Though I am writing this as partially a religious issue, I wanted to explore the complex psychological aspects of what I have been going through. Our middle child, a boy, who is now in his early twenties, has decided to leave Torah observance. It’s causing me depression, particularly on Shabbat, when he goes to work. I sit there picturing the boy who wore his yarmulke and tzitzit proudly.
To give you some background and perhaps an explanation as to how we got to this point, we felt that he was at risk of getting involved with hard drugs if we did not keep him at home. I still hold by this reasoning.
I realize that, as his father, my love for him has not diminished. However, I do feel disappointment when I see boys his age married with children or in a reasonable career. He is not experiencing any of these milestones that his peers are experiencing. His job, while steady, is in sales of a very difficult nature and is low-paying. Some weeks, his pay rate averages out to approximately $5 per hour. I know sales is like that, but I never see anywhere near an adequate paycheck.
But he seems to be satisfied with his life. So my life is about trying to be grateful that he is not dead or a hard-drug user. He does use marijuana, which I believe helped to influence him to become the person he is today, but who knows? Maybe he would have wound up like this anyway. My complaint about the marijuana is that I think it helps him accept low standards for himself in terms of pursuing a career or taking on a family. While I understand that not everyone is ready for these responsibilities, it is not totally clear to me why he is avoiding these steps. I realize that there are many ways to make a living, but it’s hard for me to see this and understand it.
It’s a difficult environment. I am glad that he lives with us because his drug use is much lower than before. But, of course, I would love to see him embrace sobriety and recovery rather than engage in marijuana “responsibly.”
All of my demands seem off-point — nothing I say to him resonates with him. A rabbi advised me to stop giving him “eitzos,” ideas. But otherwise I am crying all day.
You probably know that you are part of a large group of parents who find themselves at a point in life where they are looking at the grown children they raised and wondering how it came to be that they are living lives that do not resemble, even remotely, the life that was anticipated for them. Like your friends and neighbors, I’m sure you sent him to all the right schools, the right camps, made sure he had the right friends, created a home environment consistent with your beliefs, and modeled for him all that you wanted him to be. And yet, here you are, scratching your head, probably beating yourself up and filled with pain over the reality of who he is at this moment in time.
This large group of parents, many of whom suffer in silence, is also searching for answers. Though every honest set of parents will admit that they did certain things wrong while raising their children, no doubt they did a lot more right. And I’m sure the same holds true for you. But since life often doesn’t make sense, and, despite our best efforts, there is no obvious quid pro quo, your challenge is to figure out how to live a life that can still feel joyful and meaningful, despite your “pekelah.”
I know how difficult this is, particularly since we live in such a tight-knit community, where every Shabbos, every holiday — frankly, every morning at minyan — it takes superhuman powers to not look at other young men who seem to have had no problem going with the program, following in their father’s footsteps, and just getting it right. It’s easy to feel singled out, alone, and even persecuted to some degree. But you are not alone. Many young adults fail to become the adults their parents hoped for. They disappoint in various ways—some obvious and some not so obvious. Knowing you are not alone doesn’t relieve your pain, but perhaps can help you feel less forsaken.
Though I don’t claim to have the “religious” answers, I do agree with the rabbi who told you to hold back with your “eitzos.” Every idea, piece of advice, criticism, or admonition is probably something that you’ve said hundreds of times already, and it’s all there, in your son’s head, waiting to be looked at and hopefully acted upon if and when he is ready to retrieve it. For now, it’s about providing him with a loving environment, which you clearly have done, despite how painful it is for you to witness the life he is living.
On a practical note, I’m assuming your son has been or is presently in therapy. And I’m assuming, or at least hoping, that he’s been dealing with a professional regarding his drug use. He would also benefit from speaking to some sort of career counselor. Clearly, he has issues that need to be dealt with as he tries to navigate his life.
Though he appears satisfied being single, earning so little money, and still living at home with his parents, my guess is that he is suffering greatly as well. I suggest you try to encourage him, again, if he hasn’t already, to speak to someone compassionate whom he can be honest with and trust. It should be someone who can offer him guidance in a way that isn’t “parental,” so he doesn’t react the way he naturally would toward a parent.
I’m curious as to why you haven’t mentioned his mother in all of this. Perhaps she is out of the picture, whether physically or emotionally. What you’re going through is so difficult to experience alone. If you do have a wife, is she sharing your pain and concern? Do you connect and work as a team in order to build one another up, offer solace, and brainstorm together in creating the best possible environment for your son and yourselves?
For now, you seem to be doing so much right. You continue to love your son and offer him a safe home in which to live. I hope you give yourself credit for that. No one can say where your son will be in a month, a year, or five years. We’ve all heard many magical comeback stories of people turning their lives around. So always hold on to hope.
However, the fact that you cry all day is not acceptable. You need to figure out a way to live with your disappointment that leaves space for personal happiness and fulfillment. Look at your other children, your own achievements, and your life in general. Are there areas in which you have every reason to feel gratitude and happiness? Must your middle child entirely define your life? Is that fair to you? Is that fair to the rest of your family and your friends?
Perhaps you should join a support group with other like-minded individuals who are going through similar trials to your own so that you have a safe place in which to share your suffering and get encouragement and inspiration. Perhaps you need to see a therapist on your own in order to work through your emotions and learn how to cope better. If you are in fact married, you need to bring your wife on board and, together, respectfully share this challenge while both comforting and supporting one other.
The story you have shared is not unique, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging or painful. Where you go from here is going to reflect your own story. You have the option to make it a story filled with happiness in spite of it all.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.