When a Parent Backs Off

I have two sons, with almost eight years between them. On most days, watching us from a secret Big Brother-like camera, our interactions and love are enviable. Some days you might consider calling DEFACs, or whatever family services acronym works near you. Both of my sons are gifted, based on their IQs. Both sons, to varying degrees have ADHD; my youngest, whose ADD is bad enough to warrant meds. also suffers from dysgraphia, the outie to dyslexia’s innie, and a mild memory issue. These keep him locked in special education, rather than soaring in “gifted” classes.

All things school came easily to me. Sure, I whined over the real life value of torturous calculus, but once I stopped weeping, I did it. For my youngest, this is not the case, and it makes it hard for me to relate. The current structures of the American school system frustrate him even more than you could understand. He faces ridiculous tests that, being a teacher myself, I know often cover irrelevant information, or worse the test writers phrase questions in such a way that the original intent of the objective is lost.

(For example, “Objective: students will apply a variety of sentence patterns in their writing.” Resulting Multiple Choice Test Question: “Read the following sentence, then choose the correct pattern that correlates with these sentences” is different from being able to actually create varied sentences. Thus, kids are drilled on recognizing these pattern types. Worse this question carries as much weight as recognizing poor verb usage, because each objective gets a question on the multiple choice test. I think the average American should be able to use verbs, but not label a sentence’s pattern as SVDOIO, right? Do most people even KNOW what I just wrote?)

Besides pointless testing that determines his future, every year my son meets teachers who, because of pay for performance rules that measure their failure rate, seem less interested in breaking his code and reaching him than in covering their asses. From the moment they meet him they begin collecting evidence of why it isn’t their fault he is failing, and send me messages, which go straight into their files: “Your son is very smart but he did not do his work. Your son sat and stared off into space. Your son took an hour to do what took everyone else ten minutes.”. Then they dust off their hands and say to themselves, they’ve done all they can do.

Because there is controversy over the existence of ADHD, some teachers just shrug it off, and gossip among themselves about my parenting, thinking if I just took his video games away, that boy would learn to work. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Apparently, I put my child into the stigma saturated hellhole called Special Ed, because I want him to have more time on his Play Station, playing Destiny. I’m trying to cover up his “poor work ethic” by damaging his reputation with riding “the short bus.”. I prefer him to be called “dumb” by his mainstreamed peers, rather than cracking the whip.

I go through this the first few months every school year until his teachers realize I mean business, and I expect them to do their jobs, explaining, “The fact that he stares off in to space and cannot easily put his words on a page is WHY he is in special Ed. You cannot simply say he isn’t working and then wash your hands of him. That’s like saying about your deaf students, they can’t hear my lessons. You’ll have to solve that at home.” They squirm and get pissed off and often decide to pit themselves against me, sending me little CYA notes almost everyday.

Apparently, in order to allow a child to fail, teachers just have to say, I assigned XYZ, and he didn’t do it.

But here’s the thing about special education. It is supposed to be SPECIAL. If you recognize that my child is “super smart” and YOU are the expert, then you need to figure out how to get knowledge into his head, and then glean evidence that he knows it in some other way.

When we were kids, teachers could do just that: shape a lesson in a special way for a special kid. Can you imagine Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller in today’s schools? Would she have said, “Ma’am, your child seemed to stare off into space when I assigned that reading passage. She fails because she didn’t complete her work.”. The girl went off to Princeton because she had a woman who cracked her code.

SO, each year, I get riled up; it takes me months to get teachers on board with the whole it is your JOB thing. I understand their frustration; I struggle during his homework time. ( I mean WHY does a kid who can do the word problem in his head have to explain his process in WORDS? Why can’t he just write the answer in numbers? And why does it take my kid two hours, filled with tears and hair loss.) I get the teachers’ frustration But they are his teachers not I. If I were,I could adjust his lessons; if I were, I’d have a special degree in his disability, right?

I was particularly riled up this past week, facing the, “your kid’s lazy” crap from a fresh batch of teachers. I have a number of “Twelve Steppers” in my life who advise me; from an anti-codependent stand point, trying to change his teachers is too controlling of me. I’m supposed to “let go and let God.” I hear, your son is old enough now, he can suffer his own consequences.

I heard the same advice when my oldest was in the ninth grade and not working up to his potential. But what if he flunks? Well, summer school. Well, what if he doesn’t get into a good college because of that! Well, he’ll figure it out on his own.

I yelled, punished, rewarded, all things a parent does to try and get their kid in line. But I eventually took the advice and let go. He got himself through, improving as time went on. He began improving. No, he did not go the Harvard, though he had the IQ. He goes to a community school by choice to save money, and lives at home still, and we have a calm, loving friendship now. The twelve steppers say it is because I backed off.

But I just don’t think that advice will work with my youngest. To say that he has to live with the consequences of his actions assumes he has a choice here. His disability doesn’t allow him many choices. He cannot choose to spell that word right or even notice it is wrong. He cannot choose to ignore the misbehaving kids in the next row (and special Ed classes lump learning and behavior problems together. There are plenty of actions he struggles to ignore.) So does that make me codependent because I am trying to control his education?


Sorry. I’d rather continue to mother him properly and be labelled a control freak than let him slip through the giant cracks in our education system. Too many of his teachers would be relieved to just ignore him.

To Twist a Maxim: Musings of a Happiness Dependent

I just finished reading yet another reposted secret-to-life-list on Facebook from helpful friends, explaining the 10 to 30 essentials one must learn in order to be happy. One of the most-oft repeated is the stickler that goes something along the lines of “Don’t look to others to be happy; be happy within yourself.”

Ahh, the foundation of co-dependents anonymous everywhere.

Upfront, let me say, being a happy human being all unto yourself, free of others, sounds divine. Oh. . .wait. . . the word “divine” comes from “of God” which implies that something I deem divine is heaven sent, thus, not independently created.

Let me try again. Upfront. . being happy with simply your own amazingness to light up your life sounds. . .well, crazy. Sort of sociopathic.

I know what the helpful advisors mean: don’t let others bring you down; don’t let others steal your light; don’t let others control your destiny beyond your bliss. . .etc. etc.. Those are good pieces of advice, even if I do say them somewhat sarcastically. BUT those admonitions aren’t the same as the advice: “Don’t look to others to be happy.”

Interestingly, the folks who most commonly share that on FB are the people who are entrenched in the accomplishments of their kids, their peers, their church, their mates. Ironic that they espouse independence. It’s become almost trendy to say it, a sort of holier-than-thou-ism that sounds so good on paper, but has absolutely no actual meaning to them.

Before you try to enlighten me, by shooting holes in my cynicism, let me say I have chewed on this co-dependency issue for a long time. What is the difference between healthy independence with joyous relationships, and codependency? What is the difference between co-dependency and healthy dependence? I am not always certain. I doubt those “listers” are, either.

If my husband ever has a fatal heart attack, it will break my heart. If my sons fret over a broken relationship, I want to cry with them. If my Mom suffers when she struggles with her memory, I want to soothe her brow like my baby’s. Genuine disturbances in the world of the people I love are going to effect me, and make me unhappy. I’d be emotionally stunted otherwise.

And the opposite is true. A special wink from my hubby makes my toes tingle. An award for my son’s artwork sparks my pride. Listening to my older son laugh with his friends in the next room, brings me pleasure.

My happiness depends on the happiness of others, as does, often my disappointment. If I make mistakes at work, and others know it, it is not unhealthy to be embarrassed by this. If noone wants to buy your video game idea that you spent years devising, you can tell yourself a million times that it’s all good, but that isn’t really true, is it? You can see yourself as the world’s greatest singer, but if folks plug their ears in your presence, and mock you, you’re going to be hurt. . .a little.

We do not live in vacuums. The nature of the human being is to find happiness with others, to entwine our lives with each other means that we cannot always see where joy is ours or theirs. And I am weary of the world dismissively pretending that there is something wrong with this as stated in a pithy fridge magnet-maxim.

But it isn’t that simple either: if my husband does nothing to protect himself from heart disease, and I lament and fret and worry meal after meal. . .well that’s a different story. If my Mom eventually fully enters the woods called Alzheimer’s, I will still need to sleep and accept it. If my sons keep choosing silly girls, well, at some point I can only sigh. Otherwise, I’d be codependent.

Enter the dangerous flaw in the design of the maxim. It is both true and untrue depending on how it is applied.

I have an alcoholic, drug abusing brother, who has been his own worst nightmare, who still has not hit rock bottom despite several arrests, one neck-breaking accident, and the near loss of his daughter to multiple semi-suicide attempts. When I was young, a teenager, I was of the mind that if I rescued him, I was gifted and emotionally superior to lessor beings. I outgrew that. I feel compassionate toward him. Any addiction is a painful dominatrix. But I also learned that he is his own victim, that only he can take whatever steps he can to sober himself fully, whether his state is rooted in genetics or society. It doesn’t matter; it is still his job. I no longer lie awake at night with worry. My happiness doesn’t depend on his sobriety.

My father however, drinks my brother’s drama like a warm cup of cocoa; pure enjoyment. He would vehemently disagree with me, and claim that he suffers deeply at my brother’s “lifestyle” (and the spawned drama of my niece who is a carbon copy of her father.) Yes, my father does suffer; he cries and loses sleep from his pain. However, he also relishes the adrenaline of being called in the middle of the night and running to the rescue. He adores the adoration of his son and his grand-daughter when they tearfully thank him (only to turn around and continue the shenanigans.) He loves having a subject to discuss that has weight, that has him as the hero in the center.

When I try to explain the dangers of this sort of co-dependency, nothing makes my Dad burn with rage faster. Isn’t a father supposed to help his child in any way he can? It has taken years (YEARS) of “rescues” after shocking events. . .And years of my hammering away on the co-dependency nail, before an eensy glimmer of understanding sank in. Dad resisted the concept that not helping IS help, because after all, isn’t his happiness a direct result of his child’s safety and happiness? (I couldn’t begin to get him to understand that no, his happiness was a direct result of his child’s chaos.)

My father was randomly reflecting on the concept of spanking a child. I can’t recall why. Some debate on talk radio? He argued that rewards and punishments work just as well; why spank? He began his lecture on the beauty of positive reinforcement. Somehow I was able to shift the angle of his argument back to my brother and this time, Dad didn’t see it coming. I said, “Every time Brother has made a really poor choice, what did you do?” He saw it immediately.

“Wrecked his car while drunk?” Bought him another.

“Broke his neck?” Paid hospital Bills.

“Went to jail?” Hired his lawyer.

“Lost a wife? . . .almost lost a child?” Bought him a house.

My father’s argument on the effectiveness of rewards and punishments suddenly dawned on him. Each time my brother has come close to what should be his “bottom”, Dad rewards bad behavior, reinforces it by resolving the “negative”. Classic. My father was speechless for the first time in my life. His need to fix was possibly undoing life’s natural fix.

But there’s the definition of co-dependence. When the structure of one’s life . . .one’s identity is reinforced by other people’s failure (or for that matter, success), one creates a cycle that keeps it all in perpetuation. In other words, Dad feels more like Dad when he saves my brother, so he wraps his life around this drama. My niece, who is on the verge of being diagnosed with border-line-personality disorder, lies constantly to my father, even from the occasional mental institution. Dad seems blind to it, because visiting her often and openly worrying about how to rescue her, (and fantasizing that he will save her) gives him meaning (and reinforces her behavior.)

He would say he would finally be happy when each is safe in body and sound of mind. I say, hogwash. He would disappear because they are not the kind who would remember to call him when their lives are fine. Does he subconsciously know this? The phrase “Don’t look to others for happiness” speaks directly to him, for THIS is codependency

It is the wife who keeps the household running smoothly while her husband drinks their world into oblivion. She will say she wants the drinking to stop, but somehow that order and power she has, makes her feel superior; she doesn’t leave. That buddy of yours who can only pull herself together if she talks to you at 3 am, who tells you every nasty detail of her debauchery with utter shame and never follows your advice, but goes on and on about how you are so awesome, and what would she do without you. . .each time you tell her, it’s okay; she has value; she deserves love too, when she breaks up with yet another horrible guy. . .believe it or not, you relish being the one she turns to. You deserve the 3 a.m. repetitive phone calls. THAT’s codependence. The fact that you know which friend will fall off the diet wagon at Bruster’s with you, and you blame each other . .THAT’s codependence.

But “looking to others for your own happiness” is not necessarily the hellion codependence. Because, like I said, to live so independently, so free of the needs and happiness of others is simply sociopathic. Those who are codependent will not break their own inexplicable pain until they learn the other people they keep expecting to change, should not have this much power over their happiness. My own codependence shows when I repeatedly expect my Father to see the light, when I am angered at how much my brother still hurts my parents. Because contrary to what I have said here, it is nearly impossible to turn a blind eye to the ones we love.

Underlying that truth is the other codependents anonymous truism: expectations are disappointments waiting to happen. I hate that phrase too, only because it and the happiness maxim have both been abused and twisted. Yes, my father expects my brother to see how much he is loved whenever Dad rescues him, and then wake up and change. But Brother doesn’t change, so Dad is then deflated. Expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.

But in any relationship, we have expectations. The danger is when we use these maxims to slough ourselves of the responsibility of other people’s feelings and expectations.

I listened to a woman (who was well-versed in the co-dependent anonymous mantra) argue that she should be allowed to hang out with any man she wants, and her husband should be okay with this, because “his happiness isn’t her job. He needs to make his own.” (Tadah. . .Maxim twisted.) My grandparents lived for each other’s happiness as they believed was the rule of a covenanted marriage. Well into their nineties, they never slept apart, they focused on each other, and they were still holding hands. I cannot imagine either of them ever spending time with anyone else that made the other uncomfortable. They would have laughed at the concept of independent happiness. I am sure anyone with these romantic expectations entering a marriage with someone who is not inclined to meet them will be unhappy, but does that mean they are wrong in their expectations?

My first husband who couldn’t carry on a conversation to save his life, once told me that this was how he was built, and if I wasn’t happy with it, tough shit; I needed to find something else to entertain myself and stop expecting him to do it. (badda-bing.. Maxim twisted) Well, I divorced him and eventually found a man who does talk to me about everything and anything. It didn’t make my ex-very happy. Yet he was right. I did find my own happiness, but it was still bullshit for him to say it wasn’t his responsibility. Don’t enter into relationships if you truly want that much independence, right?

This expectation-to-happiness ratio is why financial advisors say don’t lend money: give it. Lending it means you expect to be paid back; then suddenly you are unhappy when they don’t pay you back. Solution? Give them the money so you don’t have expectations. But still. . .is this really the solution, to just flat out avoid expectations? I shouldn’t expect faithfulness from husband and friends? A boss shouldn’t expect employees to do their job? Parents shouldn’t expect their children to pass their classes? Based on these two maxims, no. Or if you are disappointed by them, recalibrate your choices, or you are codependent. . .

These are complicated maxims: That we have to find happiness within ourself; that we can’t have expectations of others without facing disappointment. Are they simply a bungled version of “love yourself or noone else will”? Or an attempt to unburden oneself from the needs or expectations of other people? Do they free us from being judged? Or do they help extrapolate folks from the jaws of codependency? Whatever truly, they create a sticky wicket.

Maybe both combined should be phrased like this: Your happiness depends on others, but if they are not making you happy, only you can fix that, but you cannot fix them, and trying will often make things worse; you are not ever completely independent and you have certain responsibilities to make others happy sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t count. And if your spirit is broken: Don’t sit around waiting for other people to fix you, because, you my dear, can let go and find something out there joyful.

A mouthful. Not so simple as “listed.”