Occasionally I will write a brief book review and connect it with a life story.
A Friend of the Family is a 2004 book by Lauren Grodstein about a suburban doctor and father trying to regain control of the wheel of a family life that is veering wildly off the course that he’d wanted.
The book opens with Pete isolated, teetering on the brink of familial and professional bankruptcy. A young man shouts threats at him; he has lost his long-time medical practice; he is living apart from his family above their garage; he is facing divorce. We don’t know why he is in the situation that he’s in, only that he’s done something to bring all of this upon himself.
We begin to learn about Pete’s story through flashbacks, and are introduced to the main players in this drama: his teen son Alec, his wife Elaine, his best friend Joe, and Joe’s daughter, Laura.
The crux of the story is the growing relationship between Alec – seventeen and lost – and Laura, a woman with a troubled past 10 years Alec’s senior. We learn early on what it is about Laura that bothers Pete so much, and why he doesn’t want her anywhere near her son. The story, then, is about how far a father is willing to go to protect his child from bad influences. It is also a story about how important it is for many of us parents – to our egos, to our sense of security – to force our children to conform to the dreams that we have created for them. At what point do we need to let go, and accept that our child has turned out artistic when we wanted athletic? ordinary when we wanted Ivy League? gay when we wanted straight? Why is it so hard to trust our children to forge their own life paths and to choose their own relationships?
The book was a quick and enjoyable read for me (a 3.5-4 star beach read), probably so because my own son’s adolescent years are looming and I am anxious to learn about the challenges that grip parents at this stage.
The one issue that jumped at me, of course, is the lack of control over whom your child decides to become close to, as I find myself entering this territory already with my rising 4th grader.
Pre-school, we pretty much chose our children’s friends; they were the children of our friends, or they were friendships that we had to take part in developing. With growing autonomy, Fred and his friends now develop and maintain their own friendships.
Fred has one good friend whom Max and I don’t particularly like. (I’ll call him “Jon.”) I’ve twice tried to “prevent” them from getting closer by requesting on the school’s annual student placement questionnaire to not put him and Jon in the same class, but each time they were placed together (I think I was not the only parent making this request…). Jon had behavioral problems when he was younger, being prone to aggressive/violent outbursts when things didn’t go his way. This seemed to have tamed when he got a little older, and now it’s more personality. We invited him to Fred’s birthday party once and I caught him stealthily trying to steal something. However, young children are still learning and developing, I understand, and I’ve tried to trust Fred’s judgment by finding the good in this child. Jon can also be warm and intelligent and they have many of the same interests, so among boys, shared hobbies is often the big connector.
And then I saw this e-mail from Jon over the weekend:
“Hey Fred, is your mom really strict? Do you or can you keep your e-mail private?”
We started an e-mail account for Fred as a way for him to stay in touch with his uncle, but he’s since used it with a couple of close friends. He keeps his account on my iPhone, and he knows that I look at it. (Things are still Mommy & Me with us.)
I was disappointed to see that e-mail, this early in Fred’s life. Or maybe this is normal and only feels early because I am absolutely unprepared for it. My son is clearly less precocious, more innocent. I am not sure how to handle this or what to make of it.
This year, Max and I witnessed/learned of a couple of instances at school in which Fred had risen above the mob behavior of his male classmates. One took place during a field trip that we chaperoned, and the other was an incident that a fellow mother relayed back to us. At a school event, she went up to Max and told her how grateful she was to Fred that, when her son was going through a rough period being teased and taunted by the boys in their class, Fred was the one boy who refused to take part. I teared up when Max told me this. How do you teach a child – a boy – not to fall to peer or group pressure? How do you ensure that your child has the strength to put someone else’s feelings and dignity over his own need to belong or his desire to feel powerful? I’ve followed no “formulas” in parenting once parenting became more complicated than swaddling and nursing, and so often I feel as if I am holding my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop as a result of things I did too much of or didn’t do enough of during these early years. With these two incidents I was awash with an intense relief.
Fred calls Jon out on his bad behaviors, and distances himself when Jon becomes too much to take. When I remarked once at how polite and gentlemanly Jon was, Fred responded, “He acts differently around adults.” Fred knows. He can hold his own. And, well, I am going to need him to continue to hold his own, because going into the complex world of teen friendships, it will be my child that I will need to count on.
Have you already experienced this? How do you deal with it?