To My Son, Who is Turning Thirteen

Here we are, on the verge of big, bad teenagerdom.

I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. Not all the time, and not even about the big, bad things, but nevertheless, she persisted worrying. Have I done enough? Have I reminded you to please and thank you enough? Taught you how to tell a joke or to always deal cards to the left? Have I given you the confidence to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing?

Most of the time I worry because I feel like I’m running out of time.

There are days when it seems you’ve already got one foot out of the door. I have to remind myself you’ve always had one foot out of the door, from the moment you were born. You were never mine, not really. You’ve always been your own. The universe merely placed you in my care for this dance, to make sure when you’re ready, you step through with both feet, confident and secure.

But that door? It will always open to you.

When you were an infant, swaddled like a baby burrito, you’d look up at me and I felt a million things surge through my blood all at once, like wildfire raging through my veins. Thirteen years later your eyes are nearly level with my own, but my blood still sings that same fiery song.

Those times you think I’m staring at you, looking for something to criticize? I’m really looking to see if the angle of your jaw has sharpened between dinner and breakfast.

When you catch me standing outside your door, it’s not to simply to tell you to pick your clothes up off the floor, it’s also to hear if the timber of your voice has begun to deepen.

I’m terrified I’m going to miss something, afraid one day I’ll look at you and that tiny boy, the one we fought so hard to bring into the world, is going to be impossible to recognize in the face and body of the young man you’re becoming.

In case I don’t tell you enough, I am proud of you, the way you treat everyone with kindness, the ease with which you saunter through life, your even-temper. Do you remember the night we sat around the dinner table and asked, who is the least likely to lose their temper? Without hesitation, we all pointed to you.

Keep your even temper. It will be your greatest gift in life, the ability to take a situation and diffuse it, to find the funny, or the good, the silver lining.

You are so unbelievably fortunate. You have so much opportunity at times it’s almost embarrassing. Use it. Use it to speak out for those who have less. Don’t ever take it for granted or feel like the world owes you more than what you’ve already been bestowed, because those invisible gifts you’ve been born into–the color of your skin, your sex, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to you? Those things are not due to you. You do not deserve them more than someone else. So use them. Stand up for those who walk through life with less ease, with less opportunity, with less help. Be aware of your privileges and of how you can use them for good.

Find something you want to be great at. It doesn’t matter if you are great at it, but it’s important to have something to work at, to dream about. Don’t take the easy way out. Get better. Be better.

Take time to settle into your mold. You don’t have to know who you are or what you want to do with your life. You just need to live your best life. Not everyday, no one lives their best life everyday. If someone tells you that, ignore them. If you’re batting one for ten you’re doing ok. Some days life hurts. Some days it’s tough. Some days it sucks donkey balls. It will get better. Don’t think it won’t get better.

No matter how many eye-rolls or ‘whatever’s, how many door slams or a thousand other stereotypes I’m remembering from The Breakfast Club and my own teenage years, we will be here. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t need us. That’s good. That means we’ve done our job. We’ll be here anyway.

You’re going to think we’re dumb and out of touch. You’re going to think you know better. You’re going to think every sneaky trick you come up with to fool us hasn’t been tried before. You’re wrong on all counts.

You won’t believe me. I know. I didn’t either.

We’re going to argue. I’m going to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong. If it’s truly important, stand up for yourself. But choose your hills wisely. Make sure it’s a hill you’re willing to die on before you dig in.

I’m going to embarrass you. Mostly accidentally but sometimes on purpose.

You’ll want to do things we don’t think you’re ready for. Sometimes we’ll screw it up. Sometimes we’ll make shitty decisions. But even when we do, try to remember it’s coming from a place of love. You won’t believe that either, but it’s true.

The world is out there waiting. There’s a lot of shit going down, a lot of bad stuff. But so much good stuff too. Don’t let the scary stuff stop you from experiencing the good. Don’t let the good stuff stop you from trying to change the bad.

Don’t let anyone else define you. If someone tells you that you have to be or do something? If they want to change you or set conditions on their love for you? Run the other way. Fast.

Life is going to hurt. Life is going to sing. It’s going to flutter and fly and sink and sometimes you’ll feel like you are drowning in your own breath. That is life. All of it put together is what makes it worth living.

Most of all I want you to know it will never be you vs. the world. We are tied together, you and me. For nine months your heartbeat tangled with mine until it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Yours dances to a different tempo now, but mine? Mine will always skip a beat here and there, making sure there is a space for yours to return to when you need it.

Love,
Mom

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Cool Kids

1950s-greasers-02Dear Son,

Ever since the Sharks challenged the Jets to a dance rumble, kids have been talking about who’s cool and who’s not. Oh heck, it probably started before that. There was probably a group of Neanderthal kids who thought their puma skin loin cloths were better than the Cro-Magnon kids’ leopard skin thongs (they were wrong, leopard skin always wins). Greasers vs. Socs, Jocks and Burnouts, Dauntless vs. Abnegation. The divide between cool and uncool and who decides which camp you fall into…it’s been around for a long time. Longer than me.

How do I know? I’ve been on the inside, I’ve been on the outside, the B side and the flip-side. I was on the outside only to find out that people thought I was on the inside. I have been around the popular block a fair few times. I’m going to let you in on something. There are ways to tell if someone is cool or not, but they’re not what you think. You probably won’t believe me now, but maybe you will someday.

It doesn’t matter what kind of shoes someone is wearing or what kind of computer they have. It doesn’t matter how long or short their hair is or who they’re dating or what kind of music they listen to (well, maybe a little of that) or whether or not they can kick a ball into a net. It doesn’t matter if they have braces or glasses or crutches or freckles or red hair or if they’re tall or short or like boys or girls or both or neither. What’s a cool kid?

Cool kids are kids who love what they do and do what they love, whether it’s math or chess, lacrosse or Michael Flatly river dancing.

Cool kids don’t do things just because someone else tells them to.

Cool kids know that dare is just a word. tumblr_m748xauilV1rxnozfo1_500

Cool kids know that everyone makes mistakes, that everyone deserves a second chance. And sometimes a third.

Cool kids know that everyone has a different idea of what is or isn’t cool.

Cool kids aren’t afraid to stand out, even if it makes them unpopular.

Cool kids know what irony is.

Cool kids stand up for what they believe in.

Cool kids don’t have to wear a certain brand or a certain style or a certain color.

Cool kids don’t have conditions.

Cool kids talk to the new kid because everyone was the new kid once upon a time.

Cool kids aren’t perfect.

Cool kids aren’t the ones with the most friends.

Because nothing…I mean, NOTHING, is a cool as a musical group number
Because nothing…I mean, NOTHING, is a cool as a musical group number

Cool kids aren’t the ones that win everything.

Cool kids know the difference between cool and mean.

Cool kids know that making someone else feel bad is totally uncool.

Cool kids know the difference between noticing differences and exploiting them.

Cool kids care, but not about being cool.

Cool kids usually don’t think they are.

Cool kids believe their parents when their parents tell them it’s not what’s cool that matters, but how you live your life. Down the line anyway.

Someday you’ll see.

Love,

Mom

 

About a Boy

playground-fenceFor nearly ten years, I have been re-enacting my own version of Gorillas in the Mist. I observe, sometimes making mental notes. Sometimes I have a flash of understanding that breaks through like a ray of sunshine on a gray, winter day. Often I scratch my head in wonder.

I speak of course, of my boys.

I am not insinuating for one moment that my sons or your sons or anyone’s sons should be compared to or referred to as primates. What I mean is that at times my sons are as foreign and different to me as those big, hairy apes must have been to Dian Fossey. I can hypothesize and theorize all I like. I can, and have, done my homework–books, articles, journal submissions, anecdotal evidence, peer comparison. The fact remains that I understand what it is like to be a boy about as much as I understand what it is like to be a gorilla.

I know my boys. I know them the way I know my own body, the way I know my own dreams. I can trace the constellation of freckles on their young bodies behind the lids of my eyes. I can name every cold, flu, ear infection and bout with bronchitis they’ve had. I can tell you how many times they’ve taken antibiotics and which ones, which foods they like and don’t like, the way they prefer to sleep. I can tell you who their friends are, what their favorite television shows, the stuff that makes them wake up screaming in their sleep. I can tell you how they cope with stress, how they manifest their young anxieties, how many times a day they use the toilet. I know my boys.

Yet I don’t.

I will never know what it feels like to be a boy. The physicality, the aggression, the risk taking, the curiosity with machinery and weaponry and destruction, all those things that have become synonymous with male children, with my children. I will never understand why those things are important, why they matter, why they drive them to do the things they do.

1950s-two-boys-wear-tee-shirts-blue-jeans-playing-rough-fighting-wrestling-on-the-grass

I watch my sons wrestle and I cringe because it makes no sense to me why such a thing is ‘fun’ to them. To me the idea of being physically hurt or even partaking in the risk of being hurt, turns me off.  Not so my sons. They thrive on it. Time after time they tackle each other, contort their bodies with a flexibility that astounds me, simply to hurt the other, or to win. Or both. I watch them get sucked into video games feet first, sometimes having to have the computer physically taken from them when a limit has been reached or passed and I don’t get it. I can’t understand why it isn’t as simple as just turning off.  I listen to my son and his friends talk about playing Man Hunt, a game which from the sounds of it is like a no holds barred hide and seek with a wide vicious streak running through it. It is Lord of the Flies being reenacted on an asphalt playground instead of a deserted beach.

My instinct as a woman, as a mother, is to make it stop, to tell them to find something gentle to do, something inclusive. I don’t, nor have I ever, felt the same compulsions, the same obsessions, the same desires and likes and needs to do the things they do. I don’t understand it. Because I am not a boy.

Yet boys are supposed to do this. They are supposed to wrestle and play act physical and even aggressive games. Psychologists  maintain that pretend gun play and violence is a normal part of boyhood, a normal part of the psychological development for many boys. They are meant to beat the crap out of one another, apparently, if not physically, then psychologically. They are supposed to find the pecking order, their place in the hierarchy. Yet we try to stop it. As mothers, as teachers, as women, we discourage it. We try to find ways around it. We praise boys who go against type, those ‘gentle’ boys who prefer more organized activities and not the chaos and 612 rules and stick guns and smack down that have come to define ‘boy’ boys. I myself do it. I am afraid they will get hurt, I am afraid they will become psychopaths, I’m afraid they will kill themselves skateboarding off a roof.

I do not understand the way their brains are hardwired, because mine is hardwired differently. Because I’m not a boy.

5f7e8d1400babdcbabda9993e6a0af43What is it like to have boys, people often ask. The stock responses always include ‘energetic’ and ‘exhausting’. If I had to sum up boys in one word it would be bewildering.

I am raising my boys the best way I can. I teach them to be respectful, to be helpful, to be courteous. I teach them to think of others, that all people are entitled to the same respect that they themselves expect. I teach them limits. Hell, I even ram down their throats the often overlooked accomplishments of women and girls around the world. I make sure they know that they are not special because they are male. But I cannot change who they are. They are boys. I cannot make them into something else, something they are not.

Every night before I go to bed, I check on them. I make sure they are tucked in, that a stealth fever hasn’t appeared out of nowhere.  I kiss their foreheads, trace their freckles. At six and nearly ten, they take up so much room now, even in their sleep. How could those soft, chunky babies I gave birth to be turning into these long, lean bodies who like to point Nerf guns at one another’s faces? How can those sweet, smiling cherubs of yore throw one another around on the floor, wrestling for domination? How can my little boys, who used to wear Oshkosh overalls and play with their Hot Wheels in the sandbox shove another child to the ground and declare himself the winner of a playground game or express a desire to play some sort of video game that involves the words assassin and commando? I don’t understand, not at all, not one little bit.

Because I’m not a boy.

 

 

The View From the Bottom Bunk

Reed babyToday my second born, my baby boy, my fidgety ninja tornado of a son, turns six. Our whirlwind philosopher, our witty dervish, our baby who wasn’t supposed to be.

What was scheduled to be our final cycle of fertility treatment, the last hurrah, our last-ditch effort to expand our family, had been canceled for medical reasons. We called time on the whole thing, made our peace, and counted our blessings. We looked on the bright side and made big plans. The fickle universe had other ideas. The running family joke is that son number one is my fault, but son number two is all my husband’s doing; the spontaneous, surprise result of a bit of afternoon delight, skyrockets in flight, and all. We should have known a baby conceived on July 4th would be full of vim and vigor, full of spark and sizzle and pop. While I was pregnant, swollen with this life that would soon become irrevocably entwined with mine, I called him the Shark. Even in utero, he was always on the go, never-resting, always moving. My belly would rock and roll with his movements, elbows and knees shifting and kicking. Even then he was a ninja. At six, he still spins through life,.

My not so still life with boy.

A few weeks ago he lost his first tooth. For me, that little moment of maturity was far more symbolic than other milestones he has met along the way. When he lost that pearly little Chiclet, he shed more than just a baby tooth, he shed the last layer of  babyhood. Soon his marshmallow cheeks will thin out, his jaw will start to square. Soon he will surprise me when I catch sight of him from a certain angle, because I will be able to see the shadows of the young man who is still a long way off, but not as far as it used to be.

reedIt’s not easy being the second born. It’s not easy being the baby of the family. He is in a forever competition with his older brother, a battle to the death–or at least the adult. He is often angry at me, at his father, at the world that he was not born first. He is stubborn, oh is he stubborn, but he astounds me with his philosophy, the way he thinks, the way he sees the world. He is so different from his brother, so different from me, though he shares with his father a dislike of mornings and a sense of time smack dab in the middle of the man time continuum. Forget snails and pails and puppy dog tails. He is drama and mischief and Kant. Already he has flummoxed me with his reasoning, his unique ViewMaster take on life. When your five year-old snuggles up to you in bed, looks at you with his milk chocolate eyes and says: “today will be the only today there ever is. There will never be another today”, it can be humbling. When I say something like “People is glass houses shouldn’t” and his instant response, without missing a beat is “walk around naked,” it can be thought provoking. It won’t be long before he is outwitting, outsmarting and outplaying me, his father, and his brother. There is no doubt who will be the last one standing, the sole survivor. I only hope I have a few more years to train.

He has always marched to the beat of his own drum. I would say at times he has marched to the beat of a different instrument entirely, perhaps to an imaginary symphony in his head. This is the boy who instead of having a blanket or a favorite stuffed toy insisted upon sleeping with a variety of household objects, including a bottle of purple shower gel, a discarded electric toothbrush and an empty mouthwash bottle. For months he carried a frying pan with him wherever he went. He has always been, from day one, his own man.

Despite the depth of his personality, despite being one of the most capable five-now-six year olds I have ever met, he suffers from the insecurity of the second child. It’s no secret that second children get shafted in the attention game. Where they benefit is being born into an established family, a unit that has already had a chance to find its feet on shaky ground. Second children benefit from the trial and error parenting that defines child number one, not just in the beginning, but always. With the second child, there is less chasing around with a fork full of food and more enjoying them for who and what they are.

still life with boy

Not that long ago, I woke up in my little one’s bed. It had been one of those nights of musical mattresses, someone was ill, someone had a nightmare, someone had night sweats. Reed, my Mexican jumping bean boy, doesn’t stay still in sleep anymore than he does in the day; in fact, we call him ‘the Gas’ because he expands to fill whatever space he is in. On those rare occasions when I allow him into bed with us, it’s not uncommon for me to stumble my way to his room and finish out the night in the bottom bunk. As I woke that morning, it hit me that life is very different when viewed from his perch on the family tree, from not only his perspective as a child, but also the second child. It’s a different view there from the bottom bunk.

It is a refreshing way of looking at life. Innocence and imagination and a carpe diem-ness that we are lucky to grasp merely an echo of as an adult. It is that view which allows him the freedom to pretend that piece of old fishing line is really a spider thread, that a piece of broken beer bottle is an amber gem, that the digging club he founded at school may have found an ancient city at the excavation site under the sand pit.

ImageSix is still young, but on the way to the place when the wonder will start to yield to logic and reason. I want him to hang on to that sense of wonder for a while longer, hang on to the excitement of being a kid. Last night as I tucked him and said, “You are going to sleep five and you’ll wake up six!” He looked up at me with those milk chocolate eyes and said, “It’s like magic.”

I’m not sure who benefits from the magic most, him or us.

Dear jumping bean, dear ninja master, dear my ants in the pants boy.  Dear Reed. Don’t grow up too fast, our family needs your wit, your input, your perspective. You balance us. You challenge us every day to see the world from your eyes, from the eyes of the second child. From your view there on the bottom bunk.

Happy birthday.