Losing a child is one of the more horrific traumas in life. It is said that a parent should never have to bury a child. Miscarriages, stillbirths, SIDS, and other losses at such a young stage are heartbreaking. Losing a grown child, unimaginable. But, how do you cope with a loss that is not death? What do you do when your teenager leaves your protection and cuts you out of their life?
As moms, we read every article, go to seminars, use our Employee Assistance for counseling. We’re in MOPS groups, Bible Studies, neighborhood groups, PTA, but when your teenager — your child — goes outside the norms of adolescent behavior, where do you go? What are our resources? The local high school is not one. I can tell you that from personal experience.
Today is high school graduation at a huge Dallas Cowboys training facility in North Texas. Hugely exciting for both Cowboy fans and proud parents. Over 1,200 students in the graduating class and mine is not there. Mine is missing. It is bittersweet as I am thrilled for my neighbors, students, and friends. Heartbroken for my girl.
My daughter was a student in the International Baccalaureate® program at her high school. Senior year she decided to pursue her dream of culinary arts, and asked to drop out of the IB program so she could pursue the wonderful culinary arts program her school offered. She couldn’t do both IB and culinary, so it was a no-brainer. Pursue your passion! She thrived. She was happier than she had been since elementary school.
We thought we lost her in middle school to cutting and a suicide attempt. Slowly, she came back and blossomed into a young lady who appeared happy and thriving to everyone. She was accepted into culinary school. She had a boyfriend for almost two years. She had goals. She had passions. My girl was on the culinary arts team and worked on her competition skills. She was focused and had drive. This girl was working at the local pizzeria and smiled and was social with all of the PTA mommies in the area. She looked good. I looked good. I looked like the parent that brought my depressed, troubled daughter to the light. I was super mom.
The first day of the final high school semester of her life, my girl was caught smoking in the boys’ room and suspended for three days. Big deal. It was kind of comical and cliché. But, she was also failing a couple of core classes so I had to follow through on our family rule — no pass, no work. So I told her to call into work and tell them that she was “suspended” from work until she pulled her grades up. I’m not willing to pay for a culinary program or college if she’s not willing to put in a little work in high school. Yes, she was doing awesome overall, but there are still consequences even if you’re smiling and nice to Mom.
We got her from the principal’s office. Went home. My son went to his room to play video games, and I went to take a nap after a crazy afternoon. I was not only nine months pregnant, but overdue and had spent an hour in a lockdown drill in a vault at the school while I was trying to retrieve my suspended smoker.
The girl went to her room to sulk. No biggie, that’s what she did when she didn’t get her way or was caught making stupid teen choices. My husband and little daughter were at dance class. It was quiet and perfect for a much needed preggo nap. I woke up three glorious hours later, and the house was still super quiet. No emo alt music coming from the teen’s room. No pounding on my door begging me to let her finish her work shifts. No ringing phones. Silence.
I checked in on my son. He was playing video games in his gamer chair with a snack. I checked in with my husband. He was bringing food home. I checked in on my teen. Her room was empty. I checked outside in the back. Nope. I finally looked out in our driveway. The car we let her use was gone. She’d taken the car!
I didn’t know what to do. I was scared, frantic, and utterly useless with my brain. I called my husband and he suggested that I call the police to report her as a runaway. I did, and that is when I found out that they could do nothing since she was seventeen. Had this happened just a couple months earlier, it would have been a runaway situation and they could have dragged her ass home. They could help us find her and do a welfare check. They could help me retrieve my car. That was a start.
In Texas, at age 17, the police cannot bring your child back home to you. They are not a runaway, like they would be considered at age 16. Yet, they are not an adult where they can sign legal documents for themselves, like when they are 18. It is a weird, hugely sucky grey area. I have to provide her a home (duh, I’d provide one at 18, 19, and 20+ if need be), but have no recourse if she leaves. She can leave and I have to legally let her back in the middle of the night if she decided to return.
Let’s just say that it took three days, me hacking into her Snapchat to see chats from her boyfriend saying that she could park her car at his apartment and she could sleep in the freezing car at night and he’d cover her with a tarp so we couldn’t spot the car. I sent that to his mom, but that exchange is a whole other article on how to be a part of a mom support system.
We spotted the tarp-covered car, called the police, sat on her while she tried to run (and tried to run over me and my husband in her frenzied state), and watched her get handcuffed in front of the whole family as we all talked. The police kept telling her how her parents must care if they sacrificed their car to keep her parked, searched for her, called and texted everyone in her contact list. They’d seen many parents not stay and talk their kids out of leaving. She chose to throw all of her belongings onto that tarp and stay in the middle of the low-income apartment complex and let her family go. There was nothing the police could do. She was more interested in having the freedom to break school rules, have no curfew, smoke pot, and be “down with the man.”
I kept in contact with the school. She attended well at first. Then my mom and step-dad butted in and gave her a car to “help her get to school.” She showed them her gratitude by quitting going altogether. They took the car back. I contacted the school weekly, more than weekly. I became “that parent” to find out what I could to do save my daughter from herself. Were there programs for “homeless” children? Were there resources for kids gone astray? What could we do as a team to help her graduate, without enabling her. It was an impossibly fine line.
I was told by the main principal that I should report her as a runaway. A principal of one of the largest high schools in Texas didn’t know that at 17 she wasn’t a runaway. She was a minor and needed my signature for everything, but I had no recourse. He didn’t know that she was a minor either. He had assumed she was 18. And, he had no suggestions except to contact my Employee Assistance Program for family counseling. I had started this whole thing with the fact that she was attending counseling already (PTL!). The guidance counselor was even less helpful and told me that my daughter wouldn’t be in this situation had I signed off on her going from AP English to regular English for the final nine weeks of school.
How in the world was that going to help her attendance issue? How would getting to know a new teacher who didn’t know her situation help her during this time of inconsistency? How does that teach my girl to persevere or to just suck it up when you want to play grown up? The school had nothing. Now she is a credit away from graduation. Her fault, not theirs, but I can’t help but think there must be others facing this. There must be others who are much more polite, or they’re scared or ashamed to say anything. Out of 6,000, we can’t be the only drop-outs. Do they just let it happen and say, “oh well”?
My daughter texted me for Mother’s Day. We talk every other day. I have sleepless nights thinking that she’s killed herself or overdosed on something when I don’t hear from her. I don’t know if she’s doing drugs. I don’t know if she’s having safe sex. I don’t know if she’s implementing any of the skills that we spent 17 years teaching her.
For her first two years, it was her and me. I sang, rocked, and whispered to her that it was her and me against the world. There was nothing she and I couldn’t conquer. Now I hold, rock, and whisper to my newborn son that he has a village. He has a village so that if I am not his person when trouble strikes, he has a whole damn village of people to choose from for help. I wish my girl had a village. Only one teacher really responded when I contacted all of her teachers to brainstorm and let them know about her situation. I’m baffled at the lack of empathy from any of her educators. Isn’t that why educators are in this field?
This hasn’t stolen my joy. I am thankful that my husband has been supportive even when my parents and friends disappeared. I’m thankful for the three kiddos at home. I’m thankful that I get to learn from this and try something different. I’m thankful that someone might hear this story and know that they’re not alone. Losing a child sucks. The systems that are there to protect them suck. How can we change it? How can we find our lost children before it’s too late and they do turn 18 and into real adults? I’m hopeful that this is something we’ll look back on and — while I’ll never laugh about it — just look back and reflect on how we all survived.
We must survive this.