My teenage boy is an alien. And by alien I mean foreign. Far away from me. It’s not so much that I don’t understand him, or that he communicates as if he’s from another planet. There is some of that going on some of the time, but I’m learning to decode and even speak that language (Mmm mmm mmm means “I don’t know” in Teenglish). It’s more like he and I are in different countries, and we call each other only when necessary. To check in. Or remind him to wash his face. Or ask me to email the karate teacher.
He’s actually not quite a teenager – he’s 12 and a half. Exactly. And I know much is likely to change in the next six months before his barmitzvah. His voice might break. He could grow a whole foot. The glimpses of sullenness and defiance I’m seeing now will probably turn into full-scale epic movies of extreme emotion. I’m bracing myself for way more drama than when I took him to buy “nice” clothes and he grabbed the pants the sales lady held out to him, and actually threw them on the floor. At her feet. Apparently he doesn’t like dressy clothes – frayed cargo khakis and a polo shirt are as “dressed up” as this NorCal boy will go. Thankfully the lovely lady at Nordstrom has two grown sons of her own and remembers those days. But I cringed in horror as I watched my usually even-tempered, go-with-the-flow boy flail in frustration.
We don’t need much from each other, he and I. He usually just gets on with it. Walks to and from school. Even in the rain. Grabs a snack for himself. Does his homework. Gets consistently good grades with seemingly little stress and effort. Brushes his teeth without being told. Jokes with his brothers. Loves his Rubik’s cube. Reads sci-fi books. Watches Psych and Modern Family. I sign his math test or reading log when he asks, he doesn’t beg me to drive on field trips, casually mentions we’re out of frozen waffles (his breakfast of choice) but is happy to find something else to eat.
We spend a little time together in the car, just the two of us, when I take him to his barmitzvah lessons or to karate. But even then we don’t talk much. He answers my questions about school and friends with no more than three to four words. Not in a moody teenage way, just very matter-of-fact. Sometimes he’ll give me a fun fact, or relay a quick story. Ask me why humans are born with an appendix. As we drive passed the park he might yell out the window to someone. “Who’s that?” I ask. “My friend. Michael. He’s in my Spanish class.” Oh.
Remember when I knew all his friends, and their parents, and where they lived? When I could picture him at recess playing basketball or foursquare with those friends, knowing what he was eating for lunch because I packed it for him?
I’m not sad that he’s growing up, becoming independent. I’m not feeling nostalgic or wistfully remembering when he was so attached to me he cried solidly all day every day for the first three weeks of preschool. In my mother-heart I know that he is happy, and thriving, and enjoying his seventh grade life – even if he doesn’t share the details with me. He still loves to eat the cake batter out the bowl. And I leave the chocolate chips out of the banana bread – he hates chocolate.
Our long-distance relationship works for both of us. He’ll happily babysit the younger ones if I ask him to (meaning, if I pay him to). He helps me unload the trunk, fixes his sister breakfast, explains the math problem to his brother. All with no fuss. Unfazed. I can’t remember the last time he needed help from me or his dad, with anything. Schoolwork. A difficult social situation. A problem with a teacher. I don’t worry if he doesn’t come home straight after school, or wonder what he’s getting up to online. Girls are still just friends, if they exist at all in his world, and on the rare occasion I catch sight of him on campus or on the soccer field, he is engaged and social.
His baby brother wakes up wailing, and I bury myself further under the covers. I hear him crying and mumbling to himself, trying to get dressed, but I don’t move. And suddenly this little guy is at my bedside in the half-dark room, and before I even open my mouth to ask what’s wrong, the big almost-man-brother in dinosaur pajama pants is taking him by the hand and leading him out. “I’ll help you,” he says. As if he knows that I need just ten minutes more of quiet.
I am so thankful for this easy boy. Because son number two is not easy – needs so much from me all the time, and always has. Wants to talk and process and find out what I’m feeling and thinking, needs help with his homework, pounds his drums when frustrated or yells that he’s running away from home. And daughter and baby boy have requirements of their own, one being a second grade girl in a family of boys, and the other the youngest of four. Part of the fun and challenge of being a parent, navigating the different personalities and needs and moods of each child. And I wouldn’t have it any different (well, maybe a little different – like just one kid less). But my Big Easy Boy means a little less stress, a quarter of calmness in the frenzy, 25 percent more headspace for something or someone else.
And in his not-neediness I keep him in mind. Fix him an after-school snack. It’s a one-off thing. I’m not even sure if he’s coming home from school. Pastrami on a challah roll with the baby gherkins that he loves – no mayo, no mustard. I leave it on the kitchen counter on a plate, next to a note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper I fished out of the recycling: Daniel. Love Mom. I use the faintest black gel pen. Minimal effort. Minimal fuss. It feels like the most maternal thing I’ve done since I stopped breastfeeding three years ago.
He calls as soon as he gets home from school.
“Mom? So yeah I got the sandwich… it’s nice.”
I love you, Mom. And I know you love me.