Raising Zachary

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Raising Zachary

“If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error.” -Carl Sagan

Note: I do not publish any material about my children without giving them the option of reading it first. Zachary read this and gave his consent.

My oldest joined the Marine Corps after he graduated from high school. Even three years later, I’m not sure why. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the Marines. My father gave the Corps twenty years which included two tours mucking through the jungles of Vietnam. While my father never, ever glamorized his military career, he has a deep respect for our country and the time he served. He instilled this love of country in me. All that being said, my father’s service is but a footnote in a much larger life.

But back to Zachary. While Zachary knew his grandfather’s Marine history, having not grown up regaled with romanticized tales, my father did not sway Zachary to enlist. Zachary also wasn’t one of those military obsessed boys intent on watching war movies. Instead, he wiled away his hours reading and playing video games. He did sports because we have a rule that our kids have to be in a sport at all times. So, he went from soccer to baseball to swimming to tae kwon do to basketball to running as seamlessly as dusk becomes night, not by choice but because that’s just the way it is.

He definitely wasn’t military minded. I called him the professor when he was growing up as I could easily see him falling into a life of academia. He’s a bright kid and thinks deep. He’s all about the subtext and reading between the lines and has a deep desire to understand the mysteries of life. I like this about him.

So, Zachary trotted off to high school his freshman year full of hope and promise. I loved high school and wanted him to have nothing less than the full high school experience i.e. my experience on steroids. I wanted him to be the stellar scholar-athlete with a cadre of good friends. I looked forward to filling albums with photos of him attending dances with a pretty girl on his arm and winning awards and other accolades. In turn, he would graduate four years later with a full college scholarship to a top tier school.

In my defense, this wasn’t out of his reach.

He finished his freshman year with a 4.0 having competed on the cross country, swim, and track teams. He did this without breaking a sweat or cracking open a book. I knew he had more in him, so I pushed. I pushed for better grades and faster times. I pushed for more volunteer hours because the six hours a week he was serving on our church’s tech team wasn’t enough in my mind. I pushed him to attend social events and go out with friends. No matter what he did, no matter how well he performed, I heartily congratulated him then immediately raised the bar. I thought I was just being a good parent.

Everyone has their breaking point and Zachary found his. He didn’t love the classes he was taking or the sports in which he participated. He had learned all he could with the tech team. After two years of waking up at 5:30 A.M. (yes, even on Saturdays and Sundays because he had to be at either practice or church on those days) and going full throttle until midnight, he was just done.

His junior year was marred by rebellion and became a battle as I continued to demand the performance of which I knew he was capable and he resolutely refused to do more then the bare minimum. Fed up with everything, he began smoking pot. Call me a prude but I’ve never smoked pot and haven”t had the desire. I’ve listened as people have extolled it’s virtues. I just don’t see the appeal. I know that many of my well-heeled, white collared, church attending neighbors enjoy a little toke from time to time. I know that many people believe it should be legal. It’s not, and I was unwilling to allow my underage son for whom I was responsible to bring it in my home around his younger siblings.

I only found out about his shenanigans because of the strength of the mom network (raising kids is hard work and we have to stick together). Several moms (one who I barely knew) were amazing enough to pull me aside and tell me what they knew about what Zachary was doing during this time. I’m forever grateful for their willingness to do the hard thing, the right thing, and speak up.

There were long conversations, there were restrictions and the revocation of privileges, and I’m ashamed to say there was yelling and tears. We stopped giving him cash and sold his car. Nothing persuaded him to get with my program. We were able to curtail the worst of his behavior, but in reality he was done and that was it.

Since traditional parenting methods failed (believe me, I read all the books and tried all their suggestions), I sought outside help. We engaged clergy and trained professionals. We had him evaluated for learning and psychological disorders. We/he went to counseling. The verdict was the same across the board: he’s a great kid and just needs time and space to figure it all out. We laid down ground rules which he chose to follow, I backed off, and he coasted.

At this time, I had no other choice but to take ownership of my part in his drama. I had to confront my behavior and take responsibility for the mistakes I had made. I asked myself hard question after hard question. After much soul searching, I realized that my mistake lied in my dogged determination to raise my children to be the people I thought they should be. I realized that my real role as a parent is to give them the love and support and confidence they need to become the people God created them to be. In my defense, everything I have ever done to/for/with my children comes from a place of deep love for each of them. I realized; however, that my love had become more of a liability.

I realized that I most wanted my children to figure out who they are and what they love apart and separate from me. I needed to give them permission to happily pursue it. I also wanted loving, sustainable relationships with them built on mutual trust and respect. I wanted them to know that regardless of what choices they make or mistakes they commit, I will be here as a resource and will love them, support them, and help them, but only if they need me. I had a lot of work to do.

Disenchanted and fed up, Zachary phoned in his senior year. He refused to take the SATs. He refused to go on college visits. He refused to apply to colleges. A close friend died in his arms and his girlfriend ended their relationship. We white-knuckled it to graduation where without fan-fare he received his diploma and then retired to my couch to waste away his summer dozing in front of the TV.

All I knew was that I had to get him off the couch. After three months of gentle prodding on my part, we had our last meeting-with-Jesus moment with Zak. We told him that he could continue to live at home if he was either in school or had a job. If he didn’t want to do that, he would be able to move out where he could choose how to support himself. I suggested a gap year of travel. A young man with a passport could go far and wide. If none of that sounded interesting, there was always the military.

So, my tender-hearted, tie-dye wearing, potential wunderkind chose the Marines. Not because it was a life-long ambition to serve, but more I think to get away from the heartbreak and stress of those difficult four years.

He may disagree, but I think the Marines have been great for him. He sailed through bootcamp with physical training scores that were so high he earned the right to ring two of the four bells on his last battalion run on graduation day; a huge honor. He snagged a top MOS (military jargon for job) and has ranked up quickly.

I never worry about him as the Marines take his well-being extremely seriously. They have invested a lot of money training my son to be part of their machine. He’s useless to them injured or dead, which keeps them intent on keeping him alive and well.  The Corps revolves around risk management. As a Marine, my son is in extremely good hands.

Being a Marine has meant that for the past three years he has mostly been away from home. Nine months of intense training with only two short visits led to a two year stint in Okinawa, Japan. In the past two years, we’ve only seen him once. It’s too far and too expensive for him or us to go back and forth. He did save for an entire year to buy a two thousand plus dollar plane ticket so he could fly home and take his leave, but otherwise he’s be cloistered on what military personnel non-lovingly refer to as the “rock.”

Time and space have a way of healing wounds. I sent Zachary a letter every single day that he was in bootcamp and he wrote when he could. Since then we have mostly communicated via email and Facebook. Writing has given us both a chance to say what we need to say, edit it for kindness, and share it without having to deal with the emotions of the other person. There’s a freedom in being able to express yourself and healing in knowing that you’ve been fully heard.

We spent most of the first year hashing it all out. I wrote long letters explaining my motivations and he responded in kind. I apologized, a lot. Year two was quiet. It needed to be. Healing only happens in the stillness of silence. We kept each other abreast of our news, but that was it. This last year has been the best. With my need to over-parent him in check, we’ve been able to form a relationship built on mutual respect and trust. As we share our lives and interests, I’ve gotten to know him as a person while loving him as my son. I believe he knows I trust him to make good decisions for himself. I think he feels he can trust me. It’s been a long road.

His tour in Japan in coming to a close. After time here with us and his friends, he will be stationed on the west coast. Even with the threat of deployment looming large, it will nice to have him just a four hour plane ride away. With much anticipation, I look forward to this next part of his journey. It’s nice to see him making plans for his future. I pray that he will continue to share his life with me and our family. I hope that he and I can continue to build on the past three years. Mostly I want him to know how much I love him; not for what he does or accomplishes but just because of the wonderful man he is.

My lesson in all this is that while we are charged with guiding our children and keeping them on the path when they stray, we have to remember that the path they are on is their path, not ours. We have to be sure we are supporting God’s plan for them, not our plan. God dreams a bigger dream for our children then we do. Mostly, we have to be sure we stay out of the Big Guy’s way.


  1. Poignant. Heart wrenching. Inspiring. I don’t know where the idea of a perfect parent (or child) came from, but the less we bow to its unrealistic demands, the more we engage in “real” relationships with our children. I’m so very thankful you two finally got to know each other. Please thank Zachary for his service, too.

    • Kimby, I was SO caught up in the idea of perfection both for myself and for my kids, and was definitely one of those people that judged the parenting of those around me. Then I realized that great kids can come from horrible circumstances while kids who’ve been given every advantage can choose a path of heartache. We’re all just people of different sizes and ages, all just trying to love and be loved. We make life way too complicated.

  2. Oh, Denise, this was beautiful. It made me cry. I knew part of the story, but not the whole story, and I loved reading it. You are so brave to face your demons and share your stories with us. I learn something from each one of your posts.

  3. How refreshing to read the ramblings and heart confessions of another parent that is trying their hardest to raise a good kid in this tough world. Our poor first children! They get the lion’s share of our “manual” and “magazine” parenting. Beautifully written and shared. You are so right about staying out of the Big Guy’s way…but in defense, that same Big Guy put you as guide and protector for his precious creation 🙂 Thanks for sharing. I think now you would probably get an “oooh rah” from your Marine for all of the years you invested!

    • We always say, Zak gets an extra ten percent just for being the first born. It really isn’t a “by the book” job, is it? I totally agree with you. It’s our job to keep them on their path. When I look at my kids, I see so much potential and want more then anything for them to maximize all their gifts and for the world to see them as well. The big lesson for me was that I don’t get to decide the when or how their gifts are revealed. He does.

  4. Whew… we’ve gone through this together but you managed to choke me up with your recollections and revelations. Love you Denise! Love you Zach! I’m the old guy in this relationship but you both have taught me so much.

    • Couldn’t have done it without you. Looking forward to the next phase with you by my side.

  5. Denise, I love what you said in your reply to Kimby. The realization you had is so true. Too many people never have that realization and end up very unhappy. Thank you to both you and Zachary for sharing your story!

  6. Beautiful, Denise!

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