I have two children. My son is the oldest by fifteen months. When my daughter was born, I worried inordinately that I’d done him wrong by having a second, and it took a painful six months to get over my worries.
But as the kids developed, my daughter was the easy one to be close to. I was drawn to what she was into: cute drawings, made-up languages, tap dance, crafts, conversation. She was fun company.
In contrast, being with my son often felt like work. He tended toward monomaniacal interests, and when he'd talk, he didn’t pause to see if I was taking it in. He liked PlayStation and computer role-playing games, which I never attempted to learn. I might pass behind him, saying, “Those shrubs… they’re so realistic.” He wouldn’t reply. I’d hear music and explosions, see him happy, wish he were happy some other way, and continue on.
As a parent and a college professor, I expected to take him around to find the right school, but after one visit, he cut me off. To my dismay, he went on a tour of colleges with his girlfriend’s mother, and they chose a school in Washington I’d never seen. And although it was only five hours north of my Oregon home, my son didn’t particularly want me to visit, although he’d come home for school breaks and resume his position with a console on the living room floor. Two years later, with my daughter, I flew around the country to check out colleges, then visited her at her Iowa school. We even drove there once. When she was home for breaks, we experimented with recipes, took runs, and did silly craft projects together.
In 2012, my son finished a BS in math and then stayed on for a Master’s in education—and still didn’t particularly want me to visit. At least now we shared a love of writing and reading, although our genres were universes apart. On breaks, we'd go for a hike, and he'd answer a prompt, such as, “In Dungeons and Dragons, tell me about points.” Miles later and back in the parking lot, both of us were aware I hadn't quite followed what he'd said. “Let’s do this again,” we’d say, but his break would end, and he’d be gone.
Teacher training is an arduous road, but he told me little about his journey. I knew he was a student teacher at a high school rife with violence, but I never figured out what he taught. He accepted a permanent job at that school, and before long, he'd been there two years and was married.
Although I thought of my son often, I knew so little of his life. What were his days like? What grades did he teach? Did he have mentors to go to? When we talked, it was usually to convey something shattering: that my mom broke her hip, that one of his former students was murdered, that he had to summon the onsite police to break up a classroom fight. When I asked him why they were fighting, he said, “Even their homes aren’t safe. Mom, you have no idea.” He wasn’t going to fill me in.
But then he returned to Oregon. He’d found a temporary position two towns east of me. When it was over, he started subbing, and I’m sure he agonized over whether he’d ever find the permanent job he wanted. He probably questioned his career choice. But still we rarely spoke, unless one of us needed to give instructions for pet-sitting or watering plants. As I fed his pets, I tried not to snoop, but it was hard not to. In his study, I saw a gigantic “We’ll Miss You” poster. It was covered margin-to-margin with doting paragraphs from his Washington students. I felt such pride—and loss to not have known of his successes as they occurred.
At some point in these years, I divorced and remarried. It was healthy for me, and by association, probably healthy for the kids. Around the time my son returned to Oregon, I made another monumental life change: I quit my job. I'd worked as a professor for twenty-five years in a competitive STEM field, and now I needed a new course. I wanted to spend time with my aging parents, whose remaining years or days were clearly finite. When I’d overhear them talking with their old friends, no one listed trips or accomplishments, and definitely not health issues or deaths. They’d all experienced hardships by now. “We’re so lucky to be alive,” they’d say. “How amazing and beautiful this world can be.” They’d beam at one another and say, “It’s so nice to be with you again.” I’d ache at their sincerity. I’d ache at what I was missing, especially with my son.
By that time, my daughter was working in southeast Asia. She was there for four years. But despite the distance and time zones, she was with me as I made changes to my life. I could call her at 4 a.m. my time for a leisurely chat. When I visited her in Laos, she took the time to ride motorbikes with me for six days. On trips to Thailand, I met her friends, saw her workplace, experienced the markets where she shopped, and ate with her at her favorite food stands. And before she started law school, she invited me to Washington, D.C., to help her set up her first US apartment.
So close to my daughter; so distant from my son. I felt the disparity. All of us felt the disparity. It was horribly uncomfortable.
In 2018, at twenty-eight, my son got his dream job. It was at the high school he’d attended, only a four-minute drive from my house. He bought a house a short drive west of me, yet still we had little contact. With his going to bed early and getting up at dawn, our calls were so infrequent that new work challenges had eclipsed previous ones by the time we’d next talk. At least I had a vague understanding of what he faced now—the potential of unemployment if enrollment flagged, admin's unfortunate need to support parents over teachers, staffing imbalances, and issues of curriculum and student mental health. My son and I scheduled walks after he finished work, but even in our best year, I think we walked four times.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it was my daughter who suggested he invite me to float the Willamette River with him. I was ecstatic. And even though it was late in the summer and the flow was slow, and it was late in the day and the wind blew upstream, we spun and drifted—parallel, in opposite directions, even colliding—but no matter: we were finally on the same waters. When he asked if we could do this every year, I gushed, “Yes!”
The pandemic made his job harder. He told me scraps of what he was going through. I wanted to shout, "Make time for yourself and your wife!” But we were too distant for him to hear me. I couldn’t help him steer his course.
During our fourth-annual tubing trip, in summer 2021, our small talk failed to catch. He finally asked what I'd like to know more about. His interests were broad, and he'd read so much. With my mom now gone, I was spending more time alone with my dad. I’d been reflecting on how sad it was that there may have been no surviving relatives to mourn the deaths of our German ancestors killed in World War II. "The history of Germany,” I blurted. For the next two hours, my son told me about clashes, factions, motivations, and consequences, starting with the Gaul’s resistance to the Roman Empire and finishing with World War II.
As we deflated our inner tubes, I realized that I needed to know my son. I had to try harder. A few days later, his school year started. I set my alarm for 6:25 a.m. and called him on his drive in, on his schedule.
Now we were talking. I learned about assignments, meetings, and open houses with no time for dinner first. I heard about the challenges reopened schools were facing—student behavioral issues, changing curricular needs. One day he said, “It’s so obvious the kids are absent for COVID, but their parents don’t report it. They can only keep them home a few days, then send them back, probably still infectious.”
“And all those absences,” I said. “That must make it even harder.”
"Honestly, it barely makes a difference,” he said. “I'm more worried I'll get sick. I don't get enough sick leave to quarantine. And we’re so burnt out.”
“Everyone,” he said. “Parents need schools open—the economy’s dead without it. Kids need continuity and a safe space. But Mom, honestly, we need a break. The teachers. While all my friends are working fewer hours from home, my job’s even harder. It’s relentless.”
“I wish I could help,” I said. I wondered vaguely if I should bring dinners over once a week.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You know we can’t even get subs? If we could find people who’d cover a third of what we left in our sub plans, we could manage. But we've given up looking. We spend our prep periods covering each other’s classes.”
A few months later, in February 2022, I was on a long drive alone. I had a lot on my mind. My dad had died, which left me introspective and with more discretionary time. I’d been spending most of my days writing, which felt self-centered given the societal problems evident in the streets and in the news. But other than donating money, what could I do about the disparities in people’s resources, the rise of incivility and intolerance, the rampant overconsumption, and the environmental degradation? As I drove from Bozeman to Denver, as cords of snow braided and unbraided themselves across the lanes in front of me, a thought intruded: I should become a substitute teacher. I could do it. It would be something concrete—for the parents, for the kids, for the teachers, and for us. I wanted to be closer to my son.
By March, my application was approved. My first job was a second-grade class. I called my son the night before. He was as excited as I was that I’d see the system firsthand. The next morning, it was my son calling me—with tips on what is age appropriate and what support I should and should not expect from the school. After my teaching was done—and tables sanitized, chairs up, floor swept, note written—I called my son. We debriefed for over an hour.
And so it continued, me subbing once a week, sometimes at an elementary school, sometimes in dual English-Spanish immersion programs, once at the middle school, and a couple of times at his high school, where he and I nodded when we passed in the hallway. Each time I taught, he’d prep me before and debrief with me afterward.
Now it was the Saturday before the last week of classes—we were talking even on non-workdays. He groused that the seniors had graduated, which meant he couldn’t give any new content to classes that had seniors in them. "Basically," he said, "I'm supposed to babysit the other kids for one more week. All they want to do is cut class and go play dodgeball. I absolutely hate teaching this coming week.”
"If it's so bad, do you think I could sub for someone?"
“I seriously doubt it. We all want to spend this last week with our kids.”
On Sunday night, I was up writing when I got a text from my son. It was 10:21 p.m., exceedingly late for him. His prose was flat: “Mom. How are you.”
“Fine. You?” I was curious.
I called. His voice was quiet. “Mom,” he said. Then after a silence, “I have COVID.” Another silence.
Slowly, with wonder and then certainty, I understood that the distance between us had narrowed.
“Do you want me to sub for you?”
TagsEducation, Family, motherhood, Connection
5 comments have been posted.
Love this, Barb. Rich and deep and inspiring. Your patience paid off. Lucky both of you!
Bar Scott | June 2023 | Corvallis, OR
This is a profound and touching essay. Reading it strengthens my own connections in family and community.
Linda Marie Zaerr | June 2023 |
So well stated and heartfelt. Thanks for expressing what so many parents feel. Your words helped me understand you and your son, and my relationship with mine, better. I would add that in complicated relationships like parent/child, this ebb and flo is common. My go-to reaction now is to think that 'this, too, shall pass'. Sure enough it does, and sometimes we talk about it, sometimes we don't. I noticed that you let your son set the tone and also the depth to which he wants to take the discussion of his personal life. I think this is wise, and actually might allow him to open up more readily. I struggle with this with my son, wanting greater insight and detail into his life. I have found, though, that it is not nearly as productive as waiting for him to decide what he wants to disclose. I feel privileged to have a glimpse at your feelings. Thanks for sharing. I will always cherish our time spent in childhood together, and I am ever grateful that I got to meet your children, and you, mine!
Nancy Hollenbeck | June 2023 |
I loved your article Barb about your relationship with Nate I was not close to Andrew as he spent 11 years in NY and he was always a very independent person , since his divorce and caring for his son we have become quite close and I have got to know him and we are quite similar in some ways James has had mental health issues and he has been difficult but loving Ash and I are close but she keeps a lot of issues to herself but her partner emotionally helps her Barb your article was warm and loving , being a mum is such a giving but rewarding job Lots of love Sue ❤️
Sue Smith | June 2023 |
I loved this insight into your relationship with your son and how you remedied the distance and lack of connection.
Kelly Donegan | June 2023 | Corvallis, OR