“Everyone has their own clock.” I’m not sure who first said this to me, but I remember saying it to other moms when Ethan was small. To a friend in a Mommy and Me class who worried because her nine-month-old daughter hadn’t started crawling. Again, to someone in playgroup whose three-year-old couldn’t yet name the colors in his crayon box. I, myself, had been a late bloomer, neither walking nor talking until I was two-and-a-half. The delay in walking was among the first clues that I had cerebral palsy. But with talking, when I did finally speak, it was in full grammatically correct sentences. This leads me to believe I was merely waiting until I had something important to say.
As for Ethan, it’s as though he’s read himself to sleep every night with The Child’s Milestone Manual. Eight months old? It’s time to crawl. Eleven months? First word time. Fourteen months? Better start walking. The only thing he was late to do was use a fork, but that was my fault. It didn’t occur to me to discourage him from eating macaroni and cheese with his hands until he was headed to preschool.
True to form, now that Ethan is fourteen he’s discovered that the doors in our house close. The other day, he was doing his homework behind the shut door of our living room while I cleaned the kitchen after dinner. I was listening to Fresh Air on the radio, so I figured he was just blocking out the noise. When I finished the dishes, I grabbed the book I was reading and went in to sit with him.
“Mom!” Ethan said the moment I darkened the doorway. “I give you privacy!”
“Aren’t you just doing homework?” I asked, but as I did I noticed his laptop open beside him. He didn’t need my company while he worked on algebra problems. He had a choice of friends right there on Skype.
I smiled to myself, remembering how, when I was a teenager, I’d hang out with my best friend Amy all day, then come home and immediately call her to talk for another hour.
“You just saw her!” my dad would complain.
Without a word to him, I’d leave the room, the curly phone cord stretched taut as I moved around the house seeking privacy.
Yup, Ethan has the chapter on being fourteen thoroughly memorized. Not only does he have that Keep Out sign blazing on his forehead, he can be moody, hard to please, and has perfected that tone that communicates how amazed he is at the stupidity of whatever I’ve just said to him. The thing is, this seems to be the one place where I’ve read ahead in The Parenting Milestone Manual. None of it gets to me. Because I remember so clearly what it’s like to be his age, all I feel is compassion.
Now that Ethan has to commute to high school, he and I both set our alarms for 6:40 on weekday mornings. Ethan gets up first and, as soon as he opens his door, Cindy, our little dog, bounds out of his bed and crawls under the covers with me. I hit the snooze button and snuggle with her for those stolen six minutes. When the alarm chimes again, I scratch her oversized ears then get up to pour cereal or fry an egg while Ethan gets ready. Sometimes he stomps around, angry that he can’t find his phone or his keys or because of how heavy his backpack is with all his textbooks in it. But just as often, he’s sleepy and sweetly communicative, thanking me when I hand him his vitamin and telling me tidbits of history he’s learned in World Civ.
Either way, I sit at my place at the table and break open a clementine, peeling the sections apart and placing them in a small bowl for Ethan, their tangy scent clinging to my fingers. If he snaps at me, telling me how annoying I am for asking if he’s had enough to eat or reminding him to wear his warmer jacket, I recall an afternoon in 1977 when my mother read quotes to me from a book of poetry. I wanted to take them in but I couldn’t stop myself from rolling my eyes and answering curtly since I’d already decided I was irritated with her. It felt like my hormones wouldn’t let me choose how to be. Meanwhile, my mom simply kept reading, partly in an attempt to break down that wall I was working so hard to put between us, and partly, I now know, to buoy herself with the beauty and wisdom in those pages.
So now I watch the sun pouring into the kitchen from the terrace door and tell Ethan something from a book I’m reading or a movie I saw. Usually, he does a better job than I did at his age of shaking off that mantle of moodiness and joining the conversation. But sometimes he’s just too angsty to be talked out of it. On those mornings he ignores my goodbye and lets the door slam behind him. I close my eyes and listen to the luscious quiet, grateful for the hour I have to myself before heading to work. But I find I’m just as grateful that I’ll have another opportunity to be with my sometimes-surly, always-unpredictable boy in a matter of hours. That Parenting Milestone Manual in my mind suggests a kind of spiritual practice. No matter what those whirling hormones make him say or do, I stay grounded, and throw more love his way.