In a rare moment of family harmony last month, the Wiggy One and I went to our local hardware store. We made it round without becoming irritated with the other, managing to laugh and talk. As we walked to the car, a grandfather and small grandson were on their way in; the grandson skipping alongside, swinging on his grandfather’s hand and turning up his face to share a story. The older man was bending down to listen, both of them were delighting in the other’s company. And there I was with my now 6″1′ son, for whom life is no longer so simple, and who is trying to bridge the gap between childhood and becoming a man.
In a reversal of the scene playing out in front of us, I looked up at my son, and shared my own secret.
“Just so you are aware of the magnitude of the ‘Bait and Switch’ trick life played on me, you were just like that.”
What I forgot to add, was so was I. I remember the moments when time disappeared as I watched him discover the world, and it makes me sad to realize that he’s not the only one hardened by the passing years – I am too.
In an effort to explain why we as parents seem so unreasonable, so angry, so irritating, so controlling, here’s an open letter my teenage son – and probably others out there. It’s what we are thinking at 3am when we are rehearing our own words, and wishing them unsaid..
Firstly, I love you. Those may not be the words that always come out of my mouth, but please know that it is the one enduring, irrefutable truth in my seemingly erratic behavior. But imagine, just for a moment, you are given a small child and are expected to stand by and watch them navigate through busy city streets. That’s what parenting feels like. It’s terrifying, and you’d be a little crazy too.
I will always see you as three years old – the days when you greeted me with delight in your eyes, excitement in your voice, enthusiasm in your hugs. The days when I was invincible, when your greatest need was to be held close and your biggest challenge was how to balance on a bicycle. It makes it hard to watch you go out there and face the world, armed only with the inadequate advice I tried to give you and knowing full well that you weren’t listening and are probably thinking you know so much better.
You may be right, but the only way to find out is to test that hypothesis and take risks. I have failed far too many of the challenges facing you, and a little bit of me dies knowing that you will be hurt and will learn that not everyone is kind. You will make good choices and bad choices, and feel the consequences of both for years to come. You are too big for things to be fixed with a kiss and a bandaid, but it doesn’t stop me from keeping a secret stock of them just in case.
I know you think I am nosy and intrusive – I am. You have a whole life that is private – it’s called your private life for a reason. And that’s ok, it’s part of becoming a man. But just because you keep it private, doesn’t mean it stays that way – if you are keeping quiet because you would be embarrassed to see it on the front page of the New York Times, it’s probably a bad idea. I know this, because enough of my secrets have been told, and I learned the hard way. The bad news for you is that you have social media recording every mistake, and I desperately don’t want to find out about yours via Instagram. So just think of my questions as your filter; if you are worried that I will find out, you will just a little more cautious. Which is exactly what every parent wants.
While we are on the subject of private lives, know that how you treat people you love now will influence the success of your future relationships. One of the things I most love about your father is the way he treats his mother – no matter how irritated he might be, he treats her with respect. When we first met, it felt like he was choosing her feelings over mine; as I get older, I realize that she taught him to value women, and that I am now the one who reaps the benefits.
I can’t force you to do things any more – you make your own choices. You are bigger than me by about 6 inches, so I can’t just send you to your room or drag you home. So when your automatic response to a problem is “it’s your fault’, I know that you still have a little more growing to do, because really, most of your life is now down to you. I can protect you, I can advise you, I can comfort you, I can punish you and I can help you understand the meaning of consequences, but the days when I could make you disappeared when you outweighed me by 40 pounds and joined the football team. I know it, and it’s hard to watch – so I am impatiently waiting for you to get it too. It’s ironic, but the day you turn around and say, without prompting “it was my fault’ is the day that we know you are truly becoming a man.
Here’s the thing – one day (preferably 10 years from now) you will have children of your own. And when you do, I will be there, knowing that your children will have a great father who has made plenty of mistakes, but came through it better, stronger, wiser. One who will love them, protect them, teach them and advise them, and then, when they are teenagers, will also be told how little he knows.. And I will be there, with hugs and bandaids and a huge smile. Because karma is a bitch.