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"I dream Deborah's coming home." Growing children, changing families.

"I dread Deborah's coming home."

"Last week was the most terrible week I can ever remember." Mrs. Fine, a tall, slender woman with greying hair, spoke quickly. "My 20-year-old daughter, Deborah, came home from college for the weekend. As soon as she came down from her room she attacked me -- said I was a terrible mother to our 15-year-old son, Jeff, who is learning disabled, and an incompetent woman who let her husband step all over her. When she finished with me, she then turned on my husband, saying he was a stereo-typical man -- cold and insensitive to the needs of his family. She then stormed out of the house to visit her friends. Friends, i might add, that her father doesn't like.

"As soon as she left, Jack and I began to fight. He claimed that we've been too easy on Deborah and let her get away with murder. He acted as if her behavior is my fault. I agree with the murder part, but he's the one who has indulged her. No matter what, I'm sick and tired of being blamed for whatever goes wrong in the house.

"This has been going on for over a year now, ever since Deborah went away to college. It's gotten so that I dread her coming home. I hate to say it because it makes me feel ashamed of myself. When she got a job this past summer as a counselor at an overnight camp, to be honest, I was grateful.

"Ever since Deborah has gone to college, I've become a mediator between her and my husband. When she first came home from college for the Christmas break last year, she began to talk about feminist ideas and people. And for whatever reason, it really sets Jack off, even when he sometimes agrees with what she's saying. He takes it as a personal attack on him as a father.

"So, at the beginning he would ask: Where did she get these ideas? Why did she wind up with the type of friends she has? And why can't I do something about it? When I would tell him that I don't know, he argues that fathers can't really deal with daughters; it's a mother's responsibility.

"I am also concerned about our 15-year-old son, Jeff, who is often in the room while all this ranting and raving goes on. Although he doesn't want to talk about it, it must be very scary for him because usually Deborah starts by saying I have taken complete responsibility for caring for and helping Jeff, and I haven't done a good job. In a sense, it's true. I have done all the work of finding the right teachers and therapists and schools. And sometimes I feel I have failed him. That's really gone on since the first year of his life.

"I had a very difficult delivery with Jeff. I knew something was wrong when I first saw him in the hospital. He was just a difficult baby from the beginning. Our pediatrician, Dr. Robertson, told us that Jeff had some kind of a brain injury at birth. He could not tell us at the time how much damage there was or how it was going to affect him. But right from the beginning, Jeff was a more complicated baby to care for.

"Jeff's a nice kid and he gets along well with people, but he's just slow in everything he does. By the time he reached his first birthday, I realized that Jack really had a great deal of difficulty doing much with little Jeff and that he was always upset whenever he had to do something.

"At the time Jeff was born, Deborah was five. She had been a terrific kid. We had spent a lot of time with her because she was an only child for almost five years.

"Once Jeff was born, I could see that Deborah wasn't getting the attention that I thought she needed. Jack loved doing things with Deborah and, in my own mind, I encouraged him to take over most of the work with her. Over the years, it has meant going to the playground with her, following her sports teams and going to school meetings. It was a good division of labor. Jack obviously enjoyed it and so did Deborah.

"From time to time I would get jealous because I was alone with a difficult kid, while my husband was having real fun and real pleasure. I was getting pleasure too, but much less directly. When I would get jealous, I would feel badly. On the other hand, I knew that I felt that I was doing something that gave me pleasure. I didn't feel great as a mother to my son, but I felt that i was really helping Jack and Deborah enjoy themselves. Basically, I felt that's what a good person could do -- and I was being a good person.

"Jack and Debbie did most of the college visiting. Sometimes we would all go along. From the day she left for college, life was different. I think both Jack and I missed her; both in our own ways, but both intensely.

"Now there were just three of us, and Jack wasn't any better prepared to deal with Jeff than when he was one year old. I felt very badly because I thought a son really needed a father when he was a teenager.

"Then Deborah started to come home and tell me what a sucker I had been. She said I shouldn't have let Jack do all things; I should have been more available to her. She would say that a mother should be available to her daughter and that Jack was just selfish. And after she would do this, Jack would blame me for her behavior, and I would attack him for being so ungrateful. I wish something would change. I don't like fighting with Jack and I wish we knew how to stop it."

"When Judy and I are calm, we're both bewildered by what's going on." Jack Fine, a tall, slender man in his late-forties, spoke hastingly. "I don't know what's gotten into Debbie. When I think of all the things that she and I have done together and all the things we tried to do for my wife and my son, I just don't understand where she gets those ideas or why she thinks that I'm so selfish.

"It is true that when she started to be about 14 or 15, I began to feel a little uncomfortable with her. She started dating, and I didn't know what kind of advice a father is supposed to give a daughter. And I think she found it difficult to talk with my wife about the social problems of being a teenager in high school and how to deal with her girlfriends and boyfriends. At the same time, she confided in me about her girlfriends and what they were doing -- some of which I liked and some I didn't. I began to feel that I really didn't want to know. I would talk to Judy about what Deb was telling me, and i would want Judy to do something. I don't see what's so terrible about that.

"I do appreciate the fact that Judy has really been very thoughtful all these years. I have enjoyed sports activities all my life. After we got married and Debbie was born, I cut back but I still played squash and tennis. Actually, I'm very good at squash and enjoyed playing competitively.

"After Jeff was born, Judy made a special point of making sure that I played. She was always pushing me to play. In fact, she would get upset when I didn't go. At times, I felt a little guilty about being with my own friends while she was home with the two kids. But I knew she was happy with it.

"Ever since Debbie has gone to college she's been a bombthrower. She is terrible to her mother. I don't know why she thinks that her mother is so terrible. The attacks are so personal. Then she attacks me. There's no question that we get into who is to blame and who doesn't do enough. I just wish we really knew what was going on."


The Fines came because of their struggles with their 20-year-old daughter, Deborah. Ever since Deborah had gone away to college, she began to attack first her mother and then her father for being self-indulgent. The family's relationship with their 15-year-old son, Jeff, was the focus for many of these verbal attacks. Deborah felt that her mother had sacrificed her life for the care of the family; particularly, for her younger brother who had a disability. She felt that her father had not acted responsible in dealing with the difficult things that had gone on in the family because he spent his time enjoying himself while her mother sacrificed herself.

As soon as Deborah left for college, the Fines discovered themselves fighting with each other. The intensity of their mutual struggles increased so much that they felt they needed help. They were surprised first by the attacks of their daughter on them, and, secondly, by the intensity of their own response.

Becoming a separate individual with one's own autonomy and independence is a process that all adolescents must manage. This can be difficult for all children -- those who have good relationships with their parents, as well as those who have unsatisfactory relationships. Adolescents, in order to move away from supportive families, have to demonstrate that parents are not so necessary for youngsters to begin to criticize their parents' weaknesses. The painfulness of this process often comes from the accuracy of the remarks. Deborah was managing to distance herself from her closeness to her parents by attacking their relationship to each other, as well as the pattern thta had been established within the family.

When the first child leaves home, it is a first signal to parents that their own relationship to the family and to each other is undergoing change. When the last child leaves home, all parents have to find new ways to deal with each other when they no longer have to deal with the needs of their children. Since these patterns have been established over a long time period, they are not easy to change. When the family has a youngster with a disability, this challenge may become more painful because the transition may not be as easy. The uncertainty about the independence of this child may delay the parents' needs to look at their own lives.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Fine appreciated the fact that they had both established a style that suited their own personalities in order to deal with two different children and the needs of each.

The Fines had worked well together in the decisions they had made jointly to provide for the needs of both of their children. Each found different kinds of pleasures and support in the work they did. Although the current challenge was painful, the Fines had a good relationship with one another and did want help about rehtinking what they had done rather than fighting.

Over a period of six months, they discussed their responsibilities and the activities that they undertook at home, both separately and together. They beban to review the reasons that they had come to these particular patterns of relationship.

Mr. Fine had not understood the extent to which his wife had tried to support his own opportunity to find pleasure in his life. He just assumed that this was the way things needed to be and were. He had thought this was just a continuation of the support that his own parents had given to him for his athletic activities. Now, when this was discussed, they both began to search for activities that they could participate in together. Mr. Fine encouraged Mrs. Fine to take tennis lessons and began to play with her on weekends with other couples.

Mrs. Fine had not realized the extent to which her justification for herself depended on the happiness of her husband and her children. To that extent, she found herself trapped. She began to review the activities that she might enjoy, and was exploring the possibility of returning to school.

After several months, they invited both Deborah and Jeff to a family meeting. Both youngsters were pleased that their parents were doing things together. Jeff missed his sister when she was at college, even though she was criticizing him also. Deborah indicated her concerns about college life, but thought her parents had too much to do to pay attention to her. Although upsetting episodes with Deborah continued to occur, the family was able to discuss things even if they were not fully resolved.
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Author:Schleifer, Maxwell J.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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