I’d just made my thirty-eight-year-old son a dental appointment to examine his freshly broken tooth. But instead of thanking me, he frowned the same way he’d done in childhood if I “helped” without his permission. Now, as then, he huffed, “I’m a big boy. I should call them myself.”
I tried not to look hurt. “You can reschedule if you wish,” But inside I already knew. If I hadn’t called, the appointment would never have been set.
I’m just a mom who’s never sure if the grown man or the little boy will appear.
He made it to the appointment. And despite battling the dental problem called “meth mouth,” he didn’t even lose the broken molar. He came home beaming, that terrific smile of his lighting up the room. “The dentist saved it!”
He exclaimed his good fortune in a way that made me want to stick a gold star on a refrigerator chart. “That’s great!” I was glad for my boy.
The counselor has stopped me a hundred times for calling my three sons “boys.” All in their thirties or forties, they look like adults. Eat like adults, swear like adults. And often, act like toddlers with beards.
“They’re grown men,” the counselor insists. “Not little boys.”
Technically, she’s right. All three of my sons left childhood a long time ago. There’s no denying the gray streaks that zoom like comets across those beards.
Yet each seems stuck in adolescence in his own way. Because of substance use, they’ve all appeared incapable of that activity called “adulting.” Two of the three don’t possess a driver’s license and the third only drives after I forced him to learn. Two still live at home. Perpetual childhood dives in and out of our family’s timeline. More times than I care to remember, I’ve been told it’s my fault.
Yes, I have treated them like boys, not men. Addiction holds all three hostage. Experts say emotional maturity often freezes at the same age when substances took over a person’s life. In our family, it really does seem as if the age they started “using” is the same age they usually act.
But what came first? Has addiction itself caused arrested development? Or have I “crippled my sons,” as one friend chided me endlessly?
To hear my counselor tell it, my sons with substance use problems are immature because I regard them as boys instead of men. If I only treated them as men, they’d grow up and finally start wearing long pants.
I’m trying. Honest.
But some days, it’s impossible. My sons are like two-sided coins, flipping from man to kid to man as the day wears on. One minute I’m making appointments, driving the non-licensed somewhere or helping fill out forms. The next thing I know, the third-grader turns into the Incredible Hulk, chain-smoking and roaring in very adult terms about how I don’t know squat.
I’m tempted to give up hope.
But lately, one of them has chauffeured me to the local hospital for an ongoing treatment. He’s never arrived late or forgotten to pick me up. I swear I haven’t anything to do with it. But when I get home, one of his brothers throws a very adult childish tantrum, screaming and throwing bombs of the “F” kind.
Just as I decide that no one may treat me like that, the adult disappears and the whiny kid reemerges. “I need help,” Whiner pleads. “Please. I just need help.”
They really do need help. Mental issues run through our family too. Tough love—meaning cutting off relationship—might lead to even worse outcomes. All three have been suicidal or have attempted suicide.
The mental issues are real, the addiction is real. But are these Jekyll/Hyde man cubs real or is it just another way to manipulate Mom? Or is Mom sitting on them so they can’t grow up?
Maybe it’s both. Since I can only change myself, I am trying hard to stop calling them boys and start believing they’re adult males. I’m learning to set boundaries that insist they make their own decisions, take their own consequences.
I’m also not going to stand by if something valuable is at risk. When I know my son has been drinking or using, I’m not going to hand over the car keys. Heck, if he’s impaired, I’m not going to allow him to run the lawn mower or even the washing machine. I can think of my sons as grown men all day long and still not allow them to wreck my stuff.
The son with the broken tooth was content to be a boy if it meant he didn’t have to overcome his terrible anxiety to call the dentist. But he manned up enough to get that tooth repaired.
And for good or ill, I “mommed up” to wait for his return, as always, with a chocolate milkshake. In spite of mental illness and addiction, they’re all handsome guys with fetching smiles. And no matter what, I’ll never stop loving the boys or the men.