I expected it to be gradual. A little moodiness here, a bit of angst there. No one told me that one night I would tuck my sweet little boy into bed, and the next morning a sullen, argumentative, pubescent beast would emerge from the shadows in his place.
I did know it was coming. He’s ten, nearly ten and a half; I knew we weren’t far away from this moment. I had just hoped to wade into the hormone-filledwater, not be pushed off the edge of the pool fully clothed.
We have had discussions about the physical changes he is experiencing. While many parents dread these talks, we have been open about sex and bodies since he was very little. At three, he informed people that babies were made with an egg and Smurf. Close enough. By six, he gave a reproduction talk to a friend with near-clinical accuracy.
While we don’t sit around the dinner table saying, “erections are normal, pass the peas,” we certainly have an open dialogue on the subject. I was prepared to talk pubic hair and pimples.
I was not prepared for the mood swings.
I can’t pretend my child has ever been remarkably cooperative; but at least it was self-limiting in those younger days. Sure, he would argue or throw a tantrum, but he would eventually relent and do as he was told. And if he didn’t, I could pick him up and carry him to his room.
As he transitions from a boy to a young man, his rebellions have changed from a bit of crying and foot stomping to concise, well-aimed arguments. He isn’t just lashing out in my general direction, he is shooting daggers; and he doesn’t give up so easily.
I’m learning that getting an almost-teenager to stop arguing is more difficult than getting a colicky newborn to stop crying.
It can come out of nowhere. We will be having a pleasant conversation, and something as simple as denying a request to stay up later can devolve into a mess of tears and powerful anger.
I feel as though we are always at odds. I am not so far removed from my own adolescence that I don’t have sympathy for my angsty tween, fighting for autonomy while dealing with a surge of hormones; but I also have a new empathy for my mother, who dealt with the walking emotional time bomb that was me at this age.
Do I ease up on him? I can’t allow him to be disrespectful or to walk around like he owns the place. This freedom he so yearns for comes with responsibilities – he has watched enough Spiderman to know that – but constantly butting heads seems like an unappealing way to spend the next eight years.
Unlike when he five and driving me up a wall, there is the added worry of the risks that come with an unhappy adolescent. I am hyper aware of guarding his mental health. I want him to know that he can tell us anything, and that even if we are mad he that fought us over unloading the dishwasher, we love him through and through and there is nothing we wouldn’t help him handle.
Last week was a rough one. It just seemed like neither of us could do right by the other, and each word spoken between us was harsh or judgmental. I decided we needed a reset. I missed the dear little boy I knew was inside this volatile young man, and I knew part of him missed Fun Mommy.
I announced we were going to have a sleepover, just he and I. Nothing fancy. We’d kick Daddy to the basement couch, watch movies and eat junk, then fall asleep in my bed like when he was little. His eyes lit up like a five-year-old when I told him. Just the prospect of access to forbidden junk food was enough to make him giddy.
We went shopping, carefully selecting our goodies. Cookies for me, gushing jelly Jolly Ranchers for him, and Ah Caramel snack cakes to share. That night, once his little brother was soundly asleep, we bunkered down for a night of fun.
First, we watched Black Panther – a movie that is certain to be one of the defining films of his generation. Next we watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit – a movie that is one of the defining films of mine. We chased the classic and the soon-to-be-classic with Drop Dead Fred.
Neither of the old movies I chose were completely appropriate for children by today’s standards. I was aware of the inappropriateness of them when I watched them myself at his age, and I wanted him to feel that sneaky suspicion he was getting away with something. I wanted him to know that I acknowledged that he’s growing up.
I surprised him by offering him a Diet Coke. If we’re going to break the rules, we might as well go all in. I let him stay up ‘til three o’clock before I insisted we get some sleep. He declared it the best Friday ever.
We had needed that break. We needed a night where we just said yes to things, and we weren’t in a battle for control. He knows that it was a treat and would not become a regular thing; but I could see the relief of letting go for a little while soften him.
We have at least another eight years to go before we come out the other end of this puberty thing and he finally emerges the victor of his fight for independence. There will be oceans of conflict along the way.
But we will make time for Yes Nights – moments of cease-fire, where I take a break from trying to shape him, and he takes a break from trying to fight me on it. Even if it means I eventually have a 17-year-old sleeping in my bed with his long, gangly legs hanging over the edge.