I intended for Friday, December 14, 2012 to be all about celebrating my child becoming a teenager. Instead, it was the day that 20 first graders were killed in a small Connecticut town. In the days since, there has been a lot of talk about why this tragedy happened and how we might prevent it from happening again. This space is largely unsuited for most of those discussions. However, there has been one topic, something President Obama even mentioned during his speech in Newtown Sunday night , about which I can write: how to get help raising your kids.
We all need help.
When the days are bright, we joke that we are "cheating at supermomming" and we share our tips for "winning the working-parent game." The language may be light, but the reality is that we are reaching out for help each and every day, because none of us can do it alone. We lean on our spouses, our parents, our neighbors, and our teachers. We lean on our own children as they get older. We swap babysitting duties with parents of our children’s friends and we pay responsible-looking teenagers to help with homework after school.
We rely on the village, because there just isn’t any other way to get it all done.
But what about when the days are not so bright? What about when darkness creeps in and the neighborhood high school kid is no longer enough? In those times when we are possibly most desperate for help, it can be much more difficult to find it.
Last week, a few days before his 13th birthday, my son ran away from home. He’d been walking alone into unfamiliar territory for two hours before we realized he was gone. We had to call the police to help find him and bring him home, and we learned that they retrieved him from one of our city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Once he was safely in bed, my husband and I built a makeshift barricade against our front door. My husband slept in our son’s bed. We were terrified that night and groping frantically for a lifeline.
Since then, we have learned a lot about where to get help.
The first call we made when we realized our son was not where he was supposed to be was to his friend’s dad. We’d exchanged phone numbers and email addresses just a few days earlier during a pick up. We reached out, too, to 911, a village resource that you hope never to have to use as a parent. (We tried to call the local number to the police station first, but oddly got not answer.) I texted my mom and called one of our best friends; they shared ideas and were able to get in touch with our son long after he stopped responding to me.
The following day, we walked into the guidance counselor’s office at our son’s school. We were looking for someone who would escort him back into my care after school; what we found was a caring partner and a fount of knowledge. She emailed me a couple of phone numbers for local mental health and crises services, many of which are publicly funded and free to floundering parents. As it turns out, the state of Pennsylvania has an inspiring array of resources available for parents, teens and children.
The day after our son ran away, I walked him home from school. A few hours later, two women dressed in plain clothes came to our house and spent some time in his room talking to him about what was going on. They got him to open up in a way that we had been unable to. They got him talking, even to us. Before they left, they gave each of us a business card, letting our son know that he could call any time he needed someone to talk to.
"You call me if you need to talk," one of the women told my son. "I mean, we can’t come over and like be hanging with you or whatever, but we can always talk and come here if you need someone."
He laughed, nodded, and agreed that he wouldn’t be running away again.
In addition to their business card, they gave us phone numbers for local agencies and outpatient mental health organizations that we could contact. It was exactly what we needed to try and move forward, because I didn’t have a clue where to turn to get my son the assistance he obviously needed (and, thank God, seemed to want.)
Today, my son has his first appointment with a counselor. I have to miss several hours of work during an exceptionally busy week in order to take him. We’ll have to take a bus and he’ll need to miss school. But as I saw people this weekend talking about how unavailable mental healthcare is, I found myself increasingly grateful for this appointment and the exceptional care we’d been given over the last several days. I wondered, too, if more parents had help available just beyond their view.
Walking into school last week and telling school administrators that our son had run away the night before was humiliating. My husband and I agreed that it felt like we were walking in to announce "Hi, we’re failures as parents." It was embarrassing to admit that we had no idea why he’d left and that we needed help keeping an eye on him and making sure he came right to me after school. However, it was that humbling admission that shed light on the extensive village that is available to us.
I do not know what resources are available to you. I don’t know the numbers you can call or the professionals who stand at the ready, just like I didn’t know at this time last week what was available to me. I do know, however, that there is often more help than we realize out there. But, we have to ask. We may have to beg. We may have to lay bare our fears and our wounds to people whose judgment we fear, an act that is probably inspired more by desperation than optimism.
If you or your kids need help, reach out. Reach to your schools, which are populated with people who not only want to care for your kids, but who have the professional training to do so. Reach out to your departments of human services, which are intended to do much more than remove children from their homes. Reach out to your friends and your family; trust that your problems are not a burden to those who love you. Reach out, reach out, reach out. Seek, seek, seek, and you shall find the village you need.