I am looking up at a tall young man with dark curly hair, a lanky version of my husband Robert, and asking him, “Do you mind very much going to boarding school? I’ve got to get out of here!”
I sat bolt upright, awakened by this intensely vivid dream.
Stunned, I elbow Robert awake. “I’m pregnant!” Although we had been actively using birth control there was no doubt in my mind. The next morning I emerge from the bathroom showing Robert the plastic stick from the home pregnancy test, its bright blue end confirming what I already know.
In retrospect, it would have been wise to recognize this dream as an actual agreement I was making with the soul of this child. I would birth him and raise him, but he would need to leave home when it was time for high school. If I had honored this message it might have saved us all a lot of pain.
We had recently left the community and teaching center where our transformational workshops were gaining national attention. I suddenly found myself isolated from my friends and work context. I was 38 years old and my role as primary caretaker for our two daughters then 6 and 10 had increased as Robert pursued his independent career.
I adored being a mother and creating a strong and loving home for all of us. Yet our younger daughter was just starting first grade and I was eager to expand my work as a teacher and therapist. I knew a third child would certainly not correct the work-parenting balance I craved, and that even more would fall on me. Truly torn about what to do, I went to Cape Cod where I rented a little cottage to be alone, and allow this decision to clarify itself.
I spent hours walking on the beach, my hands resting on my belly, as the waves lapped over my feet. I looked out over the vast expanse of sea and sky that has always been my chapel, and my connection to the all-pervading spirit and presence of life. My body was already humming with the wondrous life of this child. I knew it might not be easy, but my “Yes” was already there. I choose this baby with a whole heart.
We moved to Colorado when I was five months pregnant to begin a new chapter in our lives. Four months later Benjamin was born in 45 minutes start to finish. This was the first harbinger of things to come—a child who was always in a rush to grow up and claim his independence.
When I started my family I had made a vow to myself to bring up my children in a very different way that I had been raised. They would be met with compassion and understanding for their emotional life. They would be mentored and supported in discovering and developing their inner spiritual life. Clear communication and a willingness to deal directly with problems would be fundamental in our family. Our home would be full of love, physical and emotional closeness and celebration.
I had been inspired by the words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet:
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they do not belong to you.
I knew it was our job as parents to be the caretaker of these precious souls and not the master or owner them. My commitment to doing whatever was in my power to live these values never faltered.
Robert’s travel increased as he followed his creative passion and took on even more responsibility for our financial support. I found myself increasingly home alone with three young children, living in the mountains in a new community. I simply did not have the energy to do all that I was doing at home and then go out and pursue my career.
I felt like a failed and frustrated feminist as I witnessed Robert’s ability to just forge ahead with his independent work and have it all. I found myself feeling angry and increasingly ill and depressed, as I was unable to negotiate the balance in my own life, and the equity of partnership I deeply wanted.
I loved this little boy and truly wanted to mother him beautifully. But even as an infant he fussed at my breast and adamantly refused to nurse on one side. This was the first of his refusals. I did all the ”good mommy things”: art projects, reading to him, making up stories, singing and dancing, excursions to the local farms, the zoo, the children’s museum—but in some way, my heart and joy was not in it the same way it had been with my daughters.
I resented Robert’s frequent absence and wanted to be doing other things even though I wasn’t sure what. And I simply was not as instinctively as good a mother to this boy as I had been to my girls. Leila and Danya could always be comforted by a massage and a snuggle, or engaged by a walk in the woods to look for fairy houses or rocks glistening with mica. I had a hard time finding things that really engaged Benjamin and that we really enjoyed doing together.
At age eight, Benjamin started to resist me. It was small things at first. On a freezing cold, snowy morning I remember watching from the window as his small frame trudged with his little backpack across the field on his way to school. He defiantly held in his hand the hat I had insisted he wear, as wet snow gathered on his head and shoulders.
His resistance grew. “Benjamin, please set the table.” “I don’t want to and I don’t want dinner.” Would you like help with your homework?” “No.” “I made you your favorite food—macaroni and cheese.” “I’m not hungry.” “Let’s go to the aquarium.” I don’t like the aquarium.” “How ‘bout I read to you?” “No I want Daddy to do it.” On and on it went.
It seemed that almost anything I offered was rejected. I felt like one of those life-size, blow-up plastic clowns which are weighted on the bottom—the ones that are designed to be punched and to keep on righting themselves and silently offering themselves be hit again.
Determined to stay the course, I kept on popping up again and again, trying over and over to find ways of engaging with and reaching my son. I encouraged his interests and natural talents. I took him to tennis lessons, soccer league, and piano. I bought him rollerblade and ski equipment. I fostered friendships and worked actively with his teachers as he began to have trouble cooperating in school.
By the time he was eleven, Ben had become completely oppositional with me and with any adult he did not completely jibe with. Once his German teacher at the Waldorf School he attended, called me in tears. She simply did not know how to help him participate and her feelings were deeply hurt by his behavior towards her. I didn’t know what to say. I knew how she felt. I mumbled an apology and said we would talk with him.
Life became a constant struggle. On my birthday our whole family was piled in the car to go out to dinner. Benjamin started screaming that he hated the restaurant and wanted to go to the Ethiopian one—the only one we had ever been to that gave me a huge stomachache. Though we refused to give him what he wanted, the joy had drained out of the occasion. Ben was too young to leave alone, so I chose to go home and order take-out rather than endure a celebratory dinner imbued with such negativity.
I was exhausted. Everything felt like a fight. Trapped in a battle of wills, I vacillated between getting stern, being emotionally compassionate and throwing my hands up in despair and letting him do whatever he wanted.
I remember one night sitting in the hallway outside his room when he had been continuously turning on his light, sneaking video games and refusing to head towards much needed sleep. I was so exasperated I started to cry. Benjamin heard me, opened the door, looked down at me with a smirk of triumph, and slammed it shut.
As Ben told me years later, by the time he was nine, he had decided that he just did not need or want a mother any more. He tried as best he could to refuse me and cut me out of his life. But I was certainly not ready to retire being a mother to this young boy. His resistance just further spurred my protective instincts, the mother bear in me. I loved this child fiercely.
Beyond feelings of personal rejection, Benjamin’s dislike and disrespect seemed like a social and political failure. I wanted to raise a son who honored women and feminine energy and values. I wanted him to grow into a man who would contribute to righting the life-destroying imbalance of masculine and feminine energy and values in the world. And this kid really didn’t appear to like me or respect me.
I was also scared for him. He struggled with women teachers at school. His tennis teacher told us that Benjamin was incredibly talented and wanted to groom him for competition. Benjamin then refused to continue his lessons. The same thing happened with piano—his teacher had never had a more gifted student. Benjamin refused to practice and then quit.
I kept on trying. But everything I tried backfired. He seemed determined to turn away all efforts, all attempts of guidance, all gestures of love.
We tried therapy—for Benjamin, for me, for Robert and me, for all of us. Nothing worked. One therapist suggested Robert should be the only one to have all the interactions with Ben, which backfired by furthering empowering Ben to ignore me. My anger at Robert grew, as he increasingly became the loved and sought-out parent and I the reviled one.
When Ben was twelve, he went into a serious and terrifying depression. “I feel like everything is grey. I can’t breathe.” A psychologist met with him then told us, “This is a kid for whom the world will never be his oyster. Lower your expectations of what’s possible for him.” We were furious at this unskillful prophecy, but it also played into the fears I already had for him.
Then came adolescence and things got even worse. Robert and I were increasingly unaligned in our parenting. I kept pushing for clearer limits to try to influence Benjamin’s behavior, while Robert, was much more permissive and wanting Ben to learn to self-monitor. This was the parenting style I had embraced with our daughters but now I was cut off without the fabric of trust and openness that was foundational in letting go.
I had no idea what was really going on with him and was seeing destructive behaviors. He was only 13 and I knew he was getting his hands on alcohol and marijuana. He seemed increasingly disenchanted with school and life in general. He started hanging with other kids who seemed to have little in the way of passion or interest or willingness to build their skills.
I had been a pretty alienated teenager myself, so I knew the territory. But still I was worried. I remember praying “OK, just get him out of this alive. And fine—if he wants to be a bartender (at that time his only aspiration)—that’ll be just fine.”
I was on a roller coaster of grief and tears, falling apart and putting myself together again. I would not let go, fighting for my life and for my son’s. My husband was running up and down the stairs to the basement family room where Ben had moved, like a frantic mediator attempting to carry messages between the rebel forces and the crumbling government. Our marriage was severely strained with our mutual judgment, blame, hurt and helplessness.
My self-worth, so identified with being a “good mother,” was crumbling. Unwilling to let go of trying, I was fighting not just for Benjamin, but also for the strongest and deepest values I held—conscious motherhood and family. I clung to the knowledge that I had been and still was an excellent mother to my daughters, like a life raft in a stormy sea.
At fourteen, I took Benjamin on a trip to Boston to see his grandfather. While we were out to dinner with Papa Harrison, Benjamin was being intolerably rude to me. Harrison stood up, threw down his napkin and told Ben to “never talk to his mother like that again” and left the table. I was on the verge of tears, being both grateful for this kind of alliance and affirmation that I had craved from Robert, but also humiliated in the face of another adult witnessing my son’s disdain. In the heat of the moment, I told Benjamin that if he didn’t shape up I would send him to military school.
Oh the words we regret! The door that was barely open between us slammed shut. If Robert and I had had our wits about us and remembered the foreshadowing of my pregnancy dream, we might have sat down and really discussed the boarding school option.
Ben had always been in a rush to grow up. From his 45-minute birth, to not wanting a mother at 9 years old, he continued on the fast track. His diminutive size contributing to our sense that he was moving too fast for his own good.
At 14 he found jobs as a busboy and grocery clerk, determined to make his own way. At 15 Ben initiated leaving our home, asking to move in with a 21-year-old friend.
At first we resisted, but then remembered Robert’s grandfather who at the same age had left his home in Lithuania and traveled alone on a ship to the United States. He had one set of clothes, no money and didn’t speak a word of English. Within ten years he had started a shoe factory and become a wealthy man.
Perhaps Ben, who always was so sure of himself, and always pushing the envelope of what we deemed “age appropriate,” had some of his great-grandfather’s surety and spunk. He was the one, not us, who had the wisdom to remove himself from our home.
Yet his life was rife with marijuana, drinking, a lousy diet and little sleep. Benjamin’s apathy was on the rise and his school performance faltering. After a semester Ben wanted to drop out of high school. Thankfully, he told Robert that he felt his life was not going in a good direction and asked for help.
We searched for alternatives ways for him to complete high school. We found a study program to India that included volunteering at an orphanage, working on a farm and studying meditation, studying history as he went and writing papers about his experiences. We agreed to let him go if he agreed to take his SAT’s and apply to college on return. That was the deal.
Robert and I both relaxed in the absence of the daily struggles with Benjamin. One day, while walking on the trail that wound up the hills behind our home, I heard a voice, a question, rising from a place of clarity within me. “What is the worst thing that could happen here?” I stopped in my tracks. Other than my child dying, the worst thing I could imagine was that I would end up with active and loving relationships with only two of my three children.
My mind roamed to the people I knew whose children had died: Robin, whose 10 year old son had been struck by a car on his way home from soccer practice; Shana who had nursed her daughter born with a fatal genetic disorder through eight years of life and, when it was time, had held her while she took her last breaths; Gail whose full-term baby had a strong heartbeat and then inexplicably never took a breath; the countless children was born to countless mothers around the world who had helplessly watched their children die of starvation and disease. I was visited by images of women I knew who had desperately wanted children and hadn’t been able to have them. I felt the presence of many parents whose children had cut them completely out of their lives.
Suddenly, my situation did not seem so dire or so unusual. It was if a dark cloud that had been obscuring my vision dissolved. I asked myself, “Can I live with this? Can I be happy even if I never have a good relationship with my son?” And it was clear, I could. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I could live with it. I knew I would still have the capacity to find joy and satisfaction in my life. My well-being was not dependent on this child’s love or approval.
In those brief moments I felt liberated from the tyranny of my own beliefs and fears. This moment of grace and revelation marked a significant turning point within me and in my relationship with my son.
In our seminars, we teach that our loved ones are often our most profound spiritual teachers. I now saw how powerful a teacher Benjamin was for me. I saw how much I had needed him to affirm my worth as a good Mother, a lovable person, and how much I pulled on him to try to get that from him.
In formal Zen meditation practice, the teacher wields a bamboo stick to whack those whose attention has lapsed. Benjamin was that teacher, trying to wake me up, taking me to the brink where the only choice was to release him to his God- given right of sovereignty over his own life.
Gradually, I let go. I let go of needing his acknowledgement, of needing him to love me or even needing him to like me. I let go of needing him to call or talk to me. I let go of needing him to feel the same way about me as he did about his father. And ultimately I let go of needing any relationship with him at all.
As I faced into life as it was, rather than life as I hoped it would be, my pictures of myself as a mother, a wife, of being anyone I had previously thought I was, fell away. And a gentle freedom arose within me.
I acknowledged to myself the ways in which I had not been the perfect mother and learned to bring compassion to myself for my imperfections. I also gifted myself with the awareness of the many ways in which I had been a wonderful mother and had hung in there and loved him and supported him through many very difficult years. I rested in the knowledge that my love and guidance were already part of the intrinsic fabric of who he was and who he would become.
And in this process of letting go, of surrender, my heart softened and opened. Whenever a wave of hurt of disappointment or fear for him arose, I would say to myself, “I release you to yourself, to your own life and your own choices. And, I love you—no matter what happens or does not happen—I love you. I will always be here for you, and our home and my heart will always be open to you.” Love had always been there and I knew it would always remain, unwavering and constant no matter what the outer circumstances. Benjamin led me fiercely to the altar of true unconditional love.
Shortly after returning from India where he attended a rigorous ten-day meditation retreat, Ben knocked on my door. Somewhat awkwardly, he told me that during the retreat he realized that that the difficulty in our relationship hadn’t been all my fault. He acknowledged that he had been mean to me and had wanted to hurt me. He said quite simply, “I’m sorry.” Then he said, “Thank you for always loving me. I always knew you did.” He was 16 years old. I touched his face as tears ran silently down my cheeks.
When he was 19, Ben asked me to go to therapy with him and we did a week of intensive counseling together. This helped him begin to slowly re-enter relationship with me.
Ben is now 22. I had once feared for his future. Now I am in awe of this kind, talented and brilliant young man. He breezed through college in three years, and has a great job working in Middle East policy with an international mediation organization. He plays beautiful Gypsy jazz guitar, has reclaimed his athleticism, and reads philosophy for fun. I watch him with his girlfriend and am touched by how loving, attentive and thoughtful he is.
Ben and I are getting to know each other, for the first time since he was a child. We enjoy increasingly relaxed, interesting and self-revealing conversations. We are remembering how to laugh and play together. Sometimes the old feelings get stirred up, but we quickly recover ourselves. When we end our phone calls he always says “I love you.” And I can feel that he actually does. The last time he came to visit, he lifted me off the ground in his strong arms and said, “I love you, Mama Bear.”
Raising this boy and then releasing him was the hardest thing and, ultimately, the most liberating thing I have ever done. The only choice I had was to do it with anger and bitterness or with an open heart. And I chose love. There never really was another choice.
(c) 2012, Judith Ansara
First published in Fearless Nest: Our Children as Our Greatest Teachers, edited by Shana Parker.