Last summer I joined my brother on the Outer Banks in North Carolina for five days of much-needed relaxation. He had rented a house near the beach, and the lady folk in his family were not available to come down yet, so it was just the two of us. He worked during the days, and I went to the beach, walked, read, swam, napped, and unclenched my jaws. At night we grilled dinner and chatted. We watched old movies. It was delightful! So refreshing.
Funny how a state of mind can evaporate in just moments. As I walked into my house when I got home, I immediately noticed that the side table next to my couch was a foot away from its usual spot. A blue pillow had somehow found its way from the couch to the chair next to the fireplace. And a vase was on the table that I never put there.
Before I even closed the door behind me, I knew what had happened. My 17-year-old son, who was staying with his dad while I was away, had let himself in and thrown a party at my house.
My blood began to boil.
As I looked around, I started noticing one slightly-off detail after the next. The bottom shelf of the fridge, roughly beer can height, was completely empty. The tortillas, always stored on the bottom left, were upside down, one shelf up, on the opposite side of the fridge.
Upside down tortillas on the second shelf??? Aaaaas if!
A blue pillow on that side chair? No, sir! It doesn’t match!
Then I went to do laundry and noticed a fine yellow powder on some of the containers next to the washer and dryer. Had there been a nuclear holocaust in the laundry room while I was gone? And where was the fire extinguisher that I always keep in the corner?
At some point that afternoon, I felt as if a spirit was passing through me, and it almost made me shudder. I had a nauseating sensation that A LOT OF PEOPLE had been in my house.
My first instinct was to call my fine young man at his dad’s house to get to the bottom of this immediately, but he was scheduled to be there for another two days, so I decided to delay contact while I mulled over my response.
I picked him up at his dad’s two days later. We had a very cordial conversation on the way back to my house. When we walked in, I drained my voice of all emotion and simply said,
“What can you tell me about what happened here while I was gone?”
His jaw dropped and his eyes got wide. He stammered something about having a friend over, as in one single person.
I said, “Ok. Well, it is clear to me that there was a party here. You’re obviously not comfortable telling me about it, and I’m not going to ask you to lie. So I’m going to lay out the consequences and that’s going to be the end of the conversation.”
I listed the punishments I had decided on. When I finished, he said, “Is that all?”
Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows.
“Do you want me to add punishments?”
I went to go about my business, and he said, “Um, do you want to know more about the party?”
I told him I would be interested in whatever he wanted to share, but again, I was not going to ask him to lie. He wanted to know if he would get in more trouble once I found out additional details, and I said no, that I had already laid out all of the punishments.
Once he was granted amnesty, the floodgates of information opened.
I would have jumped at the chance to throw a bash at my mom’s empty house when I was 17, so there is some hypocrisy involved with acting aghast, but the scale of this shindig was astounding. He had started by using social media to invite 124 of his closest friends the morning I left for North Carolina, and it went from there.
I know I didn’t hear every detail about the party, and frankly, I didn’t want to. I did enjoy learning about the extensive clean up/cover up efforts, which were comical, in part because my son was so outmatched by my CSI techniques. But his honesty and willingness to be open about what happened were refreshing, and I felt proud of him for that.
I was also grateful that he was not with me when I walked in. We were able to have a much more productive conversation two days later where I was able to quietly point out some of the things that could have gone wrong.
In this case, because we did have a good resolution, I felt good about my parenting, an all-too uncommon occurence. But most of the time I spend parenting solo, I am making decisions in real time, without the benefit of a second opinion or a break to consider the best approach.
Here is my experience with single parenting, in a nutshell:
You do it alone, and then you beat yourself up for not doing it well enough.
Without a partner to serve as a sounding board, I find I am regularly asking myself if I am making the right call. Am I being too lenient? Too harsh? Am I just choosing the path of least resistance because I am tired or distracted?
I understand that having a spouse in the home is no guarantee of quality co-parenting. I am able to consult my ex-husband on big decisions, and I often talk with friends about how to handle situations, but being the only adult on duty for the majority of the day-to-day issues can be draining.
The other thing that has been a struggle is guilt, which comes naturally to a divorced parent who was raised in an intact family.
I’ve tried to counterbalance that guilt by continuing some of the traditions of my family. When my siblings and I turned 10, my parents took each of us away for the weekend by ourselves for what they called a “10 Trip.” They took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in turn, when my son turned 10 many years later, I took him to Cleveland to watch the Yankees play the Indians and to visit some of the restaurants that he and I had seen on the Food Network.
I also had a rock inscribed that I gave him while we were in Cleveland. I wanted him to know that even when we were not together, he was in my thoughts.
As my son approaches the day when he will be moving out into the world, I’ve been looking back and thinking about what has gone well and what could’ve gone better. I’ve come to the conclusion that flogging myself for parental shortcomings hasn’t served any real purpose, and the best thing I can do is simply continue to show up for him regardless of the circumstances.
In the meantime, there have been lots of things for both of us to celebrate, whether that be a great trip, an epic party, an honest conversation, or learning how to hold it together when someone has moved your tortillas.