real life

What can I do to help my son?


“I am on a boat…”


I am on a boat, my grandmother is at the wheel and my mother is vomiting over the side. She can’t swim, and I know we are going to capsize, so I will have to keep her afloat.

Where is my son? My nephew?

Oh, they are on a raft. They do not hear me call out to them. My sister is sitting in the boat’s cabin smoking, and she’s not dead anymore so I tell her not to smoke because it will kill her. She blows a perfect o-shaped smoke ring, her long blonde hair falling about her face and tells me I am never there for her so to piss off.

Later in the bedroom an old flame is having sex with someone and amidst the grunts and groans he says that I am a phoney and he’d only been pretending to like me. I have no clothes on. Where to hide?  Nowhere. So I get into bed with them and they both turn their backs on me and then I wake up and realise it was all a dream.

Don’t you hate it when stories just end like that?

But this is not a story floundering for a convincing denouement. This is a real dream and a real insight into how feeling excluded or ignored can invade your unconscious with such clichéd narratives.

I am walking with my 11-year-old son. He’s been objecting to the prospect of this walk all morning because it is, apparently, ‘totally random’ to walk with no destination in mind. He’s only agreed to come if we head for The Theatre Royal in town for an ice cream. It’s blackmail, but, whatever it takes.

This is no dream.

After about a block we walk through the tunnel under the train line, and he tells me that a friend at school has made a list of all the people she is inviting to her party and that his name isn’t on it. It’s pretty dark in the tunnel; safe for secrets. We keep walking, looking straight ahead. I have heard that the best way to talk to boys is to be doing something together but not too together, and not to expect them to look at you when they talk; it’s easier for them that way.

‘That must have felt bad for you’, I say,  hoping like hell he can’t hear the sound of my heart breaking. ‘It was really bad,’ he says, starting to slow down a little. ‘I begged her to invite me but she still wouldn’t. I hate school. I have no friends.’ He does hate school. As to friends, well he’s not exactly Mr Popular 2013 but there are friends, some more fickle than others, granted.

His father, stepmother and I keep on hoping that eventually something will click for him and that the social stuff – he does fine academically – will get less like hard work.

“I hate school. I have no friends.”

He swings his arm into mine in an uncharacteristically affectionate gesture these days and I offer to tell him a story of my own about being left out and how bad that felt. But I adapt the story appropriately because I actually liked school and was one of those naturally socially adept kids. Hell, I performed funny voices at the front gate for 20 cents a shot in Grade 5.

These days though I’ve got such an impressive repertoire of rejection schemas I could keep the shrinks sneaking looks at their watches, supressing their yawns and charging like wounded bulls for years to come.

My son has disentangled himself from my arm now and is striding ahead making a show of not caring. I know that walk, the slope of his shoulders, the unevenness of his gait and I can tell he is cut to the quick. But I don’t know how to save him. It sucks. There is no way round it. Being left out, hung out to dry, sucks big time.

Primary school politics wasn’t so complicated in my day. You rarely saw parents at the school and if you did it was because something really bad had happened. Like when that kid with the shaved head who lived in the commission flats burnt down the shelter shed. Or when that mother came to the school crying and the headmaster held onto her arm to keep her from falling over.

We learned later that her husband had just dropped dead in the back yard mowing the lawn and so she’d come to the school to tell her daughter and take her home. To what? I thought about that kid all night. Mum had to take me back to bed 3 times.

My mother came to school at least twice: once to take over our grade 2 class because our teacher just hadn’t turned up one day and never did again and then after I told her my Grade 4 teacher said I looked ‘like a pretty little Miss’ and touched my bum when he saw me in bathers at the baths.

But I don’t ever remember feeling like an outsider or being called a Nerd or a Loser like my son is.

‘I just follow them around all lunch time and they never ask me anything.’ I want him to hold onto my arm again but I let it be. ‘Anyway’, he continues, ‘you’re just telling me that stuff so I’ll feel better because you’re my mother.’ I can tell my son wants to hear more of my stories despite his psychoanalysing so I make them funnier, less obviously message-heavy. I do want him to feel better; his pain is killing me and I want to kill that kid in his class who needs a crash course in good-hostessing.

So I tell him not to be over-weening or emotionally needy. I suggest he resists sending bunny-boiler-emails after a couple of glasses of red. Most importantly I advise my 11-year-old to keep his mouth shut when the compulsion to seek approval is almost unbearable.

“I just follow them around all lunch time and they never ask me anything.”

‘Sometimes I have weird dreams where I’m running and can’t find anywhere to hide’, I tell him. ‘I had one the other night where I was at this awards thing and everyone got an award except me and then I realised I had no clothes on.’ My son laughs, loving it.

We reach the old jail at the top of the hill and look out over our town. ‘Look! You can see my school from here’, he says.

That night at our oft-excruciating-semi-regular-share-parenting-meetings where we try and act normal for the sake of our son, I tell his father, while his only offspring is in the shower, about his feelings of social exclusion.

‘What can we do to help him?’ I ask.

‘Yes. It’s very hurtful’, my ex-husband replies so softly I have to ask him to repeat it. ‘I said it can be very painful. I was like that, like him. And then one day when I was about 12, I found a friend. One real friend and then everything changed.’

I want to say to my phlegmatic ex that must have felt bad for you because for a brief moment I see the boy in his now-middle-aged face, a boy like ours.

‘He will be fine’, he adds. ‘You worry too much. He will be fine.  Just fine.’

 Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and teacher. She is a regular columnist for ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program, is a former Age Theatre Critic and teaches writing at Box Hill Institute. Her book ‘This is Not my Beautiful Life’ is published by Penguin and she is currently writing one about shared-parenting due for release late 2013.