I will admit it. I let my guard down. I used to be pretty attentive, always looking around the corner, anticipating the next set of issues and problems, reading up so that I would be prepared when the time came. I started out when I was pregnant and on bed rest, reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting. This led naturally into What to Expect the Toddler Years and a motherlode (pun intended) of mommy blogs and message boards. I’m not sure when or why I stopped doing this, though it was most likely a gentle slide, a slow erosion of my hyper-vigilance. You know how it is when every day starts to feel like groundhog day, like a variation on a theme, and you just settle in and coast for a while.
I wouldn’t say that the change took place overnight, necessarily. But it was a significant transformation, one that continues to surprise me as it evolves and plays out in the day-to-day. Coasting is no longer an option. There is no predictable pattern or even much of a warning when it’s time to batten down the hatches. All I know is that this change is just the beginning, a small taste of things to come, and I do not feel prepared for it.
I’m talking about this new person that lives in my house. This one who used to think I was awesome and fun, who called me “mommy”, who saw me as an ally rather than an obstacle. This new guy is called a “tween”, I am told. When I look at him, I still see his baby face in there somewhere, hiding under the hood that is always cinched up around his face. (are you cold? is it breezy in here? what gives?). When he hugs me, he no longer grabs my thigh or my waist, or reaches up his hands for me to pull him up. His arms circle all the way around my back, his head can now rest comfortably on my shoulder, and he makes gains on me every day. Soon this one I carried in a sling and pushed in a stroller, who cried when I left the room, who threw broccoli on the floor, will overtake me. He will literally look down at me, and I will have to tip my chin up when I tell him to go clean up his room or do his homework.
He is aware that he is on the precipice of physical enormity, and he is practicing for it by doing things like rolling his eyes and greeting simple requests with poorly executed sarcasm. He obviously doesn’t know that I won the regional award for eye-rolling back in my day. There is no “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Teenager” on my bookshelf currently, so I’m still figuring out how best to nip all this in the bud without making it worse. Because it’s a really delicate balance, you know? Too authoritative and the tween is likely to retreat back under the perceived safety of the hoodie and shut you out entirely. Not authoritative enough and you’ve got a hoodlum on your hands. (see what I did there? “hood”lum!) It’s a little like approaching a wild animal on a National Geographic special. Very precarious.
And what of the fact that my tween has so many NEEDS and FEELINGS right now? So many feelings, none of which can be easily identified, because they are all wrapped up in this little ball that is generously coated with a layer of anger and finished with a fine dusting of resentment. Am I to be the one to unravel that ticking time bomb? Do I cut the black wire or the red one? Which chapter addresses these sorts of emergencies? Also, nothing like reliving middle school through the eyes of your child to dredge up all of your own emotional baggage.
I used to be really good at this. I could tell by the look in that kid’s eyes when he was hungry, or overstimulated, or if he needed a nap. I could anticipate what kind of scenarios were likely to be overwhelming or frustrating, and do some work on the front end to avoid doing damage control on the back end. Now, I don’t know anything, and I have a 10-year-old to tell me that I don’t know anything. Also, in case you’re wondering, I’m lame. And embarrassing. And I’m not funny. Not even a little bit.
I love this poem by Adair Lara, who really sums up the tween through teen stage nicely:
WHEN CHILDREN TURN INTO CATS
Have you ever realized that children are like dogs? Loyal and affectionate, but teenagers are like cats…
It’s so easy to be a dog owner.
You feed it, train it, boss it around. And yet it still puts its head on your knee and gazes at you as if you were a Rembrandt painting and bounds indoors with enthusiasm when you call it.
Then around age 13, your adoring little puppy turns into a cat. When you tell it to come inside, it looks amazed, as if wondering who died and made you emperor.
Instead of dogging your every step, it disappears. You won’t see it again until it gets hungry. Then it pauses on its sprint through the kitchen long enough to turn its nose up at whatever you’re serving.
When you reach out to ruffle its head, in that old affectionate gesture, it twists away from you, then gives you a blank stare, as if trying to remember where it has seen you before. You, not realizing that the dog is now a cat, think something must be desperately wrong.
It seems so antisocial, so distant.
It won’t go on family outings.
Since you’re the one who raised it, taught it to fetch and stay and sit on command, you assume that you did something wrong.
Flooded with guilt and fear, you redouble your efforts to make your pet behave.
Only now you’re dealing with a cat, so everything that worked before now produces the opposite of the desired result.
Call it, and it runs away. Tell it to sit, and it jumps on the counter.
The more you go toward it, with open arms, the more it moves away.
Instead of continuing to act like a dog owner, you should learn to behave like a cat owner.
Put a dish of food near the door, and let it come to you.
Sit still, and it will come, seeking that warm, comforting lap it has not entirely forgotten.
Be there to open the door for it.
And just remember…
One day your grown-up child will walk into the kitchen, give you a big kiss and say, “You’ve been on your feet all day. Let me get those dishes for you.”
Then you’ll realize your cat is now a dog again!
I love this kid, this dog-turned-cat, this shape-shifting boy-man, who has come to teach me of the messy side love in all its forms.