She Never Gave Up

The best thing to spend on children is your time.

—Joseph Addison

Greg Mattlin's parents were divorced when he was fourteen years old. His mother, Sara, worked as producer for a talk radio show in the Midwest. I want to tell their story myself because Sara told it to me personally, and it touched me so deeply.

Regardless of where we live, how many kids we have, or whether we're a married mom, single mom, stepparent, or foster mom, all we parents share one common wish: a happy, loving family. Deep down, we also share similar dreams. You know the ones: the nighttime scene in which our family is seated around the dinner table talking, laughing, and enjoying one other; the weekend outings in which our kids can't wait to be with us and drop everything so they can; the evening chats where our children gather lovingly around us and share their deepest thoughts and secrets. But of course, family life is far from always being so picture-perfect.

So let's be honest: life with the kiddies isn't always a bowl of cherries. In some cases, family life is not only difficult but heartbreaking. Regardless of the reason, parent-child interactions can sometimes be stressful and strained. In the worse cases, the relationship can shut down entirely. And that's the exact type of situation I was discussing on a radio talk show one day.

I love doing guest spots for radio: I sit at home, phone in one hand, coffee cup in the other, and discuss a variety of parenting topics. The producer usually calls me a few minutes before the show airs, tells me where the show is based (which could be anywhere in North America), and the name of the host. Next, I'm put on hold a few minutes until the host comes on the line and then—depending the show—I'm on the air talking about parenting for ten minutes to an hour.

My favorite time is when the parents call the station to ask for advice. And by the large volume of listeners who called the station that day wanting help, I realized that a substantial number of parents were dealing with some very tough family issues. Their stories were always troubling and often quite heartbreaking, but regardless of their situation, each and every caller always had the same wish: to find a way to restore her relationship with her child so that they could be a whole and happy family once again.

That day I talked to several callers and offered suggestions,- then it was time for the station's news break. Usually that's the time the show's producer comes on the line and tells me she's going to put me on hold until the break is over—about five minutes or so. This time things were a bit different: the producer did come on, but instead of putting me on hold, she began talking while the news aired. She said her name was Sara Mattlin, and she wanted to let me know how much she was enjoying the segment and hearing my advice.

It was obvious that Sara had something she wanted to share, so I waited a bit and then it came. She explained that she had a story that might help these callers. She didn't feel comfortable telling it on the air, but maybe I could relay it somehow to them? So I listened to what Sara had to say, and by the time the news break was over I had goose bumps from her story.

This mom said she identified with so many of the parents calling in that day because she also had had a really tough time with her son. She and her husband had gone through a difficult divorce, and things turned nasty. Though Sara was elated to be given custody of Greg, her then fourteen-year-old son, he had quite different feelings. Greg blamed Sara for the divorce and for "destroying his father." He also was quite adamant about one thing, Sara said: "My son didn't want anything to do with me. He'd live with me only because the judge said he had to, but it didn't mean he had to love me anymore or even talk to me."

Sara had obviously gone through a heart-wrenching ordeal and could barely get through her story. Just recalling the time was like reopening her emotional wounds. She'd really tried to work things out with her husband. They'd tried counseling and even reconciled a few times, but just couldn't live together. But the last thing she wanted was her relationship with her son to suffer—she loved him so—but the boy couldn't understand why his parents couldn't be together. Despite all his mother's repeated attempts to explain, the boy refused to talk to her.

"I just didn't know what to do," Sara explained. "I tried everything I could think of, but my son wouldn't even acknowledge my presence. But I couldn't let him think I didn't love him. He's everything to me—he's my life! So one day I made up my mind that I had to do something to let him know I wasn't giving up on him. I decided to write him a note every day—not a long one—just a short little message jotted on a Post-it," Sara told me.

"One day I might tell him good luck on his soccer game, or another day I'd encourage him to bring his friends over. Sometimes I'd just write and say I missed talking to him. I don't think I ever wrote more than I few sentences, but I'd always end with 'I love you always, Mom.'"

"I must have written dozens of those notes," she said. "I'd tape them to his bathroom mirror every evening, but Greg never said anything about them." Sara paused a second, then softly added more to herself than to me, "That was okay. I just wanted him to know I was always there for him, and would never stop loving him—no matter what."

The mother said that she continued writing the notes each day for weeks, until one day something happened. "I was late for work," she explained, "and couldn't find the garage remote. I was searching frantically everywhere. I had a really important meeting I had to make, and the only place I hadn't looked was my son's bedroom. Greg had already left for school, and I never go in his room without asking him. In fact, I hadn't been in his room in weeks. Sometimes my kid borrows the remote when he forgets his house key, so I assumed that maybe Greg had it. It was worth checking out, anyway.

"I walked in—I remember thinking that the room looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. CDs were all over the floor, dirty laundry piled high on the bed, books and papers scattered everywhere. I quickly looked in his closet, pulled open a few drawers, searched the floor, but wasn't having any luck. I was running out of time, and the only place I hadn't checked was under his bed. So I bent down and pulled up the bedspread, and that's when I saw an old cigar box. I think my heart actually stopped for a second—the air sort of went out of me. All sorts of horrible thoughts passed though my head: I was certain I'd open the box and find drug paraphernalia, alcohol, pornog-raphy—you name it.

"I really don't know how long it took me to finally get the guts to open the darn lid, but I know I sat there awhile. Finally I just lifted the lid—and I gotta tell you, I almost died. Inside that box was every note I'd ever written. Can you imagine? Greg had saved every single Post-it. I figured he'd thrown them all away: he'd never said anything about them. But oh no, he had them all piled neatly inside that cigar box. I remember holding that box tightly to my chest and just sobbing."

I have to tell you: at this point I was crying with Sara. "So how are things between you and your son now?" I asked hesitantly. And through the phone I could almost see this mom smile.

"Just great!" she said. And then added quickly: "Oh, it took a little while to work things through, but I decided to let Greg know I'd found his cigar box. I was afraid that he'd accuse me of trespassing, but I'm so glad I did anyway. I waited for him to come home that day and then at the right moment, I showed him the box. Greg turned completely white, and then the strangest thing happened: he started crying.

"I couldn't figure for the life of me why he was so upset until it finally came out, and he confided what had been going on with him those weeks. Turns out that my kid thought he was the one who caused our divorce. All this time Greg was blaming himself for our marital problems. His father and I were always arguing, you see, and my son thought we were arguing about him. He says to me, 'I made you guys break up. Don't hate me, Mom! I'm so sorry!'

"Can you believe it?" Sara said. "All this time, Greg wasn't talking to me because he thought I blamed him for our divorce." Then she paused and quietly added: "Thank God I wrote those notes. What if I didn't have a healthy relationship with my son?"

Just then, the news break was over, and the host came back on the line to tell me the switchboard was flooded with callers. The last words I heard from Sara were, "You just tell those parents to never give up. Five seconds to air."

And that's exactly what I did.

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