Here’s a turnaround. I’m asking readers for your viewpoint and advice.
Something very upsetting happened last night and I’m trying to understand where things broke down, how I should evaluate the whole thing, and what – if anything – I should do about it.
Background: We’ve been friendly with a family in the neighborhood for a couple of years now. They have a son who is a bit younger than Ben, and the boys play together – either here or at their house. We’ve all been rather flexible and informal about having the boys here or there. It’s a help all around.
Their house is a (self-described) matriarchy. They are both intelligent. She enjoys persuading others to her point of view and will use charisma and/or forcefulness as needed. She speaks with speed and volume, and is very quick-paced. Her decisions are self-directed. He is easy-going and conciliatory, speaks softly, has a slower pace. He prefers a more task- than people-oriented experience – and seems to have some attention problems from time to time. I mention their preferred behaviors because it is relevant to the way the whole situation evolved. Both have a tendency to drop details/procedures/rules, whether because (in her case) she is involved in a conversation or (in his case) he’s not really focused on the task at hand.
We have had a couple of misunderstandings before. Once, they were out of communication despite a pre-arranged plan and it meant that John couldn’t go with me to an important event. Another time, she picked the boys up, but then didn’t go back to the house, or didn’t answer her cell phone, or return my call. By the time I got home from work, I was in a near-panic. She had taken them to McDonald’s and was using the playground to keep them occupied while she worked on reports. Once, she said she was going to take care of dinner for the boys; Ben told me that dinner was pretzels and rice-cakes. I fed him dinner when he got home, just before he went to bed. More recently, I got nose to nose with her in order to try to convince her not to go into attack mode at the school (that doesn’t fly here in Georgia – people here would feel battered and abused by that – and we finally talked about strategy on some issues she had with the school policies). I can be aggressive and persuasive too – but it is a challenge even for me to get a word in edgewise if she’s on a rant. These little things have gotten smoothed out, but there is a bit of a pattern.
There has been a lot of pleasant time too. It’s nice to have a girlfriend nearby, and we met when we were both trying to finish Ph.D.s while caring for small children. She can be very charming and interesting company, and she gave me some professional advice just the other day that was very helpful. He has helped me with a couple of things around the house – installing a dimmer switch, fixing my speakers, etc., and I enjoy talking with him, too. So – all in all – it’s not exactly an easy friendship between the families, but it’s been a fairly good one.
Yesterday, they offered to take Ben in the afternoon and keep him for a sleepover. John and I had planned to catch a movie. My understanding was that they were going swimming at their friend’s house – I (mistakenly) thought that this was at a house on their street, a place we had already seen and that we knew. Then, the boys would play, have dinner, have the sleepover, and I’d come to pick him up in the morning.
John and I didn’t end up going out. We couldn’t agree on a movie. There weren’t any films playing that we both wanted to see. So we rented “Paycheck” (which was fine except for the completely gratuitous car chases and such) and had a relaxing evening at home.
At about 9:45, we got a call from the husband. They were just checking to see if we were home yet, because Ben was saying that he would rather just come home instead of having the sleepover. In an offhand way, he mentioned that they were still at the friend’s house. It was really too chilly to swim very much in the pool, so they went on paddle-boats in the lake. Now they were sitting around a fire roasting marshmallows.
I guess I kind of froze. I didn’t process what he was saying right away. I just said that we were here, and they could drop Ben off on their way home. I didn’t even ask to speak to Ben. I did ask if Ben was unhappy about something, but he said no – Ben just said he missed us and wanted to spend the night at his own house.
When I got off the phone, a kind of sick feeling in my stomach started. I thought they were around the block. They’re at a lake? Where is this lake? Paddle-boats? Were there life preservers? It’s almost ten at night, and I don’t know where my 7-year old son is, but he’s not around the corner having a sleepover with a friend.
John and I talked for a while about this. Maybe it became too big a thing. I’m not sure.
Anyway, I ended up calling back to ask if they were on their way. They weren’t. The kids were watching tv inside the house, the adults were still outside. I asked where exactly they were – a town maybe 10 miles or so from here.
So then I said that we were a little upset about this. My understanding was that they were swimming at their friend’s house this afternoon. I thought they would be at their house, and that by now Ben would be asleep. We really needed to give permission for a trip out somewhere else, especially if it involved any kind of boat on a lake. Also, it was too late for him to be out at a stranger’s house. I said that really wasn’t cool with us. We needed always to know where exactly Ben was. In future, if plans change, we really needed to be kept informed so that we could decide if the new plans were ok with us.
He said sure, he could understand, ok. They were headed back now.
At 11, they finally arrived. I was waiting on the front steps when they drove up. Both boys were asleep in the back seat. Ben was barefoot and still wearing a swimsuit. I ushered him into the house – told him to get into his pjs and get into bed. We agreed that John should stay inside because he was very angry and he tends to say things he would regret later. Ben went right to him, and they headed over to Ben’s room.
I wasn’t planning on saying much. I thought it would be better to discuss it the next day, but she went on the offensive. What’s the big deal? She had told me she was going swimming at their friends’ house. The boys were with them. It was fine.
Well, my understanding was that Ben was around the corner. I repeated that John and I have to grant permission for outings, especially if they involve water. I didn’t hear anything about staying out until 11 at night at an unknown location.
She argued that it wasn’t her fault if I didn’t realize it was a different friend than I had assumed. She said that they love Ben and he had a great time and they were with him. She intimated that I was questioning her trustworthiness. I said it wasn’t a matter of trust – if we didn’t trust them, Ben wouldn’t be out with them at all. We just needed to know where Ben was – all the time – and it was our parental job to decide whether or not to grant permission for his activities outside the house.
She said I was over-reacting. They were just over a friend’s house and decided to stay.
I said that the bottom-line is just that this is my kid, and this is my rule. I need to know where he is, and I need to give permission for changes in plan.
She started to argue some more – and I finally raised my voice and said, “Look, that’s it. It’s non-negotiable. These are the conditions under which my son goes anywhere without one of us.”
She said “you are so mean” and shouted at her husband to get back in the car. They took off.
I came back inside the house, tucked Ben into bed. He was cold and sleepy so I cuddled with him for a few minutes until he dozed off again. John and I stayed up and tried to process what happened. He finally went to sleep, but I was up until about almost four with a moderate amount of anxiety. I kept getting up and pacing, going outside. I was very thirsty. When I would get back into bed, I felt very tense and uncomfortable, and I would get up again. I felt like I needed to go outside to get enough oxygen. I didn’t have heart palpitations or anything like that, but there was a physical side to it. I’m guessing it was probably just adrenaline. It wasn’t really anger, but really kind of a somewhat panicky anxiety. I was finally able to relax by listening to music on my iPod and distracting myself so that I would stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, I woke up at the same time as always and couldn’t go back to sleep.
I don’t think I handled the situation very well. Part of why that might have been is that once I realized that Ben was off somewhere and I didn’t even know where he was or all of the people he was with, I felt like I had been a dangerously irresponsible parent and felt overwhelming fear and guilt. How could it be that I’m sitting in my house late at night and my son wants to come home and I don’t even know where he is to go pick him up?
It wasn’t unexpected that she would have gone on the offensive, and I am also somewhat predictable in not allowing myself to be bullied into compliance with anyone or anything. I knew that would be a problem, which is why I spoke to the husband about my concerns first. I should probably have just said a firm “good night” and discussed it at another time when I wasn’t so… well… freaked.
John pointed out that we would have handled it completely differently if we had their kid with us. First of all, if we said we were going somewhere to swim for a couple of hours in the afternoon, we would have told them where it was. If we decided to stay for dinner, we would have called to say there’s a change in plans, etc. Being out on a boat in a lake, being out at someone else’s house in another town, keeping the kids out (and up) just isn’t something it would occur to us to do when we were taking care of someone else’s kid.
The other thing is the practical side of the matter. In a way, it would be just as easy just to cut things off – they can get to be a bit draining at times. I really like them, but sometimes it’s kind of intense. On the other hand, the boys really like each other, and there aren’t many other children in the neighborhood. Their kid will be clamoring to see Ben starting about… now. Last night had an air of finality, but they adore their kid and it’s going to be hard to deny him. Also, their schedule is very unpredictable at times and I think they rely on us in ways that will be very inconvenient for them to have to cover in some other way. And I do like them, even if it is sometimes difficult. I suspect that she is escalating still (“working herself into a tizzy” is John’s description), but I’m also guessing that there will be some attempted contact within the next couple of days. The problem is, it will probably still be in attack mode, and I’m not going to be able to deal with that very well if it is.
This is one of those occasions when I would be really good at giving perspective and advice – if only it weren’t me. I am too close to the situation, and my maternal protective mode is in overdrive.
So I’m asking you – especially parents – to tell me anything that occurs to you as you read this. It will give me a way to bracket and look at it from different sides. I would really appreciate your thoughts and advice.
Perspective? Comments? Suggestions?