An Abusive Son: A Mother's Story

A mother can take only so much abuse from her son—and then she can take a whole lot more. Jaquelyn Mitchard tells how she finally found the courage to shut the door on the love of her life. And open it again

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
mother and son black and white image
Rob and Jackie Mitchard in their yard, 1997. Remembers Jackie: “It was the first time he was taller than I.”
Photograph: All Rights Reserved

Some parents consider their children heroes because they endure devastating, even life-threatening health conditions with courage. Some people see their children as heroes because they overcome bullying, criticism or social cruelty.

My son Rob is a hero to me because he faced the fact that he had made a mess not only of his life but of his very character. The road to that recognition began when I threw him out of our house one sweltering summer day almost three years ago, when he was 23. At the time, both of us thought this was an ending, not a beginning. As Rob slammed the door behind him that day, he never looked back. He took the first steps of a 10-mile walk back from our house in the country to his crummy apartment in the city. I ran from window to window, struggling to catch a last glimpse of his brawny form and characteristic springy step. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the longest walk of Rob’s life.

At the time, all I thought was that I would never see my firstborn again.

Once I had believed that Rob might be the only child I would ever have. Because I’d had trouble conceiving, Rob was specially treasured and the darling of his father’s heart. When the next two came along, Rob seemed more put out than the usual older sibling. Then Dan died at 44, cancer claiming him as swiftly as a brush fire, leaving me with three little boys and precious little else. Rob was only nine. The younger boys clung to me, but Rob withdrew into an ever-darkening cloud of self-absorption. Of course, I wasn’t the mother I should have been or wanted to be. Emotionally and economically, I almost cracked under the strain. But I tried to fight back, with all the stamina and creativity I had. After a full day at the university where I worked, I seized every freelance assignment I could find and was also—crazy as it seems to me now—trying to write my first novel. All I wanted was to keep life “normal” for my boys, not understanding that life would never be normal again. The youngest, Marty, was just three and wistfully told me that I should work at the Dairy Queen, where they had four-hour shifts. But even Marty seemed to know that this harried and weary woman was doing her best.

On the other hand, Rob blamed me for everything from his father’s death to the loss of his best friend, Eric. What really happened with his friend was this: The boy’s mother, a minister, called me and said, “I really hate to tell you this, Jackie, but I don’t want Eric playing with Rob anymore. Rob is just not being . . . very nice. He’s throwing rocks at cars -and calling names.” I should have confronted Rob on the spot. Instead, I chose to believe that my son would never indulge in such destructive behavior—or if he did, it was boyish mischief. Was I too frightened to face facts? Now I see that I was. Facts demanded consequences. I had no strength for them. I lied, telling Rob that Eric’s mom wanted him to spend more time with church friends. I might have saved him then with the truth. But hadn’t Rob already suffered so much? And how many more blows could he and I bear?

As the years passed, I wished more than anything that I’d had the courage to come down hard on Rob after that phone call. Instead, I tried to compensate, giving love in return for nothing, not even acknowledgment. Rob’s hostility and apathy grew in direct proportion to his height and strength of will.

Two years after Dan died, and against all reason, I adopted a baby daughter, Francie. A couple of years after that, I remarried. Chris was a father waiting to happen (we would go on to have five more kids) and was undaunted by marrying a woman 12 years older and having to fit into a fully formed family. The younger boys and Francie turned to Chris’s gentleness like flowers after a frost. But not Rob.

First Published April 4, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


kb smith04.20.2011

I read this story thinking it was something i can relate to, and sadly it is. My mother was much like you, and unfortunately, i was like your son, possibly worse. I used drugs, sometimes stealin g my parents meds. We fought, at one point i broke my mothers wrist, I deserved to be hated and yet I never was. I think the worst I did was to steal their savings account money. She banned me from their property, took out a tro, and came just short of haveing me arrested. Once the state stepped in and admitted me to rehab and psych, i was diagnosed bipolar, and once properly medicated, staying clean from other drugs, andtherapy, we are close again.

Kathy Smith04.11.2011

When I read this story I had to look at the author because it's so much like my story. My husband divorced me when my two children were 4 and 6 1/2. I had to move them from Texas to Michigan to get help from my parents. I never received child support and left Texas with the clothes on our backs. My former husband wasn't in my children's lives and my son resented it. He blamed me for the divorce. Like Rob, my son Rory was constantly in trouble and belligerent. He wasn't allowed to attend his 8th grade graduation and quit school at the beginning of his senior year. He terrorized me and my daughter but I felt so guilty because of the divorce. And like Rob's Mom he was my blond hair, blue eyed first born and I'd had trouble conceiving so he was my miracle. At the age of 18 he was diagnosed with schzio affective disorder and it broke my heart. Unlike Rob, my son has used drugs to self medicate and I finally had to say enough and told him to stay out of my life until he could be clean. I worry about him night and day but know that this is best for all of us.

Cheryl Stauffer04.11.2011

to me, the best thing about this article is how the mom is taking responsibility for her role in creating the son's personality. That's pretty rare these days- admitting that you played a part in why he is (was)what he is (was). In many essays like this that are written by the parent there is a very puzzled tone- almost bewilderment- about how a kid got to be that way.
To me, your citing several examples of wrong choices you made (and who hasn't made wrong choices as a parent??) gives you a *ton* of credibility. I'm very glad things are going well now...

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