I used to have such a firm handle on all things my son. I knew him inside and out. I could predict when a bad mood was around the corner. I could preempt his snack and thirst needs. I could even correctly guess who he’d invite to his birthday parties before he announced his selections.
All that certainty in who he was felt pretty good because of two reasons: 1) having a deep understanding of my child made me feel successful at my job as a mom and 2) knowing what to expect in general – let’s be honest – sort of feels abundantly satisfactory.
All that certainty was also possible, because, as the mom of an elementary child, I had a pretty strong thumb on his everything. I had control over his meals, his playdates, his bedtime, his activities… his schedule, his hygiene, his bedtime stories, his entertainment. Even his screen-time.
But when my son began moving out of childhood and into the teenage years, things changed. I didn’t have the control I once had, he didn’t have the dependence on me he once had, and my road map for knowing him through and through got crumpled up and tossed.
I didn’t get the check-ins he used to generously offer me. And when I did, I was alarmed at how unexpected the sparse bread crumbs he’d give me were. It used to be that I could finish his sentences, and now I couldn’t guess what would come out of his mouth.
My dwindling confidence about how well I knew him didn’t stop with the evolution of our conversations, though. I couldn’t figure out his dress, his friends, his food, or his moods. I felt, to a certain degree, that I was living with a stranger, and I didn’t like it one bit.
If you have an adolescent son, you know what I’m talking about. You understand how your heart can ache for what was, what felt secure and certain. I want you to also know that this new insecurity and uncertainty in motherhood is absolutely par for the course. The reaches your son is making towards independence might feel unpleasantly unfamiliar to you, but it is the normal and healthy path toward his adulthood.
Allow me to share just a few tidbits on what I used to know about my son as a kid and what I now know of him as a teenager.
I used to know everything about his hygiene
I’m sure I’m not the only mother who felt she had her son’s hygiene regiment down to a science. Hand washing before meals, teeth-brushing every night, a solid bathing every other (read: every third-to-fourth) night. Additionally, I knew about the bumps and bruises, the scrapes and scratches. And warts and moles and marks. Basically, I had a good handle on the cleanliness and wellbeing of his body. Not that it was perfect. There were certainly days that I felt him more Pigpen from Charlie Brown than Monica Geller from Friends. Nonetheless, there was a comfort in knowing that I knew where his body stood.
Now, though, I couldn’t tell you exactly when his showers occur. I don’t know how often he uses his deodorant or how close he is to being out (until it’s out) or whether the teeth-brushing is going according to plan. I offer a helpful reminder from time to time, but beyond that his hygiene is up to him. I’m not nearly as well-acquainted with it as I used to be. And that’s OK.
I used to know about his inner world
It used to be that I was in tune with my son’s views on things, feelings, and outlook. If he had a big thing happen to him, he’d come out with it with no careful questioning or soft prodding. Basically, he was an open book. And I read every word. I relished in those quiet moments before bed or the ones over the kitchen counter where cheese and crackers were shared. It was in those moments that the juice of friendship quarrels and hurt feelings came out, where teacher preferences and lunch food pickiness was established, and when I found out what his favorite songs and television shows were.
Now I’m like a starving city pigeon pecking at seed tossed my way. I salivate over the moments when I get the most mundane of insights or when we find ourselves on the couch at the same time to exchange a few words. I leave cheese and crackers on the counter in hopes he’ll surface for a bite, just so I can look him in the eye for the first time in a couple of days. I don’t entirely know what makes his interior world tick, but I rely on all the investment I put in knowing it for the first twelve years.
And that’s OK.
I used to know how to feed him
It felt so good to quench my son’s appetite. I felt confident at one time about when and how to meet his caloric needs and preferences. I’d toss a cheese stick his way when he was getting cranky, a granola bar in his soccer bag when he needed a break during practice, and a Gatorade for the extra-hot days. In addition to the cut strawberries and carrots, my favorites were the unexpected ice-cold popsicle and warm chocolate chip cookie surprises.
Now I buy a family-pack of Ramen noodles and a Costco-sized jar of pickles and they disappear on their own. On weekends, he uses his spending money to jaunt up to the local strip mall filled with fast-food restaurants and caffeine-laden establishments and comes home seemingly well-fed, so I call that a win. Most days I just cross my fingers that somehow the nutrition works out in the wash, but if I’m honest, I don’t have a firm grasp on his major food groups. It is time for him to work out his food intake on his own.
And that’s OK.
I used to know how to right his wonky moods
When I saw the stormy clouds of a bad mood building up behind his eyeballs, I usually knew what to do with my son. It started with a monkey hug, the kind where he’d wrap his arms and legs around me tightly and ended with a hot chocolate, his favorite, under a blanket. Eventually, the reason for his emotion would surface and we’d be off to smoother waters. When the going really got tough, we’d retreat to his bedroom and play his favorite songs. I’m sure you had your tricks, too, that allowed for the reset button to be pushed and more even moments to return.
Now that the brooding is more the norm than the exception, I find myself walking around using ESP to heal my teenager’s dispositional dips. I figure, the more I can send him positive vibes psychologically, the better off he’ll be. I know better than to smother him with affection or warm beverages, so instead, I’m just around for whenever he chooses to brain-dump his troubles. He eventually will, in his own time, but until then I wait (and pray).
And that’s OK.
I used to know his friends
Every single one of us has a cell phone filled with contacts of the moms and dads of our son’s primary and middle school buddies. We were the connectors, the social organizers, the calendar masters. If a playdate idea was hatched, it was up to us to orchestrate the details. And, even though it wasn’t always pleasant, I confess that I liked managing my son’s social schedule. This way, I had a pulse on his friends and their parents. I knew a tidbit about each pal, a tidbit about each pal’s parent, and at least I’d know in whose hands my son was at any given moment. Additionally, I knew his peep’s names. When he spoke of them, I’d proudly say, “Oh yeah, Ismael, the one who loves Marvel movies and hates coconut!”
Now I crave for tidbits. I get Evan mixed up with Jonah and Marissa confused with Mila. I don’t know who’s allergic to what. And sometimes – I’ll be honest – I screw up their pronouns. The ones around the most, I have pretty figured out; they’re even in my phone, and I’ll text them when they accidentally leave their Invisalign on my counter. But the peripheral peeps phase in and phase out and ain’t nobody got time to memorize them. Plans are made with minimal oversight by me, but at this point in my son’s teenage years, his social calendar is primarily his.
And that’s OK.
If you’re feeling like all the confident knowing about your son is changing, you’re not alone. We, the moms of teenaged boys, used to have a handle on all elements of our child’s livelihoods, from hygiene down to friends. Without that same handle, we might be flailing. Let us remember that our offerings in this stage of their lives are less exact, less predictable, less certain to succeed, but no less meaningful. The key is to patiently not go away. And that’s OK.