Perils of Divorced Pauline

The Names Have Been Changed, But the Story Is True


April 05
World-class gnarly divorce survivor. Custody Battle blogger with a sense of humor. Mom. Wife. Cat-Lover. Visit me at or on Twitter @divorcedpauline.


Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 20, 2011 12:52AM

How Does a 99% Mother Raise a 1% Son?

Rate: 35 Flag

This piece originally ran on Good Men Project earlier this week. It is part of my series there, My Son's Walkabout.

This week I will travel to a wide-open, western state to visit my 14-year-old son at a boarding school attended by other wealthy kids with behavior problems. I am immensely grateful to my former in-laws who shell out the $100,000 annual tuition that keeps Luca nestled in a rustic mountain valley, where he receives 24/7 staff supervision and state-of-the-art equine therapy.

Were it not for Luca’s paternal grandparents’ bottomless pockets, my son would be living the life of troubled kids from families who can’t afford to contain them. He would be truant. Peddling drugs. Running with a gang, locked up in juvenile detention, or living on the street.

I work with those kids at a state-funded adolescent residential facility. Their brief, turbulent lives have been shaped by circumstances known only to those residing in the nether regions of the 99%.

These are the kids whose parents are frequently psychotic, in jail, or missing. Many of them have ping-ponged from one foster home to another, where they were emotionally, physically and sexually abused.

Most of the kids I work with do not get better. They have nothing to go home to that resembles a family. So they end up in prison. They get pregnant while on heavy-duty psychotropic medications and quickly lose their babies to foster care.

One of the boys on my caseload – I’ll cal him Kyle – could be Luca’s doppelganger. Like my son, he is 14, slight, compellingly handsome, and sports a Justin Bieber coif. Like my son, he initially charms adults and instantly pisses off his peers. In session, I struggle with my countertransference – therapy lingo for the feelings clients evoke in the clinician – which leads me to tear up when I see Luca’s eyes gazing out at me from Kyle’s face. When Kyle starts cursing, I give him the eye --- that mother’s look --- and, unlike Luca, Kyle reels himself in with an endearingly formal “sorry, Miss Pauline.”

Once a week during lunch hour, I lock my office door and call Luca’s therapist for our phone session. It is a strange kind of parallel universe phenomenon. I am a therapist at an adolescent residential facility treating lower-income kids. But for that hour, I’m a parent speaking to my son’s therapist at a swanky therapeutic boarding school for 1% kids.

Luca’s therapist updates me with tales of my son’s “entitled” behavior that involves sneaking around rules, getting peers to do things for him, diva-like demands of adults, and a blind eye to the rights of others.

In a recent e-mail describing the crux of Luca’s treatment, the school’s director wrote, “we need to make sure we shut down his entitlement and narcissistic traits.” This has long been the locus of my own struggle with Luca, who has both feet firmly planted in the tippy-top terrain of the 1%.

Luca’s dad and I were an opposites-attract couple. Previous generations of my family had had money, southern plantations even, but lost it all through bad business decisions or when they were called to the church and left commerce behind.

My mother taught at the private school I attended, so I got a fancy education for free. We traveled, but on a shoestring, and I don’t remember a time when my parents weren’t worried about getting by. My father was a minister and my mother’s parents were Presbyterian missionaries, so values such as empathy and generosity were pretty much piped into the drinking water.

What I didn’t acquire was a healthy sense of entitlement. Maybe it was because I was adopted and always felt I was hovering on the margins. Maybe it was because I was an introverted, thin-skinned kid. Whatever the reason, I grew up feeling that I didn’t have a voice, and that I was less “equal” than others.

Although I didn’t recognize it when I married Luca’s dad, I was swept away by his innate sense of VIP-ness. White, uber-rich, highly educated, charming: my ex-husband acted like he ruled the world, and in a way, he did. He didn’t have to work and he still got to boss people around. His confidence was addictive and for many years I felt buoyed by the hit I got off of it.

I thought my ex wanted someone who wouldn’t push him relentlessly the way his parents did, someone with whom he could make an emotional connection. I imagined that we were coming together to balance each other’s extremes, to give our children the qualities we had lacked growing up.

But I hadn’t married an individual. I had married into a brand, an influential dynasty that dictated how others, especially their own, should be. There were lots and lots and lots of rules for how to hone one’s image, and especially, how to acquire more property. But there was no message about the importance of giving back. In fact, the opposite was true.

I remember one holiday dinner, many years pre Occupy Wall Street, when talk of corporate bonuses was bandied about the table. The gist of it was, the more the better, even if a CEO’s company was in the toilet. I mentioned something about how undistributed wealth hurt the greater society, that perhaps CEOs and Wall Street titans owed more to people who enabled them to do their jobs. The conversation screeched to a halt. Several pairs of eyes stared at me as if seeing me for the first time. I wasn’t one of them. I was soft. I was perhaps unhinged. Certainly, I did not belong in the 1%.

Fast forward through one bloodcurdling divorce and years of co-parenting hell. For a variety of reasons, my daughter has been able to balance her 1% and 99% DNA and emerge well-rounded. She is confident, assertive in just the right dose, naturally empathetic, a helper.

Luca is entitled in the worst sense of the word. I have often felt that my son looks down on me, his 99% mother. He has little interest in my relatives and my values seem to have slipped off him as if he were Teflon. This could be in part because his dad’s life is non-stop fun, full of 5-star vacations, parties, and entourages. My husband and I work long hours in professions that aren’t glamorous. I’m sure we look dull and tired in comparison.

Luca is adept at getting others to do things for him, a skill that is not altogether bad, especially if used for the right reason. But coupled with his tendency to see others as a means to an end, with no real interest in genuine connection --- and he could do some serious damage.

It’s a blessing that my son spiraled so wildly out of control that he landed first in a wilderness camp, and now in a boarding school. Finally, he’s in a place where tantrums are shut down, not rewarded, where he has to work his way up a strict level system to earn privileges, the same as everyone else.

He’s just 14, still young enough to change, to learn the value of hard work and self-reliance. The catch is, at some point he’ll go home, back to the 1% life he was born into.

People who come from money often have to work harder than the rest of us to grow up --- especially when their parents offer to swoop in and clean up their messes. This is what Luca is used to and I think he has been led to believe that I don’t love him because I don’t rescue him. I don’t do his homework for him. I don’t blame his problems on other people. And I can’t afford to motivate him with front-row seats to sporting events.

What I can do is love him regardless of the college, profession, or life partner he chooses. I can set reasonable expectations for him and tolerate my own anxiety if he opts not to live up to them. It is that part --- accepting that our jobs as parents are finite --- that is, for me, the hardest part of being a mother.

Later this week I’ll show up for Luca in the small ways that I can. I’ll sit in on his school classes, observe his group activities, join him in a family therapy session. If he’s on level --- meaning he’s following his program --- I’ll be able to take him on an off-campus outing. And I hope, in those moments, the 99% and 1% will slip away, and we will just be a mother and son, hanging out together.

Luca at boarding school

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I'm out of things to say, other than that your writing always manages to speak directly to me. More than sympathy or empathy, you make me feel what I imagine you feel, imagine what you must worry about, imagine that relationship in future, and relate it to my own. Rated, as always.
I just realized that my previous comment sounds a little stalker-ish, but I think your other regulars will understand. [I hope, anyway!]
How many times can I write a comment and delete it? I do this often on your posts about Luca. They touch me deeply and leave me without words. Rated 100 x in my head.
sickofstupid and Joan: thank you for your very kind comments. They mean more to me than I can say.
Thanks, Neil. Kinda too bad that you and Luca can't meet.
Oh, wait -- I just read the first section of your comment. He does have skills that he has honed. He's an amazing yo-yo-er, he's great at magic tricks, and he can put anything together. When he was six years old, my daughter got a play kitchen set for Xmas and I was flummoxed at the assembly instructions. He put the whole thing together without reading the directions in 10 minutes. I think he could be an engineer or a pilot.
You have a way of reaching out and tugging at my heart, Pauline. That is a true gift. I wish the best for you and Luca on your mother and son journey. Rated.
I've seen much of what you have seen -- raising a 99% family in a neighborhood of elite 1% -- and also volunteering to work with low-side 1%-ers.

I admire your strength in doing what you know is right even if it isn't instantly rewarding. Having raised two young'uns to adulthood, I can say with certainty that who they are at 14 is NO indication of who they will be at 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 (the fashion changes alone could give you whiplash) around 22 they begin to settle into themselves (for better or for worse). The best you can do is stay the course and provide a good examples and messages that will lead him in the direction you'd like for him to go.
Have faith. That which we think at 14 does not always remain with us. You are doing your very best.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
--sinclair louis

"One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
--victor hugo

occupy wall street, my speech to the masses
awesome writing, story, deserves EP/front page. a microcosm of the macrocosm.
"I am immensely grateful to my former in-laws who shell out the $100,000 annual tuition that keeps Luca nestled in a rustic mountain valley,..."

Pauline this is a staggering, and not just the cost. It's got to be wrenching for both him and you to be so far apart, in so many ways. I wonder what the success rate is at this place, if there is such a thing. Is it better than the dismal statistics of where you work? "Wealthy kids with behavior problems." Are their problems any different than those of non-wealthy kids? Is it possible that some of these kids' problems aren't because of where they come from but in spite of it? It's a hard truth to face but some people are born, not bred, with certain traits.

I know you say he'd be running wild if he were at home but I have to wonder if state-of-the-art equine therapy is really what these or any kids need. My heart goes out to you and Luca.
I've raised 3 sons...all in their 20's...all earning enough to be among the "evil rich". I taught them that all things are possible; that opportunities are not given, but soughht; that planning for the future will make your future a lot better; that others can hold you down only if you let them; and that failing is part of life...if you fail, you get up, learn from the experience, and try again. It is not nearly as difficult as it might appear.
Margaret, I am actually visited the school yesterday, and am going back today. I have to say I was happy with what I saw. You raise interesting points, all of which I'm wrestling with. I do think there is something very healing and back-to-the-basics about being in a natural setting working with animals. Those are privileges inner-city "troubled kids" don't get. I think both sets of kids frequently have parents who are too caught up in whatever to be parents, whether that means they're out scoring drugs or at movie premieres tossing back mojitos, so caught up in chaotic relationshpis (poor and rich alike) that they are preoccupied. Also, I think so much is expected of the "rich kids" -- this notion that they are somehow better, which is something they can't possibly live up to and leaves them with a sense of failure. Still trying to figure it all out.
benignczar, that is wonderful that your sons have found success, especially in this scary time of diminished opportunity. I hope this kind of success will be possible for others.
Pauline, I always enjoy reading the latest installment of Luca. Your writing is excellent.

I grew up in a ski resort town, in a blue-collar family. I spent my summers serving coffee, ice cream, and sandwiches to the vacationing 1%. I washed their dishes and cleaned their toilets and I smiled. I cleared their tables and got their coffee in a rush to meet their tee time. I used my tips to buy gas and books for the next semester in college.

And I always, always knew which ones saw me as a person. Sometimes adults, sometimes children. Usually well-raised children of decent adults saw me as a person.

I hope Luca can come around. You can't take away his 1%-ness. But I hope you can teach him to see everyone as a person.
Froggy, that is so much of what I want for my son -- for him to see everyone as "a person." It's vital, in these crazy economic times, for that kind of empathy all around.
I am filled with sympathy for you and Luca. Please try to keep the lines of communication open as he becomes an adult. h emay find littl euse for you in thenear future, but someday you may be a touchstone to a more fulfilled life. One thing that is true about material possessions and money, they do nothing to fill an empty heart. A heart is only filled by what you give of yourself, not what you take.
Oh boy. What a situation. I wish you all the best.
It sounds like you are getting a very rough education. Great writing. I wish you and Luca the best. Luca has a very jaunty lower shelf.
I think much of the sense of entitlement is just the prevailing attitude of "kids today." It's culture, media - so he'd have a healthy bit of it even if he were not having things handed to him on a plate.

Perhaps it's as unfair to assign bad traits to people based on their income when they are rich as well as when they are poor, and ascribe them instead to shitty people regardless of tax bracket.
This is a really interesting personal take on what's going on. Thanks for making the inequality even more interesting, and good luck with your good parenting. Luca is lucky you are in his life.
Wow. You've said this so well -- what a beautiful, powerful piece. I have tears in my eyes for the mother/counselor sitting across from the 99 percenters, thinking about her 1 percent son whom she loves and can't currently reach. What I can say is that he is so lucky to have you for his mother...and someday I hope, hope, hope that the $100,000 a year boarding school will make him see that. xoxo
Luca's name is italian....any connection of his family to that country?
I feel so sad that he has to learn so many hard truths at such a young age. He is so fortunate to have you as a role model. And one day he will see you in that light. At 14 he can't, but he will. -R-
Absolutely beautiful piece. It is so hard for parents. Not just for the 99% ers, but for the 1% ers too. I don't think anyone wants their children to grow up to be ingrates. I always told my children that all I would promise them was a good education. Someone can take away your money, but no one can take away your education. I rated this, and added you as a favorite.
Very interesting perspective. It also reinforced my notion of the 1%. Thanks for your honesty and clarity.
I love your writing, but take offense at your statement that troubled kids who are poor are troubled because their parents are scoring drugs. I really tried not to get offended, but really it is hard not to.
I have a beautiful son with Asperger's who has been in and out of schools. I have tried everything--even giving up my job, something I couldn't afford to do- to help him succeed. I have taken him to counselors, therapists, and psychologists, but still he suffers from anger issues. I'm not out scoring drugs and many of the other parents I meet in the Medicaid paid for therapist and psychiatrist offices aren't either. We are simply parents who are trying the best for our kids. We don't have in-laws paying the equivalent of a mortgage to take care of our children for us. Our children are at home- getting suspended from school, fighting with siblings, tearing things apart in rage.
I spend every minute with my child that he is home, but somehow because I'm poor that makes me a bad parent.
Nerdyjen, I didn't mean to imply that poor kids who are in trouble are only in trouble because their parents do drugs. I should probably go back and clarify that in this post. The kids I work with have had multiple traumas -- frequent placements in different foster homes with foster parents who abuse them. Those are the kids whose bio parents are on drugs, or in jail. Not the kids who have had one consistent parent. Although kids with consistent parents can end up in trouble too. So much is wiring.
Such a fascinating and profound conflict. I hope the visit goes well, and I hope even more that your dreams and hopes for Luca come true. Good luck to him, and to you.
Money has pluses and minuses. He is also still the child, and you the adult, along with his father. Divorced parents often lay a lot of grotesque psychological baggage on people, something to watch for; you two made that choice, not him. Maybe you and your husband feel guilt too.
It's not very easy for him to have to go to and from different worlds, as people tend to identify as parents which world they are a part of. Since everyone needs vindication for their life, they want their children to adopt their values.
His friends by the way may not be very helpful as to consciously or not trying to force that issue, and maybe you have to think about something too.
Luca didn't chose to grow up divorced, his parents did. I don't know who left, but it doesn't really matter, as that wasn't his choice, but you and your ex-husbands, even if he has to deal with it. He has to deal with it too, and accept that loss which all children feel, some more than others.
But it's not very fun to have to go back and forth between different environments where in the one per cent, you're suspect because of the other part of your world that's not,and people in that world can like to crush people like that, and then in the other world you're hated for the one per cent part of you. Luca didn't create that situation either, if, as he grows up, he has to deal with it too. There is nothing wrong with being accomplished in what you do per se either, and being a college professor for example is an intermediate ground, since if the one per cent will never respect you for money, they are also intimidated by your knowledge. They also may never be his friends, but then the academic tribe has its own comforts that way, if you buy into their values.
Sometimes people in such situations, people are also are wise to decide to make a new start, and leave the country, or join the military, or a foregin military in some cases, again a new family, because they can see good and bad in both worlds, and like and love people in both worlds, and so therefore face a lot of cognitive dissoanance as to who they are, and don't want anything more to do with either, since no one likes being hated by everyone, and if you can find a country that accepts you, that's not a bad thing. Russia needs people, if he's white, to be crude, and if he develops skills int that language, and technical skills as well, he would have a place there. The American military is also often good for such people too, as is academia, in which telling him some day, that your one per cent people will never take him as really one of their own, and neither will you because of your envy and hatred of the one per cent, means he needs to find a middle ground, and maybe very far away from both you and your ex-husband, and again the military, academia, or a foreign country are often the best in such situations. If that is a loss to you and your ex-husband, look in the mirror.
Hmm...okay, Don. You said quite a lot. You're certainly entitled to your opinions, but I think you have read some things into my post that are not there. I don't hate the 1%. What I hate is the lack of empathy and the greed by SOME in the 1% that has polarized this country and prevented the majority from having a decent quality of life. If there's anything I envy, it's the peace of mind that comes from not having to worry about one's future.
Parents often hate their children, happens all the time, because no one is accepted in this life save on terms of certain constructions.
If you want to disown him, that is your right.
Oh, for God's sake, Don. You really don't get this situation AT ALL.
I think I get it quite well Pauline. I grew up exactly like Luca, and it doesn't work out very well. Let him go, and adopt another child, or accept the one you have more.
Don: one more comment and I'm done. You didn't grow up exactly like my son. You grew up like you. I'm not your mother. If you have read my pieces, you know that I've gone through all kinds of gyrations to keep a relationship with my son. My divorce is not like your parents. This is a conversation you need to have with your own parents, not me. I am respectfully requesting that you refrain from more comments.
I am really uncomfortable with the way you've intellectualized your son. I can't relate to that.

[I appreciate the context you give and the good writing. The name Luca rings a bell, so I assume I have read something about him before, and I have no idea what my reaction to that piece might have been. In the interest of keeping my response limited to this particular essay, one which you present as self-standing (given your explanatory details), I have chosen not to go back and see what I might have read and said.]
fair enough. sorry if i upset you. no mas
So is your wealthy ex's family money so vast and protected that he can afford to let his son be a complete spendthrift? Doesn't someone care about the family legacy? If not you've got nothing to worry about. In a few years or at most a generation or two the money will be gone and your son's progeny will have only memories of wealth.
I have no helpful pseudo-advice, nor can I relate in any way to the financial aspects of your family's situation. I grew up in a lower middle-class (poor in the beginning) family, and my kids have had no more than mid-middle. But I can relate well to being a mom who sees her children's character flaws for what they are, and hopes and dreams that they will grow out of them someday--all the while loving them. It's never easy being mom. Great piece.
Three years ago, my son was Luca. Your writing reminds me how important it is for a child to master the push me - pull you dynamics of family just before they begin to practice individuation.

"accepting that our jobs as parents are finite" and the terms of that job change at the demand of our child. I am impressed with your determination to define your job by what you are meant to do as his mother rather than by the demand of his behavior. I believe this is key.

My son amazes me every day. I believe Luca will do the same for you.
the os editor sy===

bbki si ==o

u'vuctyrt ti

rahh rahhh
I have read some of the comments from people and can easily spot those who have never worked with troubled kids, and who have 99% kids. It's tough and there is no way anyone can fully grasp where you are coming from unless they have had similar experiences.
I wish you everything of the best, to you Luca, and your family, and his teachers, who all have to share in raising him.
I recognize some friends here, I'm recommending you to one. Thanks, great work.
I hope that Luca can find his way to a productive life that is satisfying for him, not just what is expected by his father's family.

People who come from money often have to work harder than the rest of us to grow up

I've met plenty of individuals who illustrate this idea.

I don't hate the 1%. What I hate is the lack of empathy and the greed by SOME in the 1% that has polarized this country and prevented the majority from having a decent quality of life.

I'm absolutely with you on this. I've met other 1%ers who are decent, giving people and consider it part of their mission in life to help others. I wish that more of the 1% would follow their example.

I used to be married to one of the 1% and learned that money is certainly no guarantee of happiness. It just buys better distractions when you are unhappy.
I know you are preoccupied with your son right now, and I wish you well with that. But perhaps you might write another piece some day, an analysis of the ultra-wealthy. You've seen them up close in a way that few of us have. What makes them, or at least many of them, so lacking in human decency?
Wealth certainly can be a terrible de-humanizer. Very insightful narrative.
I really love this whole series Pauline...
I read your blog with interest because I worked at a 'non-public school" probably more similar to the school where you work than Luca's private school. I don't have anything to say except how hard it is on everyone, but mostly for you, his mom. Years later, I wish I had asked, "What do you want? I still feel that the kids competed to be the worst offender, to tell their story the most times each day, thinking that will make them feel better, but it seemed to elevate their bad behavior. The adults spent their days making excuses for really awful criminal behavior. It was a horrible experience and the kids were not well served by the grown ups. Somehow telling your teacher to f' off, then being taken on a field trip, was so wrong. I think if the general population of this country knew how many of these kids are being released at 18 into the regular world, they would be appalled. It seemed to me that there is a very fine line at these institutions between mental health problems and criminal behavior. I left when I realized I never felt safe while at work.
All 14 year olds are immature (just don't tell them that) and all feel entitled at some point; just remember his brain will not mature until about age 26 (see the last National Geographic on the Teenager Brain). He is still clay - he is still pruning the branches of neurons developing in his brain - and it is your job (and the ex-husband) to develop a mature adult. You will not do that, however, but harboring resentment against the rich, or any other large stereotyped group.

On the surface this looks cut and dry - a divorce with the the poor adopted mother against the rich, entitled father, with the child caught in the middle. As a pediatrician trained and experienced in these situations, however, I worry about the resentment in your words and that will, without a doubt, rub off on Luca if left unchecked.

You cannot match what your ex-husband can buy, but you can give this child your interest, love and time. That does not mean be a friend, but be a parent. Your ex-husband's side seems fun and cool now, but in the long run it is love, time and good parenting that are going to bring him around, and he will thank you for it someday (years from now).

You have an opportunity to teach Luca an important lesson - that an individual should not be judged by the color of one's skin or the contents of one's wallet (full or empty), but by the content of their character. I have worked with the rich, the poor, CEO's and the homeless, and there are just as many good and bad in all groups. If you can show that you do not judge others - then he is less likely to judge. If you teach him that, than you have taught him a lesson most of us never learn, and he will be successful.

That means you do not raise him to think that teh wealthy are all greedy and evil (otherwise you pit him against his father), just as not all criminals and drug addicts are evil. The people who change the world are those who can work with all kinds of people (see Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Jesus, et al). And remember, Obama is rich, too, and all of those kids at OWS are richer than 90% of the people in the world - they could feed a child in Kenya with what they (or their parent's) pay a month for unlimiting texting, and how many kids in the Congo have Ipads?

There is a poem by Rudyard Kipling called "If." I would encourage you to read it, and encourage your ex-husband to read it. And when he is ready, give that to Luca as a gift, maybe for his next birthday.
eatyourlimabeans, I don't hate the rich. That is a surface reading of this post. I never said that. What I hate is abuse of power, in whatever social strata or color or gender or age that comes in. With all that's going on in this country, I think it's clear the problems that stem from abuse of power.
Wow. I read the second part firswt...this all makes sense in such an amazing way. I also went to prep school as a faculty brat, daughter of a minister, etc.! All the lineage, none of the money. I work with rape/crisis survivors. I'm so impressed and proud of you for accepting the privilege of help for your son while making a difference in the lives of many, many young people. May he someday learn from your beautiful example...and i think he will!