I have to share something. I feel like such a fake, a phony. Like I'm the last person who should be writing for a zine like rad dad. Let me explain. About a month before Mother's Day, Ariel Gore, editor and founder of Hip Mama, emailed me and asked if I'd be willing to read at their Mother's Day Extravaganza. I was honored; of course, I would. This is what I had been hoping for all along: recognition for rad dad in the radical parenting community and a chance to gain exposure for the zine and for all the amazing writers and stories I have had the chance to work with.
Nothing could stop me. I was now officially super rad dad editor.
And then my son's counselor called. He wasn't going to pass high school, she said, unless we did an intervention, unless we corrected his behavior. Now. Immediately. Tomas, she demanded, you gotta do something.
It seems I hadn't done enough. I had been harboring that fear all along. Had I let him down? Had I hid behind a veneer of trusting his "choices" when in reality I was just in denial, just at a loss for what to do? And instead of sitting with those questions, contemplating ways to approach him, I did the worst possible thing after hearing his counselor's pleas; I got hella angry with my son. Not a good approach, about as successful as parenting by denial. When I confronted him about his progress report, which for every class including PE was listed as F, he looked me straight in the eye and said: Don't worry dad; I got it under control. Like a cartoon, I looked down at the progress report: F, F, F, F, F and back up to him, down, back, down, back over and over again. Who was this kid?
Basically he's been a normal teenager. Yes, we've gone through some difficult teen years, the not coming home, the walking in after school drunk, the hoarding of every glass and bath towel in his room as if he were the only one who needed to drink or shower. But through these years, I've also seen glimpses of what he will become: the way kids look up to him and the way he gives them such respect, the times he connects with his sisters when he doesn't know we are listening in the next room, the way he plays with our pet chickens.
So how do I explain the situation he was in? Can a rad dad raise a high school failure? Not a dropout, mind you, but someone who failed his classes when many of his teachers bent over backwards for him. He was given opportunity after opportunity, second chance after second chance.
But it gets worse; as we get closer to my departure for what I'm thinking is my big coming out party, my day in the sun, his monthly court date arrives for his probation hearing. Oh, did I fail to mention also that he has been on probation for the past two years? Each time I take him to court, which, of course, is peopled with nothing but kids of color and blatantly class targeted, I can't help but get livid at my son as the Judge reads off: his attendance (I didn't know you could miss over 100 days in a semester), his straight Fs, his unfinished hours of community service, his failed drug tests. It just never ends, and I feel so angry that he hasn't dealt with it. Because one day the Judge is gonna do something, I warn him.
Well, just as I'm about to leave, that's what happens. My son is sentenced to Juvenile Hall for the weekend. My weekend. I just couldn't, and still can't, get over the irony; the universe must be trying to tell me something.
You can talk all you want about how you would like to parent, what you think is valuable, what the implications of your parental choices might be, but all that theory, all that shit, flies out the window when you're faced with the power and pain of parenting in the moment. You are on your own when they're hurt. When they're dealing with their disappointment in the world. Or in you. When they step further and further away from you. Moments like these aren't talked about in books or zines; there are no answers found by doing readings in front of other people or participating in Mother's Day Extravaganzas. In fact, all that stuff just seems silly. Instead, what you discover in those moments is your capacity to love unconditionally, to forgive and forget, to be gentle, to put things in perspective. But it's not easy; it's ugly and hard, and it hurts.
I finally decided to skip the event because too much was happening, but my partner convinced and reassured me that I should still go, that it would be alright, that staying was not gonna change what had happened. So come Friday morning before I'm supposed to fly to Portland and my son is supposed to check in to the Alameda County Juvenile facility (after school, of course), we meet up in my living room. I hug my boy goodbye. I tell him I love him, I trust him, I have faith in him even if the world doesn't seem to, even if he doesn't believe in himself, even unfortunately when I too often act like I don't.
I do. This is hard, I say. But you can do this. You can.
He nods his head, says thanks, and saunters off to school like it ain't no thang.
That weekend was a profound awakening in many ways for me (and for him, I believe); hearing his mother describe how they took him away, how she watched him being searched before they shut the doors behind him and also hearing inspiring stories of creating a free school in Portland, gathering with a ton of parents to share a little bit of rad dad with them, sharing my feelings of failure with old and new friends in the middle of the afternoon, considering how to expand rad dad into a larger format, more inclusive magazine, and finally flying home to hear stories of my babies' mama spending Mother's Day contentedly gardening with our daughters and eventually leaving to bring our son home from Juvie.
Parenting is so much more than something we should celebrate on a day or with an event, so much more than feeling good at times or bad. Or like a phony. Or like a failure. It's an adventure, it's unknowable, fluid, never static, ever evolving. It's work. And, it's what matters most. Happy parenting to everyone out there, holdin' it down and keeping it real.
I believe in you. I do.
This is hard at times. But we can do this. We can.