Nudging My Teenager Forward
Today is Mother’s Day and I have so many conflicted feelings about it. I have my own complicated relationship with my mother. (Think Filipino version of Lorelai and Emily, but with less money and not as well dressed. If you know, you know.)
I love being a mama to four amazing kids. They make my decision to become a stay-at-home Mom so worth it. But it’s not always easy. Parenting is never easy. There are some really good stretches where life just flows. And then there are some really challenging stretches and I feel like I’m barely holding on by my fingernails.
Right now I’m in the trenches with my teenager who is trying to figure out who he is separate from us. He’s trying to stand on his own and is frustrated that he still needs to lean on us. He wants to experience the world on his own and yet, he’s afraid to let go of the tether that ties him to us. He’s only fifteen, so he still has time. But I’d lie if I didn’t say that I could hear the booming ticks of the clock that marks my time with him. I’m watching him taking those baby steps towards independence and adulthood.
We’ve already discussed jobs, driver permits, internships, high school schedules, and colleges. I hear his angst in the curt, “Yes, mama” hissed between clenched teeth. I see it in the eye rolls. I feel it in every beat of my heart. He’s the oldest of four. He’s learning independence just as we learning how to parent a teenager moving towards adulthood.
It’s what we want, isn’t it? For our kids to find themselves, to be independent, but to still love us; to share their days and thoughts with us.
Last Mother’s Day was way harder. So much harder. Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and as my hair fell out, so did his faith that I would get better. With every strand that fell in my teacup, the more his anxiety heightened. The more his worry consumed him. He pulled away.
He couldn’t help. He wouldn’t help. He couldn’t bring himself to face my need for help because if it did, it meant that I was too sick to take care of him and everyone else. What do you do when the one person who has been the most steadfast in your life needs you? So he floundered. He ignored us. He found solace in creating make-believe worlds and creating stories where the mother doesn’t get sick. Sometimes it’s easier to write the story you want instead of the one you’re living.
Being a middle school teacher I’ve seen these tactics time and again with my students. When my eighth graders pulled away, sassed me, refused to turn in their work, or acknowledge me or their fellow eighth grade teachers with any respect, it was all done out of fear. I’ve been down this road before. If they can hurt you and pull away, then it will sting less when they leave middle school and move towards high school. If they cut ties now, then it will hurt less when they move another step towards independence and away from the stability and security of the teachers they’ve known.
I know this road. I’ve walked it before.
The best thing to do is let them walk their own path; to let them figure it out. They come back. They always do. Maybe not right away, but they do. How do I know? I ran into one of my former students at a restaurant a few years ago.
He is in his 20’s and has his own family. He was a delight as a student. He had an unstable home life, so school was his safe space. We had our moments, but we were always able to find a way to meet in the middle until those last few weeks of school where he hated me and every teacher in the building. He pushed against the rules, he yelled, he stomped, he rolled his eyes, he railed against all the boundaries. He was so angry. He was so scared.
But we, his teachers, still loved him, still held him accountable, still nurtured him, still nudged him forward. And then we cried in the silent moments, holding his hurt and anger wishing we could tell him it would be okay.
When he and I met unexpectedly again he was on his lunch break and recognized me. He came up to me, asked for a hug, and told me all the good things in his life. He told his coworker, with whome he was dining, that I was one of his favorites. And while I try not to have any favorites, he was definitely one of mine. He doesn’t remember those last few weeks of eighth grade, but I do. And I am proud of the young man he has since become and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to tell him in person.
So as my teenager fusses, fights against us, rolls his eyes, and raises his voice, I know it’s fear. I know it’s uncertainty. I know it’s that he wants to be grown, but he’s still a child.
I am thankful for another Mother’s Day where I still get to be his mama. There was one day in my treatment where things went very badly with my medication and I almost didn’t get to come home to my family. I know he remembers that. I know that he still holds that fear. I do, too.
But I’m still here. I’ll still be here through the eye rolls, frustrations, anger, and sadness. I will be here for the celebrations. I don’t take each day for granted anymore. But I have hope. I’m optimistic that my time isn’t done yet.
And as my teenager makes his own way, I’ll cheer him on every step of the way. And when he’s ready to hear it, I’ll tell him how I’m so very proud of him. In the meantime, I’ll cry in the silent moments holding his anger, hurt, and uncertainty in my heart for him so that he doesn’t have to and pray that he’ll find his way back to me. I know he will. They always do.