FROM TODDLERS TO TEENAGERS


PJ-ORourke-580x580This weekend was one that we are all familiar with. It was time to clean out the closets (both literally and figuratively). I am not sure what it is about the warm weather and the onset of summer vacation that creates such an urge to purge. Surprisingly enough, it was kids who got the ball rolling this morning. After having friends over last night, they realized that their rooms were cluttered with too much junk, obscuring their treasured Nerf guns and clogging up the secret forts in each of their rooms. This morning I discovered both of my boys in their respective rooms creating piles of unwanted items – toys, books, clothes that no longer represented their quickly changing identities. My older son, moments away from turning 13 and bravely travailing the pathway of a teenager, had put aside a bin of Thomas the Tank Engine trains that had been stored in the back of his closet and secretly admitted to me that he had pulled them out and played with them this morning. “They were fun, mommy.”

I stood in his doorway, looking at the strewn items lying around his floor and glanced over at the trains, transported in a split second back to the days when he started building his vast collection. He was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, as many of his friends were, and he had a special affinity because he, too, was Thomas. The other boys, as their 2 and 3 year-old brains connected the dots that he was fortunate enough to share an identity with the sweet little blue train, often shrieked when Thomas was around, singing Thomas the Tank Engine songs to him. The images of him working away at his little train table which moved from our porch to the living room and finally making a home in his bedroom played a slideshow in my mind. There he was, all 3 feet tall, leaning over the table, his chubby little fingers struggling to connect the tracks with an intermittent cry out for help when his efforts proved fruitless. He loved his trains. His collection was immense. And, nearly 10 years later, he rediscovered them, not remembering his passion but acknowledging that they were special and should be saved.

That image seemed light years from the boy who sat around the backyard table last night with his friends and ours. I remarked to my friend who had come over for dinner that we had come full circle. Her 15 year-old son, a boy we have known since he was in preschool, was with us at the table as well and I recalled how it was just a few years ago that the kids wanted nothing to do with us and we could not get them to sit still to eat. And, it was just a few years before that when they were underfoot, pulling on our arms or legs asking to be cared for as we desperately struggled to have just a moment for ourselves. I imagined the children, as if in a stop-action photography image, going from toddlers to teens while disappearing and reappearing. Of course, their recent reappearance is far different from so many years ago. Last night, the boys all gathered around the table, shoving burgers and hot dogs into their quickly growing, fast-metabolizing bodies while taking photos to post to Instagram or listening a little too carefully to the adult conversations – suddenly very aware and understanding what we were discussing. I glanced around the table and imagined what the next 5 or 6 years would bring. Now, the boys were happy to sit and talk with us. They were having adult discussions, talking about other kids from school who were difficult to deal with and sharing their frustrations in hopes of garnering some support. They laughed at jokes in a wholehearted way that seemed unimaginable just last summer. They talked about girls they liked and gossiped about the dating scene in middle school. They were engaging in a mature and adult way.

I leaned back in my chair last night and just took it all in. There it happened again. Everything changed. No preparation. No heads up. No signals. No guidance. I was thrown, head-first, into the pool and it was sink or swim. I was holding my breath, recognizing that I had to come up for air as fast as I could before the water filled my lungs and I began to drown. This time, surprisingly, I was excited for the change. I found myself giddy at the anticipation of having children who could interact with us in a mature and sophisticated way. I loved listening to my son share his ideals and values (although he didn’t yet understand that he was actually doing that). I beamed with pride as I looked over at my husband. We did that. We helped to create this burgeoning adult.

Rather than being annoyed by having my son and his friends interrupt our adult dinner, I welcomed them into the discussion. We all engaged the kids, capitalizing on the opportunity to gather premium information that might not otherwise be available to us. Raising teenagers is a scary journey. There is more that you don’t know than you do know. It is virtually impossible to stay on top of them. Social media is all-consuming and, while it sometimes offers critical data to help give you small snapshots of their lives and psyches, it is hard to keep up with. Just when you think you’ve discovered all their online identities and have established monitoring systems to keep tabs, you realize they have moved on. The other day my friend summed it up. Facebook replaced MySpace. Instagram replaced Facebook. Something is out there replacing Instagram but we are not in touch enough to know what that is. Once upon a time we were able to put up gates to ensure that they could not fall down the stairs or we put latches on the cabinets so they could not obtain poisonous substances. We knew the dangers we needed to protect them from. There are no gates or latches to keep them safe. As parents, we are in dark caves, feeling our way around, hoping to find a ray of light to guide us.

I know I am lucky because my son has a strong sense of responsibility and inherently understands right from wrong. Of course, he is only 12 3/4 and has yet to truly experience all the dangers life has to offer an adolescent. But, with all of that, I have confidence that he will make some good decisions. And, I beam with pride when I look at him knowing that, as he enters one of the most difficult phases of his still young life, he has a lot of tools as his disposal – certainly many more than I ever had.

Now, as for the figurative cleaning out of the closets, I took a few minutes this morning, in between packing up clothes into bins and tossing out long outgrown toys that are not worthy of donation, and thought about my changing role as a parent. As I have been realizing for the past year or two, it is critically important to be present for our kids at this age. As much as I cherished our long-gone bedtime chats where I would lay in bed with each of my kids and read or talk about the random musings in their minds, I realize that their needs today are far more important. I know that I helped to create a foundation of trust and love with them during those times that I gave them my full attention and that helped to create our bonds today. And I know that they are paying much closer attention today, looking for me to read their subtle cues for guidance. The time I spend with them now is about building our relationship of the future. My presence in their lives during their teenage years will be the formulation of our adult relationship and will ensure that they feel close enough to me and trust me enough to have the really hard discussions. Our time together now is viewed through a much more critical lens – one that is ready to see me fail and prepared to remind me of it for years to come.

This afternoon, my son pulled out the Slip N Slide and set it up in the yard to get in some water fun with his brother and some friends. Several times he asked me if I would come out and play with them. I was still busy cleaning and doing some work and, after the third or fourth time when he said “Don’t you want to spend some quality time with your son having a good time?” I jumped up, put on my bathing suit and ran outside to make a fool of myself. I will, no doubt, be covered in bruises from the poor landings on the hard grass that my 45 year-old body handles much more poorly than his 12 year-old one does. But, he laughed and felt proud that his mom would come out and join in the fun. And that was the most important thing on earth today. Everything else could wait. I decided to shut out the rest of the world and just immerse myself in the space of my kids and, without any doubts, I knew that nothing else could be more meaningful, more valuable or bring me more joy. And now, as I sit here writing this, I am listening to both of my sons with their friends playing video games. Their voices are deeper than I remembered them being last summer and their discussions are far more complex. They are independent and mature. They walk through my house with their imposing statures – all athletes and growing fast and furiously. I am lapping it all up. Today, I recognize that all the other nonsense in my life is irrelevant. My children – growing and preparing to move on faster than I can keep up – are the only thing that matters in my life. When I am at the end of my life, I will not remember all the work I did or even the parties with friends. I will, however, be flanked by my family and will hopefully see that little boy with Thomas the Tank Engine trains who has passed them on to his own son. My joy, my bliss is right in those faces.

I certainly worry about my impact on my children and pray every day that they feel my love and know my commitment to their healthy development. I struggle with correcting the mistakes of my own parents and am consciously working to not pass along the dysfunction that marked my childhood. Without role models or handbooks, I trust that the immense love I feel for them will guide me along the right path. Earlier today, I got a sign that perhaps I am headed down the right path. After splashing around on the Slip N Slide, I went inside to do my daily check on some of his social media accounts and found that someone had asked him who his hero was and he responded – “My mom and dad.” OK, we got this.