Published on October 19th, 2021 | by Kimberly Dark1
Damaged, Like My Son
The following essay is excerpted from Damaged Like Me: Essays on Love, Harm, and Transformation, by Kimberly Dark. Copyright © 2021 by Kimberly Dark. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of AK Press. To read an interview with Kimberly Dark, go here.
When I was pregnant, I read every parenting book I could find. I read every bit of literature on giving birth as well—artful renderings of the birth itself, of the plasticity of pregnancy, the madness of becoming two. Nothing could prepare me. I was possessed with another human being, and soon it would emerge. He would emerge. We’d learned that the child was a boy, and I had strange mixed feelings about that too for a little while. Somehow it seemed easier to raise an empowered girl than a non-entitled boy. Somehow the boy joy offered by all of the baby’s grandparents was comforting, even though it was gross. Clearly, all that reading had done nothing but amuse me during the wait. Still, I’m glad I learned the sex early because by the time he was born, we belonged to each other, baby and I; gender was the triviality it should be in the best of worlds.
Choices were all the rage in the parenting literature of the late eighties and early nineties, so I wrapped my tendencies around the concept of choice. When our son was small, sometimes choices sounded like “Do you want to stop hitting your cousin on your own or shall I help you stop hitting her?”
I think his dad was a bit more indulgent than I was, but we both had a good sense of social responsibility when it came to our son’s impact on others. If he became loud or cried excessively in a restaurant, for instance, I’d lean down and whisper emphatically, “Look around you. Do you think any of these people in this restaurant want to hear you cry while they eat their meals? LOOK at them!” The choice was to be quiet or be snatched out into the parking lot where I would stand still and unentertaining until he popped his thumb into his mouth like a little cork and I said, “Are you ready to go quietly back into the restaurant?” He’d nod, squeezing out the last tear.
I felt like a tyrant at times. Whatever you might be feeling is secondary to the responsibility of public decorum. Good god, am I turning into my mother? I wondered. Her sense of public decorum allowed for no bad behavior, no poorly fitting clothes, no inconvenient truths, and no low-class behavior to be shown. Few emotions were allowable in private either.
No, I just wanted him to think of others. I wanted him to understand that we are accountable to the reasonable comfort of those in and outside of our family. Just don’t be an asshole, I thought, as I shot my toddler a glance on a crowded bus. And like children the world over, he cottoned onto expectations and was appropriately rewarded with love and foolishness on a regular basis.
At least I hope he mostly felt love and ease. As an adult and a parent himself, he seems to have a hard time putting his needs first—or even equal—in the family he has built. Or is that just his mother’s perspective? I know I didn’t expect perfection, but sometimes he felt like I did. The only time my son was ever a student in one of my writing courses, a painful part of our family dynamic squeaked out as I reviewed my expectations for our class culmination performances. I talked through my list with the group and at one point I said, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I want to see you give the audience your best.” And he blurted, “That means it has to be perfect.” It was the sort of too-loud blurt that belies a joke; he had been hurt by my expectations before.
I overheard my son’s voice once—he was past toddling but still under the age of five—in a writhing pit of brightly colored plastic balls at a children’s dining establishment where noise was the norm. There were a dozen kids in that thing. The entrance was a slide, and the exit was a low chute opposite the slide. Kids had to get from one side to the other, and they weren’t all polite about it. There was my little boy, trying to help a child who was wailing, being continually kicked in the head by other children coming down the slide because she couldn’t get out of the way quickly enough. He was trying to tell the kids in the slide to slow down, watch out. She was probably too little to be in there, but who could extract her from the undulating cage? Those children were left to their own devices in that thing, and my son seemed to be the only one who wasn’t a candidate for Lord of the Flies. He was becoming agitated as he pulled her arm, too small himself to do much good in all those balls. He was getting, louder, saying “She’s just little! You have to help anyone littler than you! You just have to. She’s littler than you. Stop pushing! You have to help her!”
I weep now at this memory of his earnest, helpless pain. From the moment I knew that I was having a boy child, a white American middle-class boy child, I knew that I had to teach him to pay attention to others, to pay attention to his social position and to set his compass on compassion and accountability. We can’t always rely on what “feels right,” after all. In an environment where easy pleasure too often trumps complex pleasure, privilege can turn us into supremacists who don’t even realize we shun others. I know this. And still, it’s easier sometimes to avoid the parental pain of watching a child feel helplessly responsible, as he did that day in the ball pit.
A bit older, maybe nine, my son commented on another mother and son as we sat in a shopping mall dining area. There was a big yellow plastic Ronald McDonald melded into a garish park bench. A woman sat on the bench while her son—maybe four years old—climbed all over the clown. Well, that’s what it’s for. The kid was yelling things like “Look at me” and also licking the clown, straddling the shoulders, sliding off, and climbing back as the whole situation became slippery with spit. It was an unsavory spectacle.
My son watched for a while and said to me, a bit smug, “Tell me you never allowed me to do that sort of thing as a child.” And I shook my head, also feeling smug. “Never.” I replied.
I mean, what were we up to there? Good clean liberals out among the rabble, I suppose.
It’s even hard to watch our children struggle when they are not helpless, when they have simply messed something up and need to work to fix it. Much as I want him to understand that pleasure can come from the gratification of hard work—I need to keep learning that my broken heart, when he struggles, makes me stronger too.
In seventh grade, the day before his semester-long science fair project was due, it became clear that he couldn’t complete the assignment. He’d gotten lost somewhere in the instructions and started faking it, months back. Or I don’t know. Maybe he just didn’t want to do it. In any case, he had a crisis on his hands, and when I realized he’d just been making shit up, I was livid. I yelled as he glowered on his bed with the binder and all its blank pages around him. I demanded total honesty in front of everyone the very next day. He flat out refused.
Finally, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I was demanding of him either. Heroic honesty might not have been humanly possible at that point, and all I really wanted from him was a solution that demonstrated personal integrity. No more lying. He hastily assembled something to hand in and received the miserable grade that project deserved. The most he told other kids was “It didn’t work.” And then he changed the subject.
Parenting changed me forever. Of course it did. It’s a big part of one’s life that’s devoted to the daily care of a child. Both his father and I were devoted in a very daily kind of way. I’m glad for his father’s influence in our son’s life. He had a hands-on-daily dad. Most kids still don’t see men that way.
It changed me because of the time and effort involved and also because I kept having to put myself and my values in his position. When he was in high school, I went to the mat for him in a meeting with his teacher and the principal when he was accused of plagiarism. I debated righteously for his innocence, and there was a split second in that meeting when I glanced at him and saw guilt on his face.
Oh shit, I thought.
Maybe I had become over-invested in that campaign, too fervent to uncover the truth. I didn’t win either. Well, I sort of won. He took Fs on all three papers in question, but he was not expelled. I asked him years later if he’d actually plagiarized those papers. I mean, what did I see on his face that I read as guilt?
He said he’d plagiarized parts of one paper but not the other two. That moment of guilt came up when, in the face of my impassioned rhetoric, he saw his teacher start to cry. She had been doing the best she could, he thought. And she was partly right but mostly wrong. He did feel guilt, but at that point he thought we were all too far down the road to retreat.
I didn’t even remember the teacher’s tears.
Part of what’s haunting about parenting is always wondering if I’ve done the right thing, or enough of it or too much of something else. There’s no escaping the fear or inadequacy and no way to prepare enough for the task. We did the basic things in delivering him to adulthood without family members hitting him or having sex with him. I yelled more often than I like and sometimes I was emotionally absent, depressed, or anxious. I always came back, though, as soon as I could. I’m not perfect, and, because he treats me with far more grace than I sometimes treated him, I don’t think my son expected me to be perfect. Some parents set the bar pretty low, for sure. Higher than their parents set it is good enough. I never thought of it like that. I was keenly aware that it’s largely mothers who raise sexist men who become the leaders of tomorrow. I didn’t want to contribute to that. Of course I wanted him to know I had his back, but not at the expense of him learning about responsibility and interconnectedness. The paradox of protection sometimes kept me up at night.
Learning to be accountable to others may not be enough, but it’s something good. Learning not to leave others on the battlefield just because you can make a speedier exit without them may seem like archaic honor, but the kernel is that community matters. An ability to take a few deep breaths and then come back to civility won’t solve everything—in fact, sometimes it’ll hurt—but I believe it leads to deeper peace in the sum reckoning.
My son is damaged too, in a world where his mother’s life has made her vigilant about how he understands his privilege. Make no mistake, though, an awareness of this world’s complexity was a gift, when I was able to give it. He is growing up past his own obstacles and mine, finding what sunlight he can enjoy, shading others, cultivating strength and resilience, offering oxygen, beauty, and his own unique interpretation of the human spirit.
He’s damaged but not like me.