“What would you say is the worst part of all this?”
When I asked my 19-year-old son this question, I secretly patted myself on the back for making space for him to express himself and creating an opportunity for us as parents to validate his feelings, just like all the articles said I should do. I expected him to be disappointed that his freshman university experience came to an abrupt end one day (one day!) before track season began. I thought he might complain about having to remote teach his remote self differential equations. I was sure he missed his college friends, who seemed to be just starting to gel as a group.
“The people dying.”
I was taken by surprise, yes, but only for a flicker. The feeling that followed was something I can only describe as a fierce battle between pride and heartbreak, followed by a dawning realization that my son is a person. It’s happened. I am looking at a human person, a good person, and he is looking back at me.
It’s more than fair to say I should have realized this earlier. I just published a book for teenage boys, trying to convince them that other people are human beings through a combination of straight talk, adolescent jokes, and droll illustrations.
Three weeks ago (or one hundred years ago, depending on how you measure time these days) I had actually thought, This little book could help families right now. Parents can take advantage of this captive time with their teens to teach them that parents are people too, and to talk about how to do what’s right not only for ourselves, but for our families and for people in the world.
Three-week-ago me was full of ideas.
It turns out that teens aren’t the only ones who should use this time to reflect on the humanity of the people around them. When my son first moved home from campus, I launched straight into mom-mode, setting my focus on a series of logistical worries: Is he sleeping enough? Is he sleeping too much? Is he spending too much time online? Is he doing his work? Is he getting enough exercise? Is he eating too many snacks? Is he ever going to unpack?
Of course, I was concerned about how he was taking it. (This is on the list of things we parents are supposed to worry about, after all.) I asked him how he felt about missing his first college track season, or his friends. I offered the occasional self-deprecating joke about being stuck home with his square parents, and a periodic, “I know this sucks.” He’d say, “I’m fine. Everyone else is missing it, too,” which was reassuring. Somehow, so were his eyerolls.
But in my mind, what he was “taking like a champ” was the inconvenience to himself. I was disappointed for him, so I assumed he was disappointed and sad for himself. I hadn’t paused to consider that over the course of his interrupted freshman year, his perspective might have changed and that he might be sad for the world outside our walls in the very same way I was—in the way any grown human would be.
I was imagining him to be the person he was when he left, or worse, a stereotypical “son” or “college student” or “teenager,” rather than seeing and appreciating him as a whole human person thinking big human thoughts in a very strange-to-be-human time.
What a gift, to spend this terrible time with this wonderful human. I hope someday he’ll say the same about us.
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Kara Kinney Cartwright always says, please, thank you, and excuse me—even on the subway. She married a total good guy and, through relentless lecturing, teasing, cash-bribing, and tricking, they have raised two sons who are not assholes, for the most part. If you happen to know her in person, this book is not about you, for the most part. She has written parenting articles for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, Babble, Grown and Flown, and more. She lives near Washington, DC, and works in legal publishing.