A few days into lock down, my husband and I split a beer in the backyard while, just over the fence, our neighbor’s three-year old had a tantrum. We exchanged a high-five, celebrating the fact that our kids were nearly grown. Our independent teens didn’t need help with home-schooling, they didn’t want us to role play “My Little Pony” or engage in endless rounds of Candyland. All we needed to do was keep the fridge stocked and stay out of their way.
Since then I’ve realized that tantrums, like earthquakes, come in varying magnitudes and it take maneuvering of both mind and body to make space for our children no matter how old they are.
For better or worse, my seventeen-year old son seems well suited to a “safer at home” order. A dedicated gamer, he’s the O.G. social-distancer. He already lives in sweats and hoodies and would be happy to eat pasta every day. If I typed up a transcript of the discussions and disagreements we’ve had around the topic of “screen time,” the length would rival “War and Peace,” but now is not the time for arguments. School was online, his friends are on a server, Netflix is comforting, and the world is providing enough drama.
My fifteen-year old daughter has been pacing the house like a caged leopard. After a few weeks of practice, she’s now able to draw a perfect cat eye with liquid liner. She walks around our block or she sits on the front porch and counts the runners pounding the pavement up our street. Her phone is a magic window that opens into the houses of her friends. A tinny chorus of extra girl voices and laughter accompanies her wherever she goes.
My teens are feeling confined
My son is retreating; my daughter is bouncing off the walls. Their growing brains are critical of themselves and critical of me. With each passing day, the walls of our house squeeze a little tighter, our patience frays. It’s harder and harder for me (for any of us) to stay out of the way.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
It’s a question asked by one or both of my kids at least once a day.
It’s hard not to stare at my daughter in noise cancelling headphones, singing along at top volume with Harry Styles. It’s hard not to gaze with surprise at my son as he towers over the toaster, slicing open bagels with his man sized hands. As we hunker down here together, it’s hard for me not to take inventory.
These two, with their shifting moods and watery emotions, are the weather inside my home and also the barometer I’m using to gauge the storm that’s hit the outside world. I’m looking at them because they are all up in my face with their needs and wants and I’m looking at them because I have needs and wants, too. I’m looking at them because I can’t help it; because I am an observer. This skill aids my writing, but is a liability when parenting teenagers who seem to grow best in secret.
I notice chewed fingernails, empty cookie boxes, dirty hair, crumpled homework. I notice the cute new top and the bare stretch of skin between hem and waistband. Everyone is growing and changing and that is not going to stop just because the whole world is on hiatus. I am worried about my son and daughter in the present and scared for the future they will inherit. At night, my brain swirls with a billion questions, but daylight returns and I try to play it cool.
“Hey,” I say, at least once a day, “How are you doing?”
Sometimes they answer. “Fine.” Sometimes they roll their eyes or shrug me off like a too small jacket.
Like the young children of my neighbor, my kids used to throw tantrums, but they also brought me books to read and invited me to drink tea with a plush rabbit. They looked to me to re-string a yo-yo or bandage a scraped knee. It used to be simpler. Put the footie pajamas on, take the footie pajamas off. Build a tower of blocks. Knock it down. Build another tower. In those old days, I might have been the source of frustration, but, more often, I was a source of information and comfort. I was a coveted audience.
“Mama, look.” It was a constant refrain.
It’s hard to stop watching them
It’s hard to stop looking. It’s taken me a while to realize that what I mean as care feels like control. My curiosity seems nosy or at worst, dim. “How are you doing?” is an obvious question with an even more apparent answer. Given the situation, my enthusiasm (Pancakes! Movie night! Dance party!) seems forced. In times of stress, I sometimes turn into a determined camp counselor, intent to sing even when the cabins are on fire. If I take a breath, and work to shift my observation from the physical to the situational, it’s possible to intuit the answers.
A scuttled graduation ceremony is clearly affecting my son, but my awareness of his dark mood does nothing to change the facts. Cheerfully complimenting my daughter’s outfit only underscores the fact that she’s got nowhere to be.
For much of my children’s lives, I’ve defined myself as a stay-at-home parent. I worked a little, but it was easy to step away from my computer to drive the carpool, bake a batch of cupcakes or volunteer in the classroom. Over the last year, as my son got his driver’s license and my daughter started spending more and more time with friends, it was hard to shift gears.
I looked for ways to stay connected. I took note of favorite foods and clothing and television shows. I read articles about pop stars, lip gloss, new video games, and the latest cell phone release. It sounds crazy when I say it out loud, but I was on alert for conversation starters. I thought I was making sure they felt “seen,” but now I’m wondering if this action might have been fueled by fear of my own disappearance.
Maybe what our grown kids really need is space and privacy
My kids are nearly grown, and, like me, they need space and privacy to figure things out for themselves. I’m thinking about how they might see me. They don’t need a playmate or a schoolmarm. I can show love by looking away from the stacked and crusty cereal bowls and the tangles of long hair in the bathroom drain; by refraining from attempts to answer every question and solve every problem.
I can stay out of their way by finding my own way. As we begin another week together at home, I hand out chore lists and head into my office, leaving my kids to fold the laundry, clean the bathroom and entertain themselves. From my desk, I can see my daughter trying to skateboard in the driveway. I hear my son’s whoops and laughter from upstairs as he and his friends gird up for another battle.
Outside my window, there’s this teenaged blue jay making what has become a familiar loop. It flies from the top of our hedge to a small opening in the middle of the neighbor’s hedge, where its blue body is absorbed by green. Only the flutter of leaves reveal movement as this bird travels invisibly up and up. I watch until it pops out, struts across the top of the hedge, stretches its wings and swoops back to do it all over again.
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Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the award winning memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown.” Her essay, “What Life Does,” originally published in Fourth River was listed as notable in the 2019 Best American Science and Nature Writing. She is a founding partner of Girl Group Enterprises. Learn more at tanyawardgoodman.com