“Okay, I guess I have everything,” Ethan says, shouldering his pack.
It’s his first day of school and I surprise myself by getting teary. He’s starting tenth grade, yet my mind leaps back all the way to kindergarten. I look at my 5’9” son in his slim-fit cords and hoody and recall an earnest almost-five-year-old wearing his Spiderman backpack and his sweet little blue jeans with the worn knees and elastic waist. He’d walked ahead of me that morning a decade ago, all excitement and bravado until we got to his classroom where he scrambled under a desk.
Now, with Ethan half out the door, I rush over for what I’ve come to think of as a teen-hug, a quick shoulder to shoulder side embrace that’s more pat than squeeze.
“Got phone? Got keys?” I ask, making the most of the four syllables I figure there’s time for before he grows antsy. I’ve come to trust that he hears in my cryptic check-ins all I want to say before sending him into the world. Be careful, enjoy yourself, learn, know that I love you. Today, however, I can’t help but open the door and call an out-loud I love you down the hall.
Alone, I sip my tea and return to thoughts of my one-time kindergartener. I loved how he’d wake up vibrant and chatty every morning, making surprising and astute observations — If I know how to get the hot water out of the water cooler and grandma and grandpa don’t, they shouldn’t call it childproof, they should call it grandma-and-grandpa proof. I also loved how he’d create games out of such simple acts as eating breakfast — Look, I bit my waffle into the shape of a sitting-down puppy. Now it’s a bowtie. Now it’s the moon. . .
Still, while I miss seeing that little guy and being privy to his clever and quirky running narratives, the truth is I don’t miss the all-absorbing daily life of early parenthood. I find I’m much happier and more comfortable as the mom of a teen.
A few weeks ago, Ethan and I were having lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. The only other occupied table was taken by two young mothers with infant girls. One of them had what a friend of mine once dubbed a pink and blue voice, a loud exuberant way of talking to children in a baby voice of her own.
“Look Molly, Mac-and-Cheese!” she gushed when the waitress set down their food.
“Calm down, lady,” Ethan said so only I would hear. “With three meals a day, if you keep getting this excited you’ll give yourself a coronary.”
“Yum, yum, yummy-yum, yum,” Molly’s mother sang as our own lunch arrived.
“Is that how you talked to me when I was little?” Ethan asked, twirling pasta onto his fork.
“Actually, I talked to you pretty much the way I do now.”
“I can see that,” Ethan laughed. “You’d be changing my diaper and telling me all about the novel you’re reading.”
I smiled, thinking of one time I’d overdone it, saying to Ethan when he was two that he had a distinctive voice. What’s stinky about my voice? he’d wanted to know.
“MaWee’s a pwetty girl, isn’t she?” we heard. Ethan rolled his eyes. But while I found Molly’s mother annoying, I felt for her too. She struck me as someone who was overcompensating, which probably meant the pink and blue phase wasn’t coming any more naturally to her than it did to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I adored Ethan at every age. But through his infancy and toddlerhood, I was nervous so much of the time. I wanted to do everything perfectly, and that self-imposed pressure dampened my joy. It’s hard to say whether it’s because Ethan is older and sturdier now, or because I’m older and wiser, but I’ve finally relaxed into the understanding that though I have made and will continue to make plenty of mistakes, none of them is likely to kill him or me.
The fact is I like spending time with teenagers. I find most to be funny, savvy, and open-hearted. That’s a good thing since, as my day job, I’m the young adult librarian at our local library. There, I often find myself in the role of emissary between teenagers and the adults who have little patience for them. Adolescence is a challenging time for sure — both for us and for the teenagers in our lives. But I’ve discovered that if you make it clear to teens that you like them, most of them will show you their most likable selves. At home it’s a little different. Ethan knows I love him unconditionally. Sometimes that means he’ll show me his warm, charming, most lovable self; but nearly as often it has the opposite effect. He’ll present me with his sullen, snarky, worst self, knowing I’m the one person who will remain his no matter what. Maybe it’s payback; I was the same way with my mom. More likely it’s just hormones doing their necessary dirty work. Either way, I find that if I toss lots of love his way, the angsty moments dissipate pretty quickly.
Another reason I like this stage of parenting is that it’s not constant. While Ethan is, of course, still absolutely central to my life, he’s no longer central to my every waking moment. I like that, these days, instead of cooking dinner to Wee Sing compilations of children’s songs, I’m free to tune in to NPR. And while it was hard to relinquish my beloved ritual of reading to Ethan before bed, I’ve come to appreciate the extra nighttime hour I now have to curl up with novels and memoirs of my own choosing. All this makes life with my son feel roomy and balanced. I can be myself with him, where I used to feel like my self was mostly on hold. Sure I have moments, like this morning, when I grow nostalgic for that other time. So I sit down and write about it, happy to relive the past for a thousand words or so, happy to come home to now.