I have two sons. In just a month, they will be 11 and 13. And our home, well, it’s not the same as it used to be. There are basketballs and gym shoes, shin guards and dirty socks at every turn. There is a constant search for missing earbuds and phone chargers, and “pump up” music, the kind that plays before sporting events, has become the soundtrack of our lives. There is a funky smell here, a mingling of stinky shoe, sweaty uniform, and Axe body wash, that wafts through the air. And it is next to impossible to keep snacks stocked in the cabinets. Almost-teen boys are a lot less snips and snails and puppy dog tails and a lot more bottomless stomach.
I don’t mind wrangling the socks and washing the uniforms, and I’m learning to hide my favorite snacks from the scavengers who live here. I know to watch for loose balls at the bottom of the stairs, and I’m an expert at hunting for “lost” equipment as we are running late to practice, again. I don’t even mind the stinky smell. I mean, I don’t like the stinky smell, but I’m becoming desensitized. And my mother-in-law buys me candles, so that helps.
What I do mind is that these simple, insignificant changes signal something bigger, a shift in my responsibilities as a parent, a change in what motherhood means. The canary that represents childhood at our house is barely hanging onto its perch. I’ve been trying to resuscitate it, but it isn’t working, and the thought of a dead canary here nearly stops my heart from beating, too.
My little boys aren’t so little now, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m not sure I know how to mom anymore.
I was skilled at rocking my sleeping babies.
I was quick at chasing my busy toddlers.
I was smart at exploring the woods with my curious preschoolers.
I was impressive at creating crafts and experiments for my kindergarteners.
I was even good at teaching my inquisitive elementary students to read.
But I don’t know how to parent 10 and 12.
A few weeks before Christmas, my younger son begged me to chaperone his concert rehearsal for fifth- and sixth-graders who play strings. He pleaded with me several times, and I changed the subject several times, mostly because missing work usually creates more work for me in one way or another. But he persisted, and the teacher sent out a code red that said something like “We are in need of chaperones” but that sounded to me like “These kids will never amount to anything if none of their mothers even care, for goodness sakes.” And also I realized that my little boy is 10, and he was begging me to go, and in just a few short months he may be begging me NOT to.
So I signed up.
On the morning of the rehearsal, I was excited to spend a little extra time with my son. I waited in the office until the secretary released the students for the trip and boys and girls rushed into the hallway with music books and backpacks and violins. I hurried to the bus to welcome them and watched through the window as my son and his friends approached. Soon he boarded, giggling and chatting with his classmates, who quickly shuffled past my row to claim the seats in the back.
He may have said hi as he passed by.
I’m not exactly sure.
But I am sure that there was no hug, no I’m-so-glad-you’re-here-Mom, not even a pause for a chat or a fist bump. There was nothing, really, to indicate that the two of us were any more related than any other pair of people on that bus.
The rehearsal went off without a hitch, and soon we were boarding again to head back to the elementary school. On the return trip, I glanced behind me every once in a while to see what was happening in the seats in the rear. The kids talked and joked and laughed and enjoyed escaping the classroom for an hour or two. When the bus doors opened once again, the students hastily exited to return to class. And the kid who had begged me to chaperone this trip scurried down the hallway without ever looking back.
And that was that.
My dog wagged her tail and jumped excitedly when I got home, which soothed my fear that I had turned invisible after leaving the house in the morning. I checked the mirror and pinched myself just to be sure.
Yep. I’m still here.
Later that evening, to my surprise, my ten-year-old thanked me for going on the field trip “with” him. He was so happy that I had taken a few hours off work to ride that bus, even though it had seemed like my presence didn’t matter at all. The truth was that he never intended to spend time with me on the way to his rehearsal. He just wanted to know that, when given two choices, I would choose him.
Thank goodness I did. Because I came very close to failing that test.
I may have felt a bit neglected that morning, but I knew exactly where to sit at the concert that night for a perfect view of my son and his cello.
So there’s that, too.
This is what parenting 10 looks like.
Last Friday, my older son’s middle school basketball team was recognized during half-time of the varsity game at the high school. It was a big deal to us. But as we finalized our plans for the evening, he seemed unexpectedly stressed.
“Mom,” he said, looking conflicted, “you can just drop me off at the high school. I mean, if you want to, that’s fine.”
Drop him off? Was this kid serious?
This was going to be a sweet moment. I mean, he was wearing a freaking bow tie, and they were announcing his name, you know, over the loud speaker. In front of a big crowd. At a varsity basketball game.
No, drop off is not an option.
“Okay, yeah, well, I really want you to be there, Mom.”
Yes . . . I know that. . . So what am I missing?
“But it’s okay if I hang out with my team, right? You won’t care, will you?”
Of course. Your team. Right. Your friends. For sure. Absolutely. I mean, that will be perfect because I really just wanted to concentrate on the game anyway.
So my son played it cool with his teammates while I sat alone in a gym packed with people since the rest of the family had other things to do. It was different. But I enjoyed observing my son from a distance, seeing the whole picture of who he is without the distraction of the details. I enjoyed watching how he interacted with his friends and admiring the young man he has become. I know I’m his mom, but, really, that kid is pretty amazing.
I didn’t mind cheering for the home team while he socialized since I love watching basketball, too. But I was shocked that night, because something about high school has definitely changed, and very recently, I think, because I have been teaching high school for thirteen years and I have never noticed.
Get ready for this. Grab a chair because it’s crazy. Ready?
High school boys LOOK JUST LIKE GROWNUP MEN now!
Seriously, when did this start happening? And why aren’t we researching how to make this stop?
I looked at the players in disbelief, imagining what my grown sons will look like and wondering how ALL of those changes can possibly happen in the next few years. It seems impossible. Glimpses of the future flashed through my mind, tempered by glimpses of the past, when I was cheering from the student section and my husband was the high school basketball player and everyone loitered at Burger King or ran through the Taco Bell drive thru after the game.
Time is not a distance runner. He is a sprinter. He races past at an incredible speed. Kids grow up, and adults get old, and moments pass quickly and are lost forever. Our only hope of bottling yesterday is to preserve its memories. And that only works if we take time to make them.
While we were at the high school that night, my son touched base with me only once.
Yes, when he needed money.
But on our way home, he talked and talked and talked about the events of the evening and the conversation he had with a former coach and the funny things that happened with his friends. And the two of us decided to run through Taco Bell, just like my friends and I did in high school, even though we had already eaten dinner, even though it was after ten o’clock at night.
I wonder if, ten years from now, he will remember eating those tacos with his mom after a varsity basketball game in 2017.
I hope that he will.
This is what parenting 12 looks like.
When I started teaching, I worked at a rural high school in southeastern Ohio with a man named Jim Williams. Jim Williams was tall and serious and a respected veteran teacher. He had a dry sense of humor and a quick wit, and it seemed to me that he had read every piece of literature that had ever been written. He was also the chair of the English department, so he was, at least in my mind, my boss.
I was a novice, still learning the ropes and finding my confidence, and Jim Williams was never anything but kind to me when I worked with him. But, because of my own insecurities as a young teacher, I felt about fifteen years old whenever we spoke. My mind defaulted from being the high school teacher to being just another student, although he always treated me as a respected colleague.
So Jim Williams and I didn’t chat very often, mostly because I was more comfortable feeling my real age of twenty-something than defaulting to an anxious fifteen. When I needed professional advice, he was helpful, but I didn’t hang around long enough to discuss the news or the weather or my life outside of school. The English wing had no extra room for me, so I could easily escape to my classroom by the gym with any seeds of wisdom he had shared.
In hindsight, I should have devoted more time to learning from Jim Williams than to hiding from him because he shared some of the best advice that I have ever been given.
And it had nothing to do with teaching.
It was a gloomy winter day at the high school when I received a message that my baby boy was sick and I would need to be home for the next couple of days. Not only was I striving to excel as a teacher at that time, but I was also just learning to juggle the demands of teaching and motherhood. Before having a baby, I rarely used a sick day, and I often continued working after school until late into the evening. I took pride in my commitment and my creativity and all of the extra hours that I logged. I don’t remember exactly what I said to Jim Williams that day, but I imagine that it was some version of an apology for needing to be home.
What I do remember clearly is that he stopped me – so that he could say something profound instead of listening to my nonsense.
Jim Williams said, “There will always be another teacher, Mary Ann.”
Oooooooh. That burns. I mean, I’ve been trying really hard to be the best and to do the most and to keep all the plates spinning. You haven’t even noticed?
He wasn’t finished.
“There will always be another teacher, Mary Ann, but your son will never have another mother.”
See. I told you he was smart.
Yes, it stung, but I understood what Jim Williams was saying. He wasn’t telling me that I was easily replaceable or that my teaching wasn’t up to his expectations. He wasn’t saying that hiring a substitute for a day or two would be equal to my presence in the classroom. But he was telling me to take a deep breath and prioritize. And I needed that. Because sometimes I was so worried about being the best teacher for my students that I wasn’t being the best mother for my baby, even when I was at home with him at night.
Jim Williams was saying that my presence as a mother matters.
And I have never forgotten that.
Maybe raising 10 and 12 isn’t as complicated as I think it is. Maybe it’s mostly about presence, about “choosing” the people we love and connecting with them whenever and however we can. Maybe it’s as simple as being in the same place, even when we are all in separate rooms doing separate things. Maybe it’s just about being. Maybe just being is exactly what my sons need.
Don’t get me wrong. We eat dinner as a family and play games together. We plan fun events and talk and spend time with grandparents and friends. Those things are important.
But there are many more hours now when I am not chasing anyone or disciplining anyone or teaching anyone about fractions or saving anyone from harm.
There are many more hours now when I am just here.
And that’s okay.
Maybe parenting 10 and 12 is being close enough to come to the rescue but far enough away to let my children take a chance. Maybe it’s watching them climb the tall, scary ladder, and then holding the safety net under the tightrope they are walking to become men.
The minutes, they pass quickly, and there is no buying them back when the canary’s song fades. So maybe I just need to relax, enjoy the journey, and remember that just being matters.
And maybe it matters the most when it seems like it doesn’t matter at all.
Image Source: Steven Depolo under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic