It’s a trial many parents find themselves in when their child ends up in residential treatment or juvenile detention. How do you continue to be a parent when your child lives somewhere other than home?
Twice a week, I visit my son. Twice a week, I sign myself out on a lined piece of paper. Twice a week, I retrieve my belongings from a locked box as a staff member walks me to the door. Twice a week, the door swings shut behind me and as I cross the parking lot. Twice a week, my eyes well up. Twice a week, I turn the key in the ignition and catch my breath as the tears are too much to hold back.
Our son has a mental illness and brain damage. He has difficulty making safe choices. Because of our current situation, it is not safe for our son to live at home. This isn’t the first time it has been unsafe to live together. This isn’t the first time we’ve been apart. I used to feel devastated because of our situation. My distress overshadowed all the good in my life. Over the years, our family has found the support of other families like our own. Through the relationships we’ve built we have learned a few things about embracing the reality of parenting a child who cannot live at home.
Reset your expectations: When we dream of becoming parents we usually don’t dream of the hard stuff. I was the number one culprit of starry eyed dreaming. Before my children came home, I imagined all the wonderful things my life would be. I was certain that we would read stories each night before bed. We would always pray at the dinner table and I would serve healthy meals that they would happily receive. I dreamed of playing baseball, walking our dog and going on nature walks. I envisioned celebrating holidays and birthdays as one happy family. I pictured dressing up for family photos and creating handmade Christmas cards to send to my college roommates, featuring our perfect family.
I did not picture psychiatric hospitals, therapists, probation, IEP meetings or Department of Child Services. I didn’t imagine that police would ever enter my home for any other reason than to join us for a neighborhood barbecue. The reality of raising children is a lot messier than the fantasy. When we reset our expectations we can allow ourselves to accept that our children are flawed. When we reset our expectations we can admit that we are flawed too. Our new expectations allow us to truly live in a way that is not hindered by regrets. When we leave behind our fantasy and embrace the authenticity of our real life we can love our children more completely right where they are.
Grieve: I used to worry that if I allowed myself to feel deep sorrow that I would detract from the equally great love I also feel for my children. I have discovered that both emotions must live side by side. If I do not acknowledge the sadness that lives in my heart, it festers and eventually crowds the other emotions. It’s ok to cry over the loss of what we hoped for. It is ok to miss, worry about or even fear for our children. These emotions are all a part of the love we feel. It is ok to cry over imperfect holidays or missed birthdays or upturned plates of food or yet another hospital stay. The grief must come out of us in order to make way for peace. Take private time alone or with a good friend to cry, scream, yell, pound your fists and lament over the reality.
Choose joy: This may take a little work. Start small. If you have a phone call, make the most of it. Tell your child you love them and believe in them. Concentrate on the sound of their voice and try to find at least one way to connect. If you are allowed to visit, listen to the sound of your child’s voice, watch them as they talk or smile, etch it into your memory. Feel the sadness of a visit that isn’t going well but also allow yourself to feel the joy of a moment of connectedness with your child. Even the small, short-lived moments can be tucked away in your heart. Be thankful that your child and your family are safe for this day, for this moment. Choose gratitude for even the tiniest connections and out of this thankfulness will come moments of joy.
Living away from our son has been one of the hardest parts of parenting but it is the reality we live in right now. Accepting our new reality, grieving our losses and choosing joy have helped us to come to terms with this stage of life.
Mike and Kristin Berry are the authors of the Confessions of an Adoptive Parent blog and the book The Adoptive Parent Toolbox. They are the parents of 8 children, all of whom are adopted. Mike and Kristin’s passion is to reach overwhelmed, weary, and stressed out parents, all over the globe, with this message: “There is hope…..you’re not alone on this journey!”