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

By then, Rob’s ugly behavior wasn’t occasional but daily. He’d stopped doing homework altogether—even at the pricey school for the gifted I sent him to when that first novel somehow became a best seller. I explained Rob’s utter lack of will to try anything he couldn’t master instantly as boredom; after all, his IQ put him in the genius range. I explained his unkindness as an artifact of his grief. I was a virtual ticker tape of explanations for my eldest son’s malice. My explanations were lies. And I knew it.

When Rob was still in middle school, -I spent Career Day at a school in a neighborhood not far from ours. A very tall, robustly heavy lad I vaguely recognized walked up boldly and said, “I know your son.”

Smiling, I asked, “Which one?”

“Oh! Rob-bee,” the boy said, his voice oozing contempt. “He’s a dickhead.”

In that moment, my face reddened and tears spurted. I wanted to run. Instead, I turned away, bit the inside of my cheek and gave a cheery little talk. In the car, later, I put my head down on the icy steering wheel and sobbed. The kid who ambushed me also was a dickhead; I remembered him now. But he was correct about Rob. My son was the kind of boy who sneered and put people down, even the weak. He stole pencils from the school store and quarters from his brothers’ piggy banks. As a soccer referee, he delighted in throwing down the foul cards and seeing the little kids cry. He cared about nothing and respected nothing. Intellectually, I knew that these were signs of despair. But they moved me first to rage and then to helpless grief.

Deep down, I was sick with a cold fear that something was truly, truly wrong with my boy.

Then Rob set a fire at the railroad easement. (It was a safe fire, the kind he’d learned in Boy Scouts, but still a fire.) After 45 minutes of being questioned and insisting that the fire was the result of spontaneous combustion, Rob proudly told the arson investigator he’d just been messing with the man’s head. That almost landed him in juvie. But, again, I rushed in to rescue him. I couldn’t forget that the Rob who once was my sweet and stunningly beautiful baby was still in there, and so vulnerable. At night, through the wall that separated his room from mine, I could hear him crying, “Daddy, Daddy, why did you leave me?” So even when our family grief counselor told me that the greatest gift I could give Rob was to let him fail out of eighth grade, I couldn’t. If he failed, I would fail too. I would be the rotten mother Rob said I was. I kept on making excuses even when he had his finger on the delete button, about to erase my entire second novel if I didn’t allow him unlimited access to the computer. Before he could, I pulled the chair out. Rob landed hard on his rear end on the carpet. Two weeks later, I got a call from Social Services. Rob had told the therapist he was seeing by then that I had abused him. It took seven years to get that complaint expunged.

Soon there was a parade of psychologists. Each offered a new theory. Rob told them all that yes, he hated me. Yes, I had abandoned him to the care of a sitter, spending only six weeks each year at home, then going away to write for six months (it was just the reverse). Yes, he did blame me for a thousand things, including the fact that his father died just 15 minutes before the bell rang on the last day of school, and I’d made him go that day, truly believing nothing would happen in the half hour it took the kids to clean their desks and pick up their report cards. No, he didn’t have any friends, because I wouldn’t allow it. And no, he would never forgive me. The best of these psychologists was tough in her assessment of Rob and of the destructive dance of broken promises, fresh starts and meaningless contracts from which I could not seem to disengage. She did not believe Rob was suicidal or a budding psychopath. Referring to my early struggles with infertility, she called Rob the product of my need, my grief and my guilt. “You treated him like the Messiah when he was born. And you’re surprised that he plays God?”
We muddled onward through adolescence.

Whenever a crack appeared in the glacial front, when Rob’s lip quivered, I would rush in.

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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