Care and Feeding

How Do I Convince My Son I Still Love Him When He’s Been Taken Away From Me?

A mother faces a custody battle while in the midst of treatment for bipolar disorder.

Distant boy looking at cell phone, anguished mother making a call.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,
Two years ago, at 27, I sought treatment for bipolar disorder. Despite holding my dream job and being married with three beautiful children, I had to admit that my erratic behavior was detrimental to my family. I underwent medication management and it was a long process, trying to find what works and what doesn’t. The side effects can be brutal. One medication exacerbated my depression and I ended up trying to take my own life. Immediately, while I was still in critical care, each of my three children’s fathers filed emergency petitions and took the kids.

The next few months were brutal and humiliating. I was given supervised visitation, one hour every two weeks. I had months of outpatient treatment, in the process losing my job, my home, almost my husband. It hurt, but I finally was able to stop crying long enough to focus on doing whatever I needed to do to get them back in my life for more than an hour every other weekend. I found a relatively stable medical concoction and started therapy. And I was always honest about my feelings on suicide or self-harm, even if they were detrimental to my case.

I have since gained custody of my oldest and youngest sons, and for financial reasons we moved across the country. The father of my middle son, however, has blocked me at every move. I certainly don’t expect to gain primary custody of him; he’s settled and happy where he is. But it’s been two years and I still only get an hour every other weekend, supervised, which doesn’t exactly work cross-country. As my son transitions into his teenage years, he’s exhibited signs of mental illness that his father blames me for. I’ve tried to be involved in his treatment. I’ve asked to be included in his therapy to help resolve any issues. I’ve filed for a hearing, but his wife is an attorney with the money and the legal skills to bury me. The continuances, and orders for mediation, and cancelled dates, and missing paperwork, have all caused delays. He only wants me to be able to see my son on his terms.

What hurts the most is not being able to talk to my son in a realistic way. I’m afraid he’s beginning to feel that I’ve given up on him. He will never know how hard I am trying and how much I miss him. These years will be filled in his head with bitterness and anger toward me, not understanding that it’s beyond my control. And I can never tell him how much I blame his dad. The one time I told him that I was trying very hard to get to see him more often and that I was scheduled to ask the court in just a few weeks, his dad jumped all over me.

What can I say to my 11-year-old son? What is appropriate? Can I tell him of upcoming dates? Do I just leave him wondering why his brothers are with me, but he’s not allowed? How do I build this relationship back?
—Heartbroken Mom

Dear HM,
I am so sorry for your situation. My heart breaks reading your letter, and it hits home for me, not only as a parent, but as a child. When I was growing up, I experienced something very similar. My mother was not with me for years of my upbringing, and I was left with the deep sense that this was because she did not want to be with me, that I was not important enough for her to move heaven and Earth in order to have me by her side. As time went on I began to tell myself that I didn’t want to be with her anyway. And my grief turned into resentment and a deep, pervasive sense of isolation.

There was a solution, however. That solution was that I grew up. I came to understand, over the years, how difficult it must have been for her. In fact, as I reached adulthood, I became more interested in how difficult it was for her than in how difficult it was for me. This is a lot of what adulthood is: coming to see stories in which you thought you were the starring character from the perspective of others who were right there alongside you the whole time. There are many truths in a relationship, and as your son grows, he will come to see more than just his own.

I recognize that a solution that takes years only provides limited relief for the acute pain you are feeling now, and unfortunately, limited relief may be all you can hope for in a moment like this. You and your son are recovering, in your own separate ways, from deeply traumatic events, and recovery takes time.

It fills me with great joy that you are taking the steps necessary to attend to your mental health. I hope, for the sake of yourself and your children, that you continue on that path, even as the experience is sometimes painful and the results seemingly slow to materialize. Do not lose faith in what you are doing. It is the right thing. I am also happy to hear that you can be there for your other children. Remember that they need you. They are what is in front of you now, and the first rule of recovering is to take care of what is in front of you right now.

It absolutely sounds as though your son’s father is standing in the way of your relationship, but despite how painful that is, there is not much you can do about that now. You can continue to work through the court systems to make the progress you need. From his perspective, there are good reasons to be careful. Perhaps he is overreacting out of resentment or fear, but it may help to remember that it was also traumatic for him to see the mother of his child nearly take her life—and to see his son struggle with that crisis as well. He is not going to be over that for a long time.

You must continue to communicate to your son as frequently as you can that you love him and are working to be there for him. If it brings trouble to tell him about upcoming court dates before they are firm, then I would avoid that for now. He is in a rough enough spot as it is. If you continue to communicate how much you love him and are working for him, I have every confidence that he will one day grow to understand it. You are in the middle of a difficult time. But more—so much more—than you can imagine will happen between you two over the course of your lives, and you cannot set a timetable for your son’s growth. You are doing wonderfully. Truly. You are learning to trust yourself and accept your process. You must now remember to trust your son and accept his.

Dear Care and Feeding,
My 19-year-old daughter just confessed to me today that this past weekend she and a friend were caught shoplifting from Target. I am beside myself with shock, embarrassment, and disappointment. We pay out of pocket for a fancy private school for her to the tune of $30,000 a year to study for her dream job. According to the two lawyers I spoke to, the arrest record will always exist for shoplifting, even if we have the conviction expunged after a first-time-offender program. This will keep her from getting licensure in the dream job.

Because the case will not be heard until midfall, I am hesitant to spend all that money on next year’s tuition. I am writing because I am feeling extreme guilt at making a year away from school a consequence of what she did. I just don’t know if that is the best course of action for a first-time offender who admitted to me she knew what she was doing was wrong but did it anyway.
—Mother of the Thief

Dear MotT,
Your daughter did something that 19-year-olds do all the time: made a terrible decision with no understanding of the true potential consequences. While it is certainly not what we hope for from the people to whom we’ve devoted our whole lives teaching right from wrong, I’m here to tell you that it’s not a big deal. Sure, it was stupid. Were I you, I would be annoyed, angry, and shaking my head every time I thought about it for at least a year. But in reality, it probably won’t mean much for her life in the long run. She did not kill anyone, she is not going to prison, and one day this will just be a story she tells her own kids about how not to be a dumbass—a story that will most likely go in one ear and out the other before they shoplift from Space Target.

It is unfortunate that this will affect her career choices, but frankly, them’s the breaks. And if this really was her dream career, then I can guarantee that no matter how badly you feel about this, she feels much worse. What is growing up, if not the realization that your choices are permanent and actually matter? The fact that she told you about it signals to me that she has already decided not to live the criminal life, and so I think she will be fine. And she can find another career. She may not want to, but she may have to. (I do have a hard time imagining what licensure could now be out of reach for a lifetime because of what sounds like a misdemeanor arrest, but I’m taking you at your word here.)

As far as college goes, I’m happy to report that you are perfectly within your rights to decline to pay out of pocket for a career she can never have. She can either start thinking about another major, or she can find a way to pay for school herself should she decide, for some reason, to continue on her current path. If she does miss out on a year of school, then she’ll have to get a job. And it’s been my experience that nothing makes a college student more ready to take the gift of free schooling seriously than facing the entry-level job market.

Maybe that will be the case for her. Maybe it won’t. The point is that now it is her life, her choices, and her consequences. You may feel it emotionally, but you are nearing the end of the time in which you are required to feel it financially. Keep your money, wish her well, and be ready to help out once she decides to take her education a little more seriously.

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Dear Care and Feeding,
How can I get my 5-year-old to stop complaining about every little bump and bruise, including those that don’t exist? Tiny paper cuts become something she’ll whine about for days. Recently she complained about her ear hurting, only to have the doctor tell us she was perfectly fine. I’m getting increasingly frustrated, not to mention wondering how I’ll ever determine whether she actually is sick or in pain. I recognize that a lot of it comes from wanting attention. But still—how do I stop her from doing this?
—Psychosomatic Toddler

Dear PT,
Give your daughter a ranking system. Tell her that if something is bothering her and a hug or a kiss can fix it, then it’s a 1. If something is bothering her and a hug and a kiss and story time on your lap can fix it, then it’s a 2. But if something is bothering her and a hug, kiss, and story still won’t make it better, then that’s a 3 and you may have to go to the doctor. This will allow her to put her needs in order for herself, rather than making you do it alone.

There is, of course, the chance that if she really likes the drama and attention of going to the doctor, then she will lean too heavily on the 3’s. If you are suspicious of her rankings, do the hug, the kiss, and the story, and tell her you can’t go now but will find a time soon to go. Then wait a day. Chances are if it’s not serious she will have forgotten all about it. And if it is serious, you will know. Her entire behavior will tell you, not just her words. Good luck, and remember: She won’t be 5 forever.

—Carvell

Carvell Wallace is a father, writer, and podcaster in Oakland, California. He is a co-host of Slate’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting and has bylines in the New Yorker, GQ, New York Times Magazine, and others. The complete first season of his podcast on race in America, Closer Than They Appear, is available now.