When I run into people I haven’t seen in awhile, one of the first things they ask me is “How’s Luca?”
Luca is my beautiful, intense, complicated 13-year-old son. He has remained as conflicted by his father’s and my divorce as he was when we first separated almost eight years ago. The Saturday before Luca’s sixth grade graduation, my husband and I drove my raging son to his dad’s house and left him there. Depending on how much truth I think the inquirer can handle, I offer one of three responses:
The Superficial Truth
“Luca’s living with his dad now. He’s at the age where he just needs to spend more time with his father.”
The Watered-Down Truth
“Luca was trying to run my house, so he had to go live with his dad.”
The Bitter Truth
“Luca got so out of control that I locked myself in my bedroom with the younger kids and called the police. Now he’s living with his dad full-time. We have two small children in the house we have to keep safe. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
And depending on how well people know our history and Luca’s chronic explosions at school — and at home — his difficulty making friends, his dad’s brazen lack of respect for me and intrusive attempts to choreograph my parenting, they respond with a gaze-averting condolence or a shoulder-squeeze that says: “Maybe it’s for the best.”
While it’s true that we are all — my husband, my daughter, my stepson — relieved to come home to peace instead of a war zone, sending my son to live with his dad feels like a nightmare from which I never awake.
It is also a nightmare long in the making.
One week after my ex and I separated, Luca, then 6, announced “my dad says you wanted the divorce and he didn’t. He says he’s the good one and you’re the bad one.” Since that moment, I tried everything I could to hang onto my son because I believed he needed to be with me. But nothing I offered Luca was ever enough: He hated his room at my house, he rejected my relatives, he criticized my cooking, he complained I wasn’t “fun.”
As he got older, his unhappiness grew darker, more destructive, and I had a harder time controlling him. He threw things, made his sister and babysitters cry, stalked me with his demands until I had to escape into my bedroom and lock the door. I tried behavior charts, token economies, time-outs, mother-son outings, even a part-time therapeutic companion: nothing helped.
When things got so bad last June that I had to call the police to keep our family safe, I sent Luca to live with his dad. I explained to both of them that Luca was welcome back when he could demonstrate that he was ready to follow rules and be respectful. But after months of strained dinner visits and a couple of explosive sleepovers, it became clear that Luca wasn’t ready to stop calling the shots and would have to continue living with his dad full-time – until he could change his behaviors.
Now that Luca is gone, and the outbursts have faded away, these are the moments I remember: the piercing joy that coursed through my body when Luca burst forth; his toddler-cute requests to be my husband; the nights I cradled him in his wicker rocker, whispering things I wanted him to feel in his core.
You are beautiful. You are special. You will grow up to have a wonderful life. And no matter what, I will always love you.
Luca’s exodus triggered a custody battle that has only just begun. The main points at issue involve his school placement, mental health treatment, and medical care.
And here is the truly difficult part of our situation: Luca can’t live with me right now, but for many reasons, I don’t think he should live with his dad either. Neither of us can provide the scaffolding he needs, nor can a regular day school. What he needs is a therapeutic boarding school. He needs structure provided by compassionate professionals who are on the same page, who will enforce boundaries, consequences, and accountability.
Understandably, to Luca’s 13-year-old way of thinking, I just want to send him away. Yes, I want to send him away, but because I believe that’s the only way to get him back. Enrolling him in a therapeutic school is my best shot at turning Luca into the person I believe he is underneath his thick shell of anger and defiance: a sensitive boy who longs to be close to both parents, to have real friends, and to be a productive member of any community.
Of the myriad therapists whom I have consulted over the years, only one offered advice that made sense. Recently, when I sat on her couch agonizing over my decision to send Luca to live with his dad, she told me to re-direct the energy I spent on feeling guilty to setting goals that are in Luca’s best interest.
Have high expectations of Luca. Don’t tolerate disrespect.
Don’t let him come home until he’s willing to follow rules.
If he won’t come to therapy, establish boundaries and consequences: he can’t visit.
Prepare a clear case to the custody evaluator for the need for residential placement.
If I lose and my ex gets sole custody of Luca, know that I did everything I could.
Never lose hope that when Luca is old enough to have a more balanced perspective, he will come back.
In the meantime, I try to nurture the wisps of contact remaining between Luca and me. I text. I leave voice messages. I send gifts. I show up at school meetings. I issue invitations that he declines: trips back east for his grandfather’s memorial service and his cousin’s wedding.
I keep a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet. When I want to tell Luca something I know he cannot hear, I scribble the thought on a piece of paper and stick it in the box. And I hope that maybe, some small part of him will feel what his mother believes:
You are beautiful. You are special. You will grow up to have a wonderful life. And no matter what, I will always love you.More On