A year and half ago I received a call that would eventually lead me to change everything that I thought I knew as a parent. The call was from my son's friend. He called to tell me that my 21 year old son had been in a skateboarding accident and that they were on their way to the hospital. He didn't give me much more information than that. Thinking he probably sprained an ankle or maybe broke an arm, I annoyedly grabbed my car keys and my husband and I headed out the door to meet them at the hospital. I was not prepared to see what I saw once I arrived.
As I entered the emergency room, I saw him. He was covered in blood from head to toe, and his clothes were sticky and in some places stiff, from dried blood. His eyes were swollen, his nose was black, his ears were dripping little drops of blood onto his shoulders. I was simply horrified by what I saw. A sinking feeling came over me and I thought I was going to throw up. He didn't just sprain an ankle.
Everything happened very fast at the hospital. They immediately transported him to a trauma hospital about fifteen minutes away. During the trip in the ambulance he lost consciousness, and as they wheeled him into the trauma room, the ensemble of doctors and nurses surrounded his gurney and moved in unison like a choreographed dance, one they did daily, I later learned to my dismay. And there he lay, covered in red, and non-responsive. They cut open his clothes to assess the injuries. And I just stood there, blankly. No emotion. Numb. All I remember is being escorted out and told to go home, that there was no waiting room in the trauma area and that someone would call me when he woke up. My husband got me home but I have no recollection of the drive.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury. His beautiful head hit the pavement in two places. He slammed the back of his head into the concrete, sat up, passed out and then immediately slammed forward on to his forehead. And I know what you asking right now, and the answer is no, he was not wearing a helmet. He fractured his skull behind his ear and it severely damaged the nerve endings that control taste and smell. He lost both of those senses forever. We had no idea what other brain functions were affected and neither did the doctors. It was a wait and see game. He stayed at the hospital for a while and then was discharged to continue the recovery at home. The good news was that his mobility was fine and he could talk, but in terms of memory, concentration and overall brain functioning, well, the doctors all said time would tell. Everyone heals differently.
This was the third time in four years my son's life came to a jolting stop. The first time was when he needed to attend a substance abuse program instead of attending college. The second time was when his colon was removed due to severe Crohn's Disease. He had a colostomy bag that we affectionately called Fred. You would have thought by then, given the life events he experienced, we all experienced, that I would have already given up MY expectations of what I wanted for my son. But somewhere in the back of my heart I still held a little notion that he would follow the expectations that I always had for him, finishing high school with high grades, attending a four-year, great university, working to help pay for college, a prestigious career he felt passionately about -- which involved good money of course -- loyal friends, a girlfriend, marriage, kids. In fact, after the addition of Fred the colostomy bag, I still held the expectation that my son should work and go to college at the same time.
My parents expected this from me and I believed (read "expected") that he should do the same. I pressed him to find a job and he found one. And between his painful health issues, his restaurant job, his school load and his natural born anxiety, my son got very sick again. He knew his body better than me, and he expressed how he was feeling, but the expectation was the expectation and I held my ground. He was eventually hospitalized due to complications from his Crohn's Disease. Coming face-to-face with a traumatic brain injury -- almost death -- I vividly recalled my previous over-investment in expectations, and resolved not to tread that path yet again.
As parents, we all have expectations for our children. Of course we do! We expect greatness from our kids. We start planning their eventual grand successes, as WE define them, very early in their life. But all too often, those expectations are artificial, meaning they make sense in our minds, and then we transfer what we want onto our children. We think our expectations are the right ones and we stick hard and fast to them. But sometimes, our expectations can damage our children. They pick a career that WE want them to have. And then they become resentful and angry. They apply to colleges that WE think are the right ones for them. They do all the activities that WE think they should do to get into that prestigious four-year university. They may feel ashamed to talk about their real passions, because WE expected a more traditional course. More glaringly, we can guilt, shame and confuse them into not thinking for themselves and not developing a life that suits them and makes THEM happy. This excessive expectation can be incredibly dangerous. We can create adult children who constantly need to please their parents, always seeking validation from others, and never feeling good enough, smart enough, or worthy without something or someone from the outside to approve them. All of this leads to depression, anxiety, an unfulfilled life and repressed passion. Our expectations have the potential of causing incredible, incredible harm.
I am happy to report that other than having no taste and no smell and the occasional headache, my kid is doing great. Better then great, actually... it seems that traumatic brain injury knocked some sense into him! He's currently getting straight A's in his college classes, which never happened before his brain got tossed around. But here's the thing -- I don't expect high grades anymore. If he gets them, great! He valued that and earned them. I don't expect him to go to college. If he chooses to, awesome! But I would be equally okay with him dropping out and becoming an entrepreneur or an artist, a world traveler or a Buddhist monk. If he values marriage one day, yay! But if he doesn't, I really don't care. If he wants to move out and get his own place, beautiful! But if he doesn't, I have absolutely no problem with him living with me as long as he wishes*.
Because here's the even bigger thing -- my kid is alive. He could have died three times before he was 22. I don't expect anything because I have no idea what tomorrow may bring. I take each day as a delicious gift. Please don't confuse "no expectations" with "no hopes"! I have plenty of hopes for my son. It is my sincere hope that he is kind to others and to the planet. It is my hope that he finds and gives love. It is my hope that the life he makes for himself is a happy one. And I am hopeful that he remains open, curious and adventurous in a world that too often squashes these qualities under the weight of artificial expectations. But ultimately, I have no control over any of this. And I know this, and more importantly, he knows this. And because I have absolutely no control or expectations, our relationship has ascended to the next level. I'm still Mom, just a much better, more compassionate, softer, more realistic version of Mom. His life is his to define and embrace with no expectations from me. I just love being on the sidelines of his life and to watch him bloom!
*... As long as he lives with us, I absolutely expect that he take the trash out, keep his room clean, wash the dishes, pick up the doggie poop, do his laundry, shop for his food, and contribute positively to the household. I absolutely expect that.