This seems like a typical Sunday evening. My husband and I are on the couch while our 14-year-old son works on homework upstairs. On other nights he might make an appearance on the landing to share a short anecdote with us before quickly returning to his room. This night, however, he descends the stairs, notebook in hand, and asks, “Dad, can you help me with this?”
My chest begins to constrict with labored breathing, my palms moistening. I am afraid any sudden movement or hint of rising enthusiasm will alarm my boy and cause him to retreat. It’s like spotting majestic wildlife wandering in the Serengeti, animals who mildly acknowledge the human spectator as they forage for food . . . or in this case, come in search of homework assistance. The teenager has come in close to his parents. And I don’t want to spook him.
Feigning nonchalance, I scoot over as he climbs in between us eager to resolve his algebra dilemma. He stretches his long limbs out alongside me while leaning into his dad.
I can vaguely hear my husband’s voice discussing percentages, kilograms, and solutions. “Ok, 500 times 60 percent equals how many liters?” But the warmth of my boy next to me drowns out any talk of equations as I relish this rare closeness.
Like the muscle memory of riding a bike, I can feel the weight of him in our early years together when he spent afternoons on my lap while I read out loud. He didn’t have a security blanket or special stuffed animal as a child, just the comfort of twirling my hair as he sucked his thumb, his head tucked in under my chin. I grieved when this bonding abruptly ended after a visit to the dentist who had the audacity to encourage my four-year-old to stop sucking his thumb. This young kid then had the audacity to follow the dentist’s instructions and stopped sucking his thumb that same day. When the thumb-sucking ended, twirling mom’s hair soon ended as well. However, there were still moments when I would reach for him and he would rest in my hug. Moments when he didn’t stiffen. “Mom! Dude!” he often now exclaims while pushing himself loose. Sure, there are still occasional, fleeting moments when my boy, nearly matching my five feet nine inches, lets me kiss him on the cheek or share a quick embrace before school, but they are scarce, like getting up close to an armored pangolin on the plains of Tanzania.
My psychologist friend assures me this is a valuable part of individuation for early teens.
She suggests we are creating a safe space for him to push boundaries and separate as he tries on independence. But I wrestle with a familiar paradox in parenting, celebration that he is becoming his own man and grief that his growing up means he will leave. Leave for friends, for college, for life. I don’t want him to stay seven forever, but I also don’t want him to leave.
My son shifts positions so he is now mostly resting on me while he seeks to understand the last problems on the page.
“X is unknown, then you added to it?” my husband murmurs while my son attempts to explain his pencil scratch.
I am aware of the gentle voices going back and forth as they discuss the problems. No attitude. No guffaws or heavy sighs. Just a kid who needs help from his dad and feels safe enough to climb in between his parents and rest comfortably on his mom while he solves word problems.
“. . .500 is the full quantity” my husband continues.
“. . .so then 25 plus three zeros?” my son responds.
After writing a partial answer, my son, focused on his dad’s words, casually adjusts his elbow onto my arm, an arm that freezes at my side, my breathing shallow so the rise and fall of my chest doesn’t disrupt this connection. I don’t follow the words they are saying, being so immersed in the deep maternal affection enveloping this space.
I am distracted from my reverie as my son asks with exasperation, “When am I going to use this anyway?”
Without thinking I exclaim, “This is teaching you to think critically. To get your brain to look at problem-solving in a particular way!”
I’m triumphant in my response before I clap my hands over my mouth, knowing this is not the moment for declarations about the importance of algebra. This is a moment for listening. For being still and being with. Perhaps a moment to stealthily record our time on the couch in the Notes section on my phone, channeling my nervous energy as I attempt to capture every last twitch and sigh next to me. His closeness is too precious to risk any premature departure. He is unguarded, unselfconscious here between us. A unique moment. A teenager with his defenses down.
My boy’s feet gently move next to my leg. I am merely a cushion on the couch. Don’t fuck this up, I think.
“X plus Y equals 100. But it’s two different . . .” my husband is saying when my son interrupts.
“Okay, okay. I don’t even understand this.”
But frustration hasn’t sent him back upstairs quite yet, although I sense this time together is almost done; when he has received enough help, he’ll return to his cave. My husband turns the paper over one more time to double-check a problem, pointing to the equation in question as my son nods.
And then, the work is done. He climbs off the couch.
“Love you,” we both call after him, a little hitch in my voice as I turn to smile at my husband. I notice a glisten in his eyes as he smiles back.