Friday, April 3, 2015

the shifting of where here is

I have decided lately that part of parenting teenagers is going to include, for me, the feeling of not knowing quite where to be, where to put myself, how to be there without being too there.  Of driving children places, listening to their conversations, being close and aware, but waiting for them to approach, something like wild animals perhaps.  And figuring out how to make myself look completely comfortable and assured while feeling, well, not so comfortable and assured.  Clearly my own high school days as a wall flower will help here.  I am certainly very good at feeling uncomfortable.

I recently took all three kids to get their haircut, to the same place we have used, with the same haircutter, for years. I love this place that has no loud music playing, no cartoon characters on the walls, and chairs of every size, from firetruck chairs to adult sized hair salon chairs.  As Elliott got his hair cut, I sat next to him in the chair provided for me, that white chair placed intentionally next to the bureau of tools for parents to be close.  That chair's placement, as well as Elliott's happy face and chatty conversation, with me and his haircutter both, told me that there was right where I should be.  Next up, Julia, who was quite comfortable being with our haircutter alone, and her longer and more complicated style hair, gave me plenty of time to drift back and forth between her and the waiting area.  Where Elliott and Nicholas were.  Elliott was drawing with the paper and crayons provided.  And Nicholas was doing homework, hat down over his eyes, slumped in an adult sized chair, waiting for his turn.

Given that we were there for a good long time, we witnessed many very young and sweet children and their parents come and go.  Nicholas and I swiveled on our bottoms from time to time, in order to move our long legs out of the way, so that toddlers could maneuver and wobble around the Thomas the Train table in the middle of the waiting area.  And we watched one very skilled mother keep her child from screaming in the firetruck chair with a seemingly endless supply of treats and distractors she kept pulling from her large diaper bag.

Nicholas had asked to use my iPhone to keep busy.  I had suggested he do his homework instead and was sticking with my belief that we do not do that in public, that it feels rude to me to make oneself appear unavailable to chat with the owner of the store, for example, when she came over to talk to us.  I don't like how it looks to other parents, particularly parents of younger children, when my large and scowling son has his face in a screen, grumpily turning to me and answering my questions about his day in one word answers.

Nicholas and I made eye contact while one boy darted about the space, hiding behind a wall, screaming as though having his hair cut was going to result in blood loss.  I said, I remember when you did that once.  We cut your hair at home for a few months after that.

Nicholas smiled, gave me the first nonscowling eye contact I had received since I told him at school pickup that we were headed off for haircuts, connecting for me this enormous man child body hiding under his hat and athletic logo decorated clothing, with that memory of the wispy white hair and chubby legged body.  We both relaxed, let out a shared held breath, and connected for a moment of humor together.  He snorted.  I was kind of weird back then.   And I thought, you were you, and still are you, a ball of thoughtful complicated full bodied emoting love.

And then, he whispered to me, do you think we could find another place to get my haircut next time?

I looked over.  Nicholas had his Algebra text book balanced on top of his knees with a pencil in his hand.  He turned quickly sideways, moving those protruding knees out of the way, and placed his gigantic hands on the book to keep it from sliding off as he smiled at the toddler boy who looked up at him and grinned, as though a god had just blessed him.

The small boy pulled his chubby fingers out of his mouth and looked at his mommy.  Big boy!  he exclaimed to his mother, and then ran to her.  His mommy scooped him up and tried to gracefully squish him back into the firetruck chair.

A memory flashed through my mind of walking home from the neighborhood playground with toddler Nicholas, holding hands, and stopping next to the skate park, where teenaged boys practiced their skate board moves, swore, and exhibited typical teenaged swagger.  One day one boy from the group walked over and squatted down in front of Nicholas and asked him if he wanted to try his board.  Nicholas was so star struck he couldn't respond, and moved to hide behind my legs.

I know Nicholas is right.  There are places he does not really belong anymore.  And probably a hair salon where there are firetrucks, train tables, and long waits while his sister chats up hair styles with her haircutter, is one of those places.  Just like there are places I no longer belong either. While he was noting the age of the children there, I was admittedly noting the difference in age between myself and the mothers of toddlers.

Maybe I belong at the orthodontist's office.  Maybe.  Two days later Nicholas and I sat side by side in a waiting room which was teeming with the essence of adolescence.  He wasn't as grumpy with me this day about an after school appointment, which was funny to me that he was more grumpy about an appointment that we both now know will not be painful or bloody than about one that involves a form of dental based torture.  The door to the office kept opening and closing and more and more children, no, teenagers, kept coming and going. They all came in, mostly without grown ups, and checked in at the desk, then plopped down in the modern and adult sized furniture of the waiting room.  As though they were all following a rhythm only they could hear through their ear buds, they each reached into their pockets and pulled out a device and started swiping.

I looked at Nicholas.  He looked at me.  I grabbed a Down East magazine off the rack and handed him my iPhone.  He looked surprised.  And then relieved, as he glanced across the sitting area at a too close teenaged girl, their knees almost touching in the crowded waiting room.

A few minutes later, the waiting area was clearing out.  Nicholas' name was eventually called and I made the split second decision that I was not going back into the examination room with him.  He looked surprised.  But I realized, I was the only parent in the waiting room.  All other kids had been dropped off.  Nicholas shot me one more look and then disappeared around the corner with the dental assistant.  Looking that perfect 13 year old combination of completely confident and in control and utterly baffled and terrified.

And there I was.  Alone.  In an orthodontic office.  Not even a younger sibling to hang out with in the kids' area.  It was.  Quiet.

And I waited for him.  While he was off having another professional correct his dental growth, address the imperfections of his bite and make room for more teeth to come in.  For more growth and change.  I was here, trying to find where here was supposed to be.  For now.

I am so glad that this conversation seems to be taking off a little bit in the parenting writing world.  This article has made me think a great deal about how we as parents tell the story of our teens' childhoods, and how there is something unique about them growing into adolescents that changes our telling, or at least maybe should.
Lately I’ve become aware of a dissonance, a dislocation, as though a familiar text had suddenly become illegible to me. What she needs is different from what I think she needs. Perhaps it always was, but she’s had to grow up to be able to tell me. Sometimes — when I’m brushing my teeth or chopping vegetables, when I’m not thinking about her at all — she’ll come and stand next to me and say, Give me attention. At other times, like now, I feel I’m forcing myself on her, like an insistent hostess forcing food on her guests. I don’t want to force, to insist, even at the risk that what I cherish will be wasted. Parenthood suddenly seems like one long litany of force, of insistence, of exposition and declamation; it seems, suddenly, to have contained too much of the sound of myself. When you declaim, you can’t listen. When you insist, you miss the opportunity to learn something new.

And this recent study published findings about the relationship between quantity and quality of time mothers spend with children and adolescents on developmental and behavioral outcomes.  The study reports significant effects only during the adolescent years. And this article takes the results one step further, suggesting the need to incorporate family leaves for parents with adolescents into the work force culture.  I like all the thinking about the importance of these years, the changes and developments that occur within them, for both the children and the parents, and the reflections on how best to write about this time of the increasingly private lives of these emerging people, our children.  There are so many different approaches to how to navigate this, this article is certainly a thinker as well.

The next day, a Saturday, we sat in the parking lot outside a drop-off open gym and waited until other kids arrived, not wanting to be the first one in.  He and I pretended to chat and keep busy until we saw a few friends go inside.  This keeping seemingly busy to hide self-consciousness is something I totally get, and something I have a special skill in.  I impressed him with my technique, actually.  

You do this?  He laughed at me, as I pretended to drop my car keys and leaned down, peeking at a passer by through my hair.

All the time.

We laughed together, had a warm connected moment together. And then, quickly, so very suddenly, he saw a friend, grabbed the car door handle, and was off.


An hour later I was back.  This was the scene outside the gym.

And that, down there, was the door to the gym.  I knew I wasn't supposed to be in there.  I watched from afar, catching glimpses of legs and sneakers until they emerged.

While I waited, I ducked into the art gallery next door and comforted myself by looking at his art work which is on display this month.  I felt better, it reminded me of his younger self again, and of the brightly colored animals of young childhood.

Later that evening, since Julia, our less-meat-arian, was out for dinner with friends, we took our beef-loving boys out for burgers.

He's a growing mystery to me, this thirteen year old of ours.  And the growing process is new to both of us.  But he is still him.  Still a version of his younger self.  Not a stranger.  Still kind and good and funny.  And communicative when I am in the right place.  Which I am sometimes.  Especially if I am not only listening for what he says.  But just there.  Soaking it all up.

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