I think my son forgot he was 12 this morning. Lately he’s been setting his alarm so he can get up early and get going for the day. This is a nice gesture, but so far it hasn’t worked. The alarm sounds, he turns it off and goes back to sleep until I wake him up. But this morning was different. His alarm rang. I heard him turn it off, and the next sound I heard was his feet hitting the floor. A second later he climbed into bed with me, said, “Momma,” and went right back to sleep.
It’s not my intent to embarrass my son by telling this story. I doubt he was really even awake when he came into my room. When he was little, this was a much more common occurrence. Snuggling with mom was an expectation, not a surprise. However at 12 he’s outgrown this. He is well on his way into adolescence, soon to join his sister in the joyful realm of teenager.
Oh let’s be honest. What is so joyful about being a teenager? Words like adolescence, puberty, and even teenager, don’t adequately describe what these years are like. The term I’m going to use is “Straits of Doom.” Being a teenager – and as I’m discovering, being a parent of a teenager – means that more often than not you are navigating the Straits of Doom, with periodic stops at the Cliffs of Insanity. Thank you to The Princess Bride for that particular name. It’s not that there aren’t good times when you’re in full throttle adolescence. There are. While I detested Junior High (I’m old enough to remember when it was Junior High, not Middle School), High School was a better experience. The older I got, the better it got. I can’t claim that I became fully comfortable in my own skin until college (okay grad school, okay I’m still working on it). But every moment of my own adolescence wasn’t terrible. But it was hard. I wanted to be an adult and treated as such. I wanted the privileges of adulthood without the responsibility. I wanted to use all of the clichés available, to be free to be me, spread my wings, fly, soar, until it got hard or scary. Then I wanted to race right back to the safety of my parents, childhood and letting somebody else take care of me. I write this knowing how lucky I was to have that safety net to fall back on. Many don’t.
I guess that is the real challenge of this time, and why adolescence feels more like traveling seasick than (insert snarky tone here) a journey of discovery into the delights of growing up. Not only is your body suddenly a pinball machine of hormonal fluctuations; you’re also walking a thin, wildly shaky line between childhood and adulthood. You want one but are reluctant to completely abandon the other. Leaving childhood may be as much an occasion for grief as any other loss.
I know I’m not the first person to come to this realization about adolescence. I'm sure I'm just articulating what others have already said. However, I thought I was fairly well prepared to be a parent of teenagers. After all, I was a teenager. I remember. But what I didn’t understand was the shock I feel at how quickly my children are changing. Obviously all of life is change, but the changes I'm seeing now seem dramatically different from the changes I witnessed when they were little. The changes of adolescence seem to be happening at a deeper level than when they were learning to talk and walk, read and ride a bike. Author Anne Lamott, in writing about her son Sam’s experience navigating the Straits of Doom, said that when he would be in the throes of teenager-itis (my term), he didn’t seem like the person she knew as Sam at all. So she called that person Phil, and she’d deal with Phil until Sam returned. * *
My children are changing. They are figuring out the world on their own terms. They’re seeing through lenses that are distinctively their own. Yes, those lenses are influenced by their parents and larger families, friends and experiences; but they are still forging a path that’s theirs and theirs alone. I know that this is absolutely necessary. I know that my job as a parent is not to make the path easier because I can’t, but to give them whatever guidance they’ll accept as they make their way. What I didn’t expect was the helplessness. Now I get my parents’ worry and frustration with me. They knew that they had to do everything they could to teach me, but they couldn’t fully protect me. They could see the rocks and heartaches and setbacks that lay in wait along those straits, but they were helpless to prevent me from crashing into them. I see them too. I also know my children will crash against them. They’ll hurt and be hurt. They'll fail. They'll encounter obstacles they didn't expect. They’ll fall and will have to find a way to get back up. But all of this has to happen in their own way. I have to accept that their way won’t always be mine. I’ll treasure moments like this morning, a moment when I can still see the precious children they were. But along with the worry and frustration that comes with teenagers, I’m also going to be hopeful. I'm going to look to the future, their future, with expectation. From the moment each of them were born, they were unique, amazing, wonderful little beings. Someday, sooner than I'd like, I'll look up and see that they've become unique, amazing, wonderful adults.
** In the spirit of Anne Lamott, I’ve decided to call my kids’ alter egos Tallulah and Spike. I don’t know why. The names just work.