From the kitchen, I hear him coming down the stairs and brace myself a little, not knowing what to expect. Will he be in a decent mood, or a surly one? Will we be on speaking terms or illegible grunts? I’ve made him his favorite breakfast; scrambled eggs with cheese on whole wheat grainy bread. It’s cut into triangles and wrapped in tin foil on the stove to keep it perfectly warm.
“Morning,” I chirp, knowing immediately that it’s probably too chirpy.
He barely glances at me as he passes.
“Hey,” I try again. “I made you some eggs.”
“I’m not hungry,” he says and walks directly to his cell, pulls it from the charger and walks out of the room.
I resist the urge to follow like a puppy. It’s better if I give him some space. I know this, yet I can’t help myself and pad after him. He is sitting on the living room couch staring at his phone.
“Hey,” I try again, pathetically seeking that scratch behind the ears. “You want me to take you in early today, right?”
He mentioned this the night before, so I woke up an extra half hour earlier this morning to be prepared.
“Hey,” I assert more forcefully but still holding back. Don’t want to start the day on a bad note. “You want to leave in like fifteen minutes, right?”
“Oh, yeah, right,” he says, as if hearing me for the first time. Of course, he still doesn’t look up, so I stand there waiting. It takes a solid minute, a dramatic throat clearing and an intense evil eye stare down for him to realize.
“What?” he asks, genuinely perplexed.
“Nothing,” I say, displeasure marked on my face, but then I worry that my expression might become permanent, or worse that I am once again type cast as the annoying nag. I soften but he’s already returned to his phone.
In the kitchen, I sip my coffee gratefully and mutter to myself while getting things ready. Soon the rest of the house will be awake and there will be more breakfast to make, lunches to pack and ‘chauffeuring’ to do.
“Mom!” I hear from the other room and wince a little at the demand. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
I grab my keys, resenting his tone, yet complying. I don’t want a fight. More than anything, I want this boy to be happy. So happy. And love me. So much. It’s a never-ending struggle finding the balance between his new assertions of independence and my extremely slow transition to recognize that he is no longer five, that he is, in fact, 16.
Although, you’d wonder why I’m still smarting. There’s little about this new creature, full of bravado and snark, that resembles the shy, sweet boy of a decade ago. Little, but enough to keep me hanging by a string remembering the days not so long ago where being separated for the two hours of nursery was traumatic, when he resolutely announced that he and his ‘growed-up’ family would happily live in our basement and when spending an afternoon with me at the supermarket was a joyful adventure in snacks and silliness.
These days, I’m just hoping to catch that sweet smile or be on the other side of a hug. For those moments where he answers with more than just “Fine,” “Nothing” or “Wait” and that he’ll notice I’m asking him a question before I’ve ripped the phone from his hands and am standing there pissed and hurt.
This dance isn’t easy. I’m nowhere near learning the steps of mixing the middle-aged hormones with the teenaged ones. It’s like two left feet trying to do salsa and head banging punk while in an attempt to Tango. So I try very hard to not be too nagging or over sensitive, but I don’t want to be a victim either. My boy needs to know when he’s crossed the line, but it seems we are walking so many lines that the right and wrong get a little blurry. Or more accurately, I choose my battles. You can’t fight them all. That’s why I accept things I never thought I would to stay on his good side, and work extra hard to please him. Yet sometimes it seems, the more I try to get along, the more I feel the distance between us.
I know there are a host of parenting experts/moms who will tell me that I need to stop worrying about how much he likes me; that being a parent isn’t about being popular, it’s about parenting. Of course, that is obviously true, and I do that job far too much for my comfort, which is why I’m vulnerable. Why I pine for his affections, for those days when the conversations were simpler and easier, when it was okay to grab him just to hug and tickle.
I have a 13 year-old who is on the verge of joining his brother in the teenage void. Although, my middle son is very different from my oldest, and remains warm and open, I’m not holding my breath. He is naturally a passionate and hot-tempered boy and that just may not translate well in Teen Land. But of course, you never know. My youngest is 11 and I’ve decided that he’s just not allowed to become a teen until at least the older one ages out. I can’t handle more than two blank stares at a time.
“Mom! What’s taking so long?” my 16-year-old asks, a little too arrogant like he’s talking down to someone. Which since I’ve woken him, made him breakfast, packed his lunch and am now preparing to drive him to school is kind of what I am.
“I just wanted to show you this new zip-up I bought you.” I smile, holding out my offering. Please like it, I hope. I went to two stores to find one in his favorite color. “The one you’re wearing is ripped.” I say flatly, like I’m not vested in his approval.
His eyes lift from his phone, just briefly enough to glance at it. “Sure, whatever.” He shrugs, and I am filled with relief. Like I just accomplished a major coup, getting him to agree to wear designer outerwear.
He puts it on and before we’re out the door, he casually says, “Thanks.” and rewards me with that sweet smile, the exact same as when I’d hand him a cookie when he was a toddler. My heart contracts. I want to touch him, maybe just brush the hair away from his eyes, the way I used to be allowed to when boundaries were clearer as to who was in charge.
But now he’s growing up and I need to respect the natural order of things which dictates that to some extent a teenager must pull away from their parent and find his own way. It’s biology. Logically I understand that, but emotionally it feels like my baby is running away from me, forsaking his mom. I am desperate to catch him, hug him, protect him, and try to win back his four-year-old love. I am clearly emotional and oversensitive. 50 looms large and my hormones are also in high gear. In fact, I may have misread half of our interactions. An uncomfortable thought.
At last the answer dawns as bright as the shine on my face after a night of sweats. I just need one of those change of life babies. Before you think I’ve officially lost my mind. I’m talking about a dog with an unending supply of furry love.
Must keep a sense of humor about these things. At least until he’s out of puberty and I’m over menopause.
Alisa Schindler is a mom of three boys and wife to Mr. Baseball. She schleps children, burns cupcakes and writes essays that have been featured online at the New York Times, Washington Post, Kveller, Brain, Child, Woman’s Day, Parents and Good Housekeeping, among others. She is currently a regular contributor to Northwell Health’s The Well. On the side, she writes sexy suburban fiction novels. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.