Brand building through storytelling

How I learned to love my son’s teen years

Around the time my son Ben turned 13, an alien moved into our house. The interloper looked like Ben, but with a scowl where the impish grin used to be and shambling feet that seemed too big for the rest of him. He spoke in monosyllables, rolling his eyes when we proposed a family outing to the movies. If, by some miracle, he did consent to tag along, he’d shuffle half a block behind, eyes fixed on the sidewalk.

The stranger transformed Ben’s room. Once a Lego lab that teemed with fantasy villages, it became a lair in which hulking piles of clothes kept swallowing pieces of our family’s life: house keys, book reports, even cereal bowls (encrusted with mould by the time I fished them out). I missed Ben’s Lego collection. I missed the stuffed animals that used to fill his bed, leaving a ribbon of space for a child with sleep-tousled curls and translucent eyelids. A child who had vanished and was not coming back.

I’d been warned this was coming. Every parent I knew with a teen in the house had bent my ear with complaints: “She laughs at my clothes, and then she has the gall to raid my closet.” “I met the teachers last night and they haven’t seen my kid since September.” My mother told me that at 13 I broke her heart. “You put a sign on your bedroom door that said, ‘PROTEST AGAINST THE RISING TIDE OF CONFORMITY,’ and the door stayed shut for the next four years. I couldn’t look at that door without wishing I could sit on your bed and talk the way we used to.”

If there was a plus side to parenting teens, nobody seemed to have found it. My informants were all pining for the glory days of Goodnight, Moon at bedtime and softball in the park. They looked back on their kids’ lost childhood like old-timers reminiscing about bottled Coke and Saturday mail deliveries. They had me worried for a while. Never the most serene of mothers, I feared that Ben’s adolescence would reduce me to screaming, fist-shaking fury. I had no idea that the dread teen years would be my best years as a mother.

It’s not as if we didn’t have our confrontations. For every position his dad and I took, Ben seemed to have 19 objections plus proof (so he claimed) that we were hypocritical windbags. He jabbed and challenged like a trial lawyer on a tear, with a passion that was positively gleeful. Unlike us, he never seemed to tire of the fray.

But what I remember best about those years is not fighting. It’s the sheer exhilaration of seeing my child embrace the first challenges of manhood–and realizing I must have done a few things right.

When I became a mother at age 22, I couldn’t quite believe that Ben would ever get out of diapers, much less grow up. Confined to the nursing chair at 3 a.m., I’d lament my life of servitude to this tiny helpless tyrant who howled when I laid him in his crib. Dammit, if only he could talk! We’d strike some kind of deal: a few hours’ sleep in exchange for lullabyes, dancing and all he could eat. Hey, I’d even run the vacuum cleaner (Ben loved noisy machines from the start). But negotiating skills, which had served me so well in the past, got me nowhere with an infant. At last I would simply explode: “I can’t go on! We’ve been in this chair the whole night!”

Things got easier when Ben discovered picture books and dinosaurs. But he had louder, rougher passions that I couldn’t share. Hockey players (especially when they fought). Trucks (especially the kind that tore up the street with ear-splitting machine gun sounds). My son was nothing like the dreamy little girl I had been, who drew fairy tale princesses and danced to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Sometimes I’d look at my rough-and-tumble boy, my sweet rascal with his knees skinned from sliding to third base, and wonder if I could ever enter his world.

Adolescence opened the door, although I never would have guessed it when the first signs appeared. As far as I could tell, the door was slamming shut—literally. Bam! went the door to Ben’s room when my husband and I mentioned homework. How about taking out the trash? Bam! No, you can’t have a sleepover when we’re not home. Bam! Just when it seemed our son would never smile at us again, he’d bounce out of his room like a 10-year-old, crowing at a plan to go biking with a friend, as if we hadn’t been at loggerheads an hour ago.

What was going on? I found the answer in my grade six journal, written in a round, childish hand. And for the first time in my life as a parent, I knew exactly where Ben was standing. The journal revealed a lost self whose defiance put Ben’s to shame. A long-forgotten remark from my father provoked this outburst: “I BELIEVE THAT WHEN A CHILD’S FEELINGS START TO MATURE, HE SHOUD NOT BE TREATED AS A CHILD BUT AS THE ADULT HE IS BECOMING!!”

Reading those words, I remembered how hard I slammed the door before grabbing my pen. I remembered my wounded pride, my fierce longing to grow up. I’d forgotten my pining for a Barbie doll, recorded just a few pages on without a trace of irony. I rode a churning sea of conflicted emotion, scornful of childhood and its trappings yet afraid to leave the only place I’d ever known in the world. I was embarking on one of life’s toughest and loneliest challenges: becoming my own person. To prove that I could manage without my parents, I had to push them away.

But I never stopped loving them or needing them, so I assumed Ben felt the same way about his father and me. We didn’t know how to navigate the strange new world of family life, any more than Ben did. Sometimes we missed the days when he brought us all his problems and questioned none of our judgments for more than minutes at a time. But as the three of us remapped our family, we made a heartening discovery. We didn’t have to be infallible as long as we could trust in shared good will to see us through.

It was trust that finally carried the day in our most wearying fight—the turf war over his bedroom. Every morning he’d emerge from that fetid hellhole to monopolize our only shower, buffing and polishing himself to perfection while his dad banged on the bathroom door, counting the minutes to an urgent meeting downtown. “If you’re such a clean freak, why don’t you clean your damn room?” I’d yell. “I’m sick of running an obstacle course to pick up your laundry.”

After a year or so of this, we figured something out. Unless we called a truce on the bedroom, we’d run out of energy for more important issues like responsibility and safety. Ben beat us to the punch with a surprisingly thoughtful proposal. He would keep his door closed and do his own laundry, so we’d never have to enter his room. He would stop eating there and leave our dishes in the kitchen. In the rest of the house, he would follow our rules. No more dirty running shoes in the TV room, no abandoned pizza boxes hither and yon.

Now that our son had learned to reason with us, surely we’d be wise to give his plan a try. Lo and behold, it worked (Ben didn’t just wash his clothes, he ironed shirt collars like a pro). At last we had some peace and quiet in our house. Now, if only our son could show a little interest in our company! Since he was too proud for that, we learned to watch for those golden moments when he dropped his blase mask (raised eyebrows, curled lip) and looked out at us with the dreamy, receptive gaze that said, “Let’s talk.”

Music tended to create the opening. Ben had a passion for rap; I thought it was violent and demeaning to women. Sometimes I’d thunder, “Turn that stuff down!”, just as my parents had done when I played Bob Dylan’s raspy, hard-driving anthems. Yet I found that if I asked him what he saw in his favorite songs, he was happy to tell me. I never did buy his argument that rap was social satire, the latest twist on the time-honored protest song. “Interesting, Ben,” I concluded every time, “but rap still makes me uncomfortable.”

That was okay with my son. He needed me to listen to him, not to follow him. Our musical discussions led to bigger topics, racism and justice. Like me at his age, Ben dove into these issues with the fervor of one who felt marginalized and misunderstood by the adult world.

Spotting the chance for a rich conversation, I took him to see The White Rose, a German film based on the true story of gentile university students who learned of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews and were guillotined for trying to expose the truth. The movie piqued Ben’s moral imagination. All the way home, we pondered what we would have done with the students’ terrible knowledge.

As I learned to connect with my son, I also had to learn when to keep a respectful distance. He must have been 14 the day a friend of mine phoned, all excitement, to say he’d just sent roses to her daughter. So that’s why Ben had been down for a week-the poor guy was nursing a crush. My friend said she’d been waging a campaign on his behalf (“I’ve told Sarah I’m sure he’s a very nice boy”). Now she thought we parents could bring our kids together over a family brunch.

Recalling my own hopeless crushes, I ached for Ben. I wanted to heal his pain as I had done years ago when he fell off the jungle gym. But I was sure my friend’s plan would only harden Sarah’s heart (what self-respecting teen lets Mom plan her social life?). “We’d better just let things take their course,” I said. As far as I know (and I was not about to pry), Ben never got anywhere with Sarah. Oh, well. A boy who sends flowers to a girl is bound to find true love one day. Meanwhile, he had lots of good friends to console him.

Sometimes I felt jealous of the confidantes who could make Ben’s day with a visit. Overhearing choruses of laughter behind Ben’s bedroom door, I’d wonder what the joke was all about. I’d remember when my son’s idea of a good time was playing mini-golf with his parents. But I never felt wistful for long. By filling our house with his pals, Ben was paying us the ultimate compliment. He was telling us that home was a good place to be-and to share.

So I came to love the sound of teens careering down our stairs, landing on each one with a triumphant thud that was known to shake the walls. To me it was the sound of hope.

First published in Today’s Parent. Copyright by Rona Maynard.


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