Help me miss my son productively.
January 6, 2011 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Please help me deal with the emotional fallout now that my son has moved out.

After spending a couple of weeks with his usually absent father last summer, my 13-year old son decided he wanted to go live with him out-of-state. Although it just about killed me to do, I let him go spend the school year with his father and have court documents in place that he will return home on a specified date once school ends (it also outlines visitation until then).

Even after four months, I cannot adequately describe the pain I'm in over his absence. It's debilitating and has paralyzed me to the point that I don't even want to get out of bed some days (I have two other children so that's not an option). Here are some of the things that I think bother/worry me the most:

~ That my son will not want to come home this summer. This is more than a worry, this is a very real possibility. He has virtually no supervision where he lives now so he plays video games for 6+ hours a day, education is an afterthought in his current household, etc. He's got it made where he is, and has already made comments to me about staying there. Should he decide he doesn't want to come home at the end of the school year, my ex has already informed me he will take me to court for custody. I have absolutely no doubt that he will, I don't have the resources to fight it and, even if I did, forcing my son to come home would do more harm than good.

~ That my other two children may want to move in with their father and brother when they get a bit older and/or find out what a great time he's having.

~ That my son will continue to devolve into the mean-spirited misogynist he appears to be turning into. When he left my home, my son was a sweet and fun-loving young man with a heart of gold. He now lives in a household where women are routinely disrespected, mean-spirited humor is the norm, and values revolve around "what's in it for me." Over the course of the last few months, I've been horrified at some of the things he's said to me when he visits, the way he conducts himself on Facebook, etc. Now, please understand that I know teenagers are a work-in-progress and not always likable under the best of circumstances. However, without a hand to guide you, teen assholes grow up to be adult assholes.

I understand that I (nor you) can predict the future so there's little sense in worrying about what might or might not happen come summer or whatever. I threw those things in there because they're contributing to my overall unhappiness.

My biggest issue is that I can't cope with his absence and the possibility (probability?) I'll never get to live with him again. I can't come to grips with the fact that I'm missing so much in and of his life (He just got his first "girlfriend" -- and I found out about it on Facebook). I miss him so much that it's eating me alive.

I do all the right things: call, write, email, keep in touch, have regular visitation, but it's not helping. I'm absolutely shattered by his absence, to the point that I'd rather not be connected to him on Facebook because comments like "My life is so awesome!!" kill me by inches.

Yes, I want my son to be happy, but I am (maybe selfishly?) devastated. Please don't lecture me about all the other non-custodial parents out there going through the same thing. I understand I'm not a special snowflake in that regard. I'm having trouble coming to grips with the fact that the son I expected to raise full-time is now unexpectedly gone.

I know it's not uncommon for children to want to try living with the other parent. If your child went through this and you let them go, did they come back? How did you cope with them being gone? I'm at a loss here, MeFites.
posted by actuallyiam to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If your son is in a poor environment, I think it is your duty to make him come home whether he wants to or not. How are his grades, for example?

Document, document, document.

While I am at it, sending you a virtual hug. You need it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:21 PM on January 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Oh, and it's totally normal you are feeling this way. Even if you had him home in an intact home this is the stage when they start separating from you and not telling you everything. It's hard.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:22 PM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

This happened in my family. Well, not the long distance stuff so much, but definitely the thing where one parent requires less and teenage boys would prefer to live in that house rather than the house that involves actual discipline. And it was not good.

I don't have any advice to give about custody and court and legal issues.

But this really shouldn't be about what any of your kids want. It should be about what's in their best interests. All this catering to which parent they'd rather live with for cosmetic reasons like "there are no rules at dad's house"? No.

I will also take somewhat of a devil's advocate tack, here. Is it your grief talking when you say that your son isn't in school, plays video games 6+ hours a day, etc? Or is that really the actual situation? My dad certainly was no disciplinarian and let a lot of things slide because he wanted to be the fun dad that the kids preferred to live with. But nobody was actually being neglected. It was a bad situation, but everyone emerged with high school diplomas intact. However, to this day my mother loves to blame every problem any of us faces on the fact that my dad did not parent the way she saw fit.

Don't be this parent. If you have evidence that your kid is being neglected, isn't attending school, grades are suffering, etc - document that evidence and use it in the event that you end up in family court. But don't be the resentful parent who assumes that the ex is ruining the kids forever, just because you wish they were with you more.
posted by Sara C. at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

First, I understand how hard it is to have that huge change in your life, and the hole that it creates. 2 years ago my kids went to live with their dad. The first 6 months they were gone, I wanted to curl up and cry every day, and did for many of them. Odds are pretty good that the move is permanent, and it's only just feeling okay for me.

That said, if they were in the situation you are describing, I'd be documenting everything- especially given that you have a specific timeline outlined. Make sure you are keeping track of anything.

My boys are not the same kids they were when they left, and it's hard. I cope by putting one foot on front of the other- and therapy. Make sure you take Carr of yourself.
posted by Zophi at 5:45 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

*care. Ty autocorrect.
posted by Zophi at 5:45 PM on January 6, 2011

Agree with St. Alia, grades are the most important thing we use in the law office I work in to modify custody, other than drugs, but you didn't say that was a problem. Document, document, if this is the way you want to go, if your case is in California the process isn't really too hard, elsewhere I don't really know, try to find a legal access center. However, if I was your child I would seriously hate you like omg forever, and talk about it constantly on facebook, essentially expect some pretty nasty behavior from your son for quite a while. Unfortunately for you, unless you can prove being with his father is very detrimental, the court will probably not want to go against your son's wishes as he is old enough to decide for himself, or rather too old for the court to control easily.
posted by boobjob at 5:46 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree about documentation. This is a tough one - both my stepbrother and I made very strong "I don't want to live with you, living with so-and-so is more fun" choices off and on from, well, the dates of the divorces forward (for him, that started at I think four; I was three when my swaps started happening.) Kids are really good at picking what's worst for them and pretty much not caring about it; even stuff like "let's move to Canada and not tell your dad and not bother with customs and immigration stuff either" can seem like an awesome idea when you're 14. None of our parents ever used lawyers; there were times when they should have (it would have made everyone a lot more responsible.)

You should be keeping a close eye on his grades and school status reports, by the way, and also get copies of information from doctors/dentists/etc. Third party documentation is the best kind. And, you have a right to know that stuff, even if you're not the custodial parent.
posted by SMPA at 5:55 PM on January 6, 2011

I can't come to grips with the fact that I'm missing so much in and of his life (He just got his first "girlfriend" -- and I found out about it on Facebook).

To be fair, that's probably how you would have found out about it anyway. Most of the teenagers I've known (myself included) weren't all that keen on discussing romantic relationships with their parents.
posted by ripley_ at 5:56 PM on January 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

If he was in boarding school or AFS or a summer abroad program, you'd miss big parts of his life, as well. You can miss big parts of a teenager's life when he lives in your house and sits down at the table every night. At some point, and for you this is sooner rather than later, the kid cuts the cord. He could have had a GF for months, and you might not have known, even if he lived with you.

I think rather than trying figure out how much you're missing, you need to get on with your life with the kids at home--if nothing else, try to have more fun, and maybe his sibs will let him know what he's missing out on. Yes, school is important, but if you're always harping on how degenerate life with dad is, you're going to turn him away even more.

However, without a hand to guide you, teen assholes grow up to be adult assholes.

And sometimes they don't. If you want to have a relationship with him, I think you're better off keeping communication open, no nagging, no prying, no pointing out how mean-spirited his jokes are, and all the rest. Of course, he's not allowed to treat you badly when you're together. I'd wait and be patient, and not dwell on the kid you thought you knew.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:08 PM on January 6, 2011

I think you're right that to try to force him to start living with you again against his will would do more harm than good. He'll resent it and resent you and that will probably create more distance between the two of you.

This probably isn't what you want to hear, but I think you need to let go. Accept that you are not in control. Make your peace with the fact that he's (more than likely) not going to come back. Accept the fact that--though this is a good deal earlier than you expected--he's following the natural trajectory of all children growing up. As time goes on, he is only going to make more and more of his own decisions. He's becoming an adult--which is a process that takes years--and part of that process is that he gets to choose who he is and how he acts. You can't reverse that process.

Now, of course, that's way easier said than done. And of course you're going to have a lot of feelings about it. I'd hate it too if a child I raised seemed to be becoming a misogynist. But you know what? If he's bound and determined to grow up as a misogynist, you can't stop him.

It sounds to me like you're going through a grieving process, which is harder and more complicated because it's unexpected and not under your control. It would have been hard anyway if he moved out at eighteen to go to college but I'm sure this feels worse for multiple reasons. You must feel rejected and probably angry and like he doesn't appreciate all that you've given him. Maybe that's true. I think you need to explore and express all of your feelings around this. Give yourself the space to do that. But don't feel like you need to express it all to him or to your husband. Do you have other people you can talk to about all of this?

Re-reading your question, it seems like your main focus is how do you cope with missing him so much? I think a few things might work. Make sure to spend time with other people that bring you joy, and keep doing the things that make you happy on a daily basis, even if it sometimes feels empty. Talk about how you're feeling with people that you trust, people that make you feel safe and accepted. It really sounds like you're having the kind of acute grief reaction that many people have when someone close to them dies--and in a way, your image of the relationship between you and your son has died. So maybe look for resources that address coping strategies for that type of loss?
posted by overglow at 6:24 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why not send care packages? As you would to a child going to school abroad or some such. You might feel better assembling them, and while I don't mean to suggest bribery, it would keep a very nice version of you planted in his mind. At that age a carefully considered present meant a phenomenal amount to me. A just-right book, the perfect sweater; once a set of sheets really touched me.

This is a hard spot, parenting-wise, and you have my condolences. Generally I think the way for a single parent to go is: stable happy one-parent home, sharp focus on the stability -- but you're backed into a corner a bit here, and perhaps you want to consider some adult-ish dialogue with your son about how he is growing up, how he has become accustomed to a different set of circumstances (tr.: six hours of video games, etc), and how you will have to change things in your home to reflect that (tr.: loosen up rules on video games, etc). And mean it. Making your home's rules slack is not ideal, but usually there are things that can be altered without much harm... If the choice is: son elsewhere, chips in front of the teevee for dinner and six hours of games, or son at your house, proper meal with you and three hours of video games, perhaps three hours of games is the desirable path when looking at the bigger picture.

Plenty of thirteen-year-olds are shits and it does not mean they stay that way; try to disassociate the jerk behaviour from your ex as the odds are good they are not related.
posted by kmennie at 7:06 PM on January 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

13-year-old kids are idiots. Who cares what they want? My answer is *don't* deal with the emotional fallout -- don't let a teenager decide who he lives with, especially if it's not in his best interests. You don't necessarily need to hire a lawyer to have that fight.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:10 PM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Just chiming in with a few others here - having been the thirteen year old in some ways: Whilst it's always *super* tempting for one parent to ascribe any negative change in a child's behaviour with the nefarious works of the other parent, the reality is always more complex. Most of those behaviour patterns you're describing - computer games, misogyny etc - are actually pretty typical for teenage boys, and the fact he is would probably be displaying exactly the same attitudes if he was living at home with you. Whilst it's easy for parents to think they are the centre of their childrens' worlds - as vice versa - the reality is, especially when teenage years hit, this really isn't the case. There are a zillion other things influencing your son in addition to you and his father; don't reduce his world down to two parts, it will make everybody unhappy.

Also, don't assume that your view of your ex-spouse is necessarily more accurate/justified than your son's. Speaking for myself, post-divorce my mother was literally the last person who could give any kind of rational assessment of my father's character or habits. I didn't stay with him full time in the end, but I would have if I thought he needed me more. Maybe your son think his dad needs him more right now, you never know, and it's unlikely he would tell you anyway.

Regard this the same way you regard your child going to school. You only have a vague - and bias - idea of what's happening to him at school on any given day based on his reports, but you don't sweat that too much. You focus on what's happening outside of school. Don't try to control your son when he's at your father's, work on your relationship with him on its own terms.

If it's really killing you, consider, if you're able, moving closer to be with son and father. My father actually did the opposite - in some ways because he needed to for himself, and I haven't judged him for it, but I would have seen a lot more of him if he hadn't moved away. His fervent. pleas for me to come live with him away from all the rest of my family and friends rang a little false when he had no problem going away for his needs.

Also, concentrate on living for yourself a little bit. Post divorce, things are rough, identities - yours and childrens - are in flux. You're not just a parent, your a person too. Spend some time getting to know and prioritise that person. :) Best of luck, don't guilt-trip your kids into visiting and never talk about their father in any but the most neutral or complimentary terms. :)
posted by smoke at 7:33 PM on January 6, 2011 [11 favorites]

I was the kid in that situation, so I don't know how to address the parent's perspective, but I can hopefully still say a few helpful things. Do always have your home be a warm, welcoming environment in case he ever wants to come back. Don't repeatedly ask him to come back; teens resist by nature; just make sure he knows he still has a place there. The other parent's house might seem really fun right now but you never know how he might feel in the future. You don't have to modify your house or rules, of course. It's not a competition. In fact, it's probably better that he knows that nothing has changed at your house and it's just as comfortable and familiar as ever.

Second, do go forward with enjoying your life and your other kids. It's what's best for you and what's best for them. (I know you know this - your question was how? Don't know.) Your son wants you to be happy and shouldn't find himself feeling guilty for letting you down. Do realize that his decision may have nothing to do with you. At that age, kids don't think about how their actions may affect their parents' emotional states, which frankly, is as it should be. Anyone who has had to parent their parent at a young age knows that's too much for 13-year-old to handle.

Do act pleasant around him, even when you want to say, "Your dad doesn't deserve you." That backfires every time. I'm not suggesting that you act fake-pleasant, but just that you do what you can to be happy, and that will shine through in your interactions with your son. Now, I don't know you and this is not meant to be directed at you personally, but I just want to say that no kid wants to go live with a parent who is bitter or hands out guilt-trips. (Again, most likely that's not you, this is just for posterity, okay?)

Your son is very, very lucky to have a mom who loves and misses him so much. I can almost guarantee that he is unaware of his good fortune. Someday he will understand.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:10 PM on January 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

this actually did happen in my family... my cousin at about age 11 or 12 decided he wanted to live with his dad. As I recall, after a few months he got really sick, and when he recovered realized that "home" was with his mom.

Anyway, you have all my sympathy. If it helps, remember that he would have been leaving the house anyway in just a few short years, and concentrate on building a relationship with him that will last beyond his turning 18. Unconditional love, respect, etc. And by all means let him know you miss him, but don't cry or guilt-trip when you talk to him, as terribly hard is it to refrain. It will kill your relationship.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:09 PM on January 6, 2011

How? Well I cried, I fought, I collapsed, I went to therapy. I talked to friends. I went on retreats and got a spiritual advisor. I learned how to separate myself as a human being from the sons who had always been more than life itself to me. I learned how to let go of my need of them. At the same time, I learned to bite my lip and suck it up and do what a parent is supposed to do. I did not interrogate them; I did not badmouth their father; I respected their boundaries, insisted that they respect mine (wouldn't allow them to repeat to me ugly things their father said) and I stated and reiterated my values and expectations regarding behavior and education, etc., even when it meant they would close the door on the only contact I would have with them for a long time. I tried to make my house as welcoming as possible even though it was never going to be like it had been and I didn't have the money or the bells and whistles their father offered. I had to learn more than I ever imagined possible about parenting. It took every ounce of courage and support and help I could gather and there were years of effort. I had to continue to love them and be the best parent I could, even if they never came back to me. That hurt a lot but that was my task.

I feel your pain for it was acutely mine. All I know for sure is that they are going to grow up and they are going to go away from their parents. They are not "yours;" they do not belong to you; they are their own person. What you are asking involves many different kinds of work but the first job is to let go of your need of your child. Without that step, no progress is possible.
posted by Anitanola at 10:08 PM on January 6, 2011 [15 favorites]

I can't imagine a more infuriating situation for a mother to be in. I've not been a parent, but since you're limited to tools of persuasion, I second using strategies of openness and measured expectation with your son, along with keeping rigorous records. I don't know, but guess, that moving nearer your son might make a difference to a judge, if it came to that.

Is there even a remote possibility that you can begin to work towards building some kind of dialogue with your ex? Clearly there's an adversarial relationship - I can see why you're no longer with him. But *if* this is even theoretically possible, it might help with future mediation. Either smoothing it, or bolstering your case.

Also, and I can't tell from what you've written, whether or not your son, under whatever hormonal or other influence, has come to believe that you're to blame for the break-up, or that you've demonized his father. If you suspect this is happening, showing good will towards his dad might score some points with your son. (Awful that I've even written that.) Alternatively, if your ex is a complete jagoff, collecting some body of evidence might be easier.

I'm only thinking of my brothers, who in their teen years defended my father beyond all reason. My mother did her best not to badmouth him around them, but even stating facts ignited their passions. To be fair, they probably sensed her disgust for him. And really wanted a 'dad'. My mom was a nervous wreck for much of her marriage and was fairly confused for a good while afterwards. I'm sure my brothers failed to connect her behaviour with what my father was doing.

So I'm thinking working on yourself will help you, and might help things with your son. And I agree with people who say you should do what you can to avoid suggesting that he, or his leaving, is to blame for your sadness. Guilt will turn to resentment. He'll feel better around you if it's all sweetness and light.

For now, maybe divert big-picture thoughts towards focussing on whatever process is most likely to change the situation (lawsuit; mediation; talking to ex; moving). And on the little moments you can get with your son. (And, importantly, with your other children.)

There must be some kind of local organization that can help, or other non-custodial parents you can share experiences (and tactics; and knowledge of various systems) with. I hope you find them.

I'm so sorry you're going through this.
posted by nelljie at 10:39 PM on January 6, 2011

I was also the kid in this situation. When I was 15 I announced that I wanted to go live with my dad. My mom let me, even though she knew exactly what kind of person my dad was. What kind of person was he? Well, he was ALSO a 15-year-old (not biologically). He let me smoke pot all day long (his pot -- I didn't even have to buy my own drugs), I never, ever had to go to school, my best friend moved in with me and all of our punk-rock friends hung out there all day long watching cable and drinking my very wealthy step-mother's scotch, we'd go on trips to New York and stay at the Waldorf-Astoria and do coke with photographers from Time magazine, he'd let me drive his Delorean (this was 1985) even though I was stoned out of my mind and had no license and use his car phone even though my spindly 15-year-old arms were too weak to lift the gigantic plastic headset, he instructed the maid to buy me a carton of Marlboro reds each week when she went to the store.

Contrast this with my mother, who compared to this was that Miss Hannigan lady from the Annie orphanage. Yeah, yeah, she always had time to listen to me and remembered things about me and was truly interested in what I had to say and always kept her word and was also not a floridly insane junkie. But she also EXPECTED so much out of me, and held me accountable. Dad never did.

So I moved, and she let me go, which now that I'm 40 she tells me was the hardest thing she's ever had to do. Six months of living with my dad taught me that my dad didn't care what I did because he didn't care, period. I threw my Marlboros and my Joy Division records in a trash bag, called my mother, and met her at the end of dad's wife's long driveway. She took me back in without requiring a word of explanation (she didn't need one; she'd been married to the man and knew better than I), and I started trying to act like a normal person again.

She saved my life, I am sure. Not just by coming to get me out of there, but by letting me go. I asked her recently how she could have done that. How could she knowingly put her 15-year-old kid in this situation, where she KNEW I'd be doing tons of drugs and having no supervision, actually been seen in public in a Delorean, etc., etc. She said she trusted that she had taught me right from wrong and that I had learned it, that she trusted that I was a good person and would eventually make the correct choice for myself. She said she knew if this WASN'T true it wouldn't matter where I lived. I'd end up just like him anyway. She said she knew enough about me to know that if she denied my request to move she might win the battle and lose the war, and she was definitely right about that one. She would have made my dad a persecuted HERO in my eyes, and it would have taken way longer than 6 months for me to see reality in a way I never, ever forgot.

I'm not saying this will happen with your son. Kids these days, and all. But it is possible. Very, very possible that your son will realize that what he needs the most is love. Keep giving that to him.

And yeah, document everything.
posted by staggering termagant at 9:51 AM on January 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Fight like hell for your son. An old boyfriend of mine had a similar situation to staggering termagant's. He's dead now.
posted by Melismata at 1:46 PM on January 7, 2011

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