, with that grandchild being welcomed by my father with great pride and joy.

Although my father did not have the opportunity to finish primary school, all of his daughters attained a post-graduate tertiary education.   He remembers seeing the first aircraft fly over the country town in which he was living.  Now I have a pilot’s licence and his family treats international jet travel as akin to catching a bus.    He is not very tech-savvy, but he does have an email account and a mobile phone.

Those things that I have described are the trappings of his external environment.  Other changes have come from within.  He grew up in an era when sons were everything, and he assumed that he would have a family of sons too, instead of the four daughters that he sired.  He has never totally overcome the bitterness of this disappointment but has learnt to embrace his daughters and their accomplishments.  He still voices his disappointment in only having three grandchildren – hardly the dynasty he dreamed of.

Dad grew up in an environment that although within Australia’s egalitarian society, was still class-driven.  His mother was firmly of the view that you could not step outside your station in life.  This was no doubt reinforced by her time working as a domestic servant in Adelaide as she struggled to support herself and her child.

Perhaps some of those early experiences stimulated his political awakening, for as a young man he joined the Eureka Youth League and later the Communist Party.  He developed a strong sense of justice and fair play.  For example, he opposed funding for private schools on the basis that this money should be directed towards state-based education.  Having missed out on the education that he had craved, he was adamant that the state should provide the best education possible to the general public, and of course without fees.

My early memories are of a dad who was tall, who was clever, who had black hair and clear blue eyes and a charm that he plied with the ladies.  Osteoporosis and age have taken their toll on the height, the hair and they eyes, but he still likes to turn on the charm.  He was never a man’s man, and he had more male acquaintances than mates.  Neither a drinker, a smoker or a sporting man, he was not comfortable in blokey masculine company that was driven by those interests.

He loved exploring ideas however or scientific concepts.  His information was gleaned from extensive reading and listening to the ABC radio.  It was a self-education that was broader than the formal education that many of his cohorts received.

So what sort of Dad was he?  Unconventional – definitely unconventional.  After my birth, my mother was told she would not have any more children (not correct).  The second of what were then two girls, I was not the boy he desperately wanted.  So he made do with me instead.  He took me to work with him from when I was a pre-schooler onwards, and later my younger sisters as well.  He was determined to teach us the handyman skills that he deemed necessary.

Working with him, we were also the gophers, the fetch and carry people.  He was a contractor in those days and was paid by output rather than by the hour.  I didn’t realise it at the time but we did make his task a bit easier by attending to the set-up and breakdown tasks.  I didn’t enjoy the instruction however, as his style was to lecture, while we were required to stand and watch his demonstrations obediently and attentively.  Not fun at all.

Working with him was also the main avenue of spending any time with him as he worked most days and had little time for ‘playing’.  He never attended our school or sporting events, and of course never followed sporting activities himself.  He didn’t go fishing or cook family BBQs.  All that was quite foreign to him.  Of course he didn’t have any example of such parenting styles from his own childhood either.  A step father came on the scene when Dad was around six, but these were the Depression years, and from what I understand, family times were fairly depressed as well.  He did enjoy camping, with a more Spartan style than commonly favoured today.  Camping would have been a regular event if he could have managed it and he was disappointed that as my sisters and I grew older, we were less and less interested.  He was sure that this would not have been the case if we had been boys instead of girls.

He did play Chinese Checkers though, using a board made by interns when he was sent by the army to a camp based at Loveday in South Australia during the latter years of World War 2.  He painted Quondong seeds to use as counters.  We played many games with that set.  We also made things with Meccano, played Pick-Up Sticks and listened to the radio.  No TV in our house during our school years.  We also read lots – books or papers.  Avid readers, all of us.  Dad soaked up information and education from these sources and would discuss it with anyone who would sit still long enough to listen.  It has to be said though that his form of discussion leant more towards lecturing than a mutual exchange of ideas.

Resulting from his years of political activism, he also has an ASIO file.  I ordered a copy of it a few years ago under Freedom of Information legislation, getting the details also that applied to my mother.  By coincidence, my parents were visiting when the papers arrived in the post.   We all read, astonished over our cups of tea.  The insignificant detail that had been deemed suitable for recording and filing was almost laughable, except that it indicated that people in our neighbourhood or community had been interviewed at some stage to collate the personal and inane information.

For instance, my mother had attended a cake decorating class, organised by women within their political circle.  That was funny but another example was a little sad.  A neighbour, a refugee from a war-torn eastern block country, had approached my parents to act as referees on his application for Australian Citizenship.  I believe they also helped him with filling in the forms.  This association was seen as suspicious and was thoroughly investigated for sinister connections.  I wonder how it affected the poor man’s application?

Although Dad was born into and brought up in impoverished circumstances, and lived for many of his formative years in rural areas, he is a very well-spoken man.  He has often been thought to be English, but on his mother’s side at least, is an Australian of several generations.

His opinions in early life though were typical of that era.  Women were the home-makers and he expected that his daughters would be also.  A man needed sons of course with whom to achieve the important things in life and to preserve the family integrity and name.  He was very unsophisticated and unschooled in the niceties of social engagement.  He needed little in life in the way of material possessions, and had little understanding of those who did.

His sense of home decorating was Spartan and make-do.  This was to give my mother a lot of grief, as she yearned for more creature comforts and despaired of father’s habit of dumping furniture and bits and pieces that he could see no further use for on the back verandah or in one of his many sheds, where they gradually deteriorated through exposure and neglect.  In exasperation and frustration at the backyard clutter and detritus, mother referred to him as an old Steptoe.  The concept of a neat and tidy back yard that could be used for socializing and family entertainment was quite foreign to him and still is.

He has never been a drinker, a smoker or a gambler, though I believe he did smoke the occasional pipe in his twenties.  When Dad first started working, he automatically gave all his pay to his mother.  Later, when he was married, he handed over his pay to my mother, who was the financial controller of the household.  It never occurred to him to be either mean or precious in relation to his earnings.  Not one to spend money flippantly, if ever I were in need of financial assistance, he would do what he could to help and has often offered.

It has only been during this last year that Dad has stopped trying to do household maintenance tasks for me, as he has always felt that he should look after his daughters.  With both knees replaced and both hips too, thanks to arthritis, he would still try to get up on my roof to inspect the gutters or whatever.  I learnt to keep quiet about chores that needed doing.  It was easier not to let him know than to try to stop him from ‘assisting’.  I guess that there are different ways that people say ‘I love you.’  Dad’s not a vocal man in that sense, but can belt it out with a hammer and nails.

Dashed Again

I got up early this morning so that I could get some quick supermarket shopping done before work.  That was when I discovered that young Donald was not in his bed and my car was not in the driveway.  There were no guesses really as to where he was – with girlfriend Daisy Duck.  Donald and Daisy are joined at the hip and together are failing their Year 12 in spectacular fashion.  Neither has any practical ambition, not one that actually entails focus and work anyway and all they want to do is spend every waking and every sleeping moment together.  Daisy often is sad or ‘depressed’ or is having fights with her mother and at these times, Donald goes running.  I assume that this is also what happened last night.  In my car.

He had left his computer running so I took the opportunity to check out his Face Book page to see what he has been up to lately that perhaps I ought to know about.  Yes, I admit it.  I was snooping.  Donald is 17 and although he feels that he is akin to an adult and wants associated freedoms etc it is a case of all rights and no responsibilities.  There is a fair amount of self-obsessed immaturity.  At this stage of his development and while I am fully responsible for him, I do feel it appropriate to have some idea of what he is up to and with whom.

I was interested, no make that disappointed to read that a couple of weeks ago when there was a major incident and he left home for 10 days that he was engaged in a discussion with friends on what had happened.  It was a very general discussion but the gist of it was that you focus on what you want, regardless of parent attitude.  You then keep pushing and pushing and no matter what the parental response you keep pushing back until eventually you will get your own way.

I wish that he was so focussed about other aspects of his life.  It has clarified for me the his strategy that I basically understood, but having it spelt out like that is still a bit in-your-face.  To add to my displeasure of course is the fact that he took the car without permission, and this morning I had to use the motor scooter instead of the car on my shopping trip.

I have also just had an email from one of his teachers indicating that he is not putting the effort in and much of what he has told me about his requirements in this subject are not accurate.  Misinformation though to be fair, he often gets confused about requirements and does not clarify when he is confused. So not happy.

I realise that I have to just let go of this child and let him crash and burn all by himself and wear the consequences but it is so hard to see your child slide into the mire of their own stupidity.  Interested in how others have reacted in similar circumstances.