From the day my first child was born, there was a blazed trail to follow. Sometimes I followed it exactly. Often I took detours. Either way, it’s been my guide. I’ve wended my way through parenthood more or less along the same path my parents walked with me.
But here, sixteen years in, we come to an unmarked place. Here the path is broken.
I try to imagine my son meeting my sixteen-year-old self, and decide it would be an acquaintance my present self would be wary of, as I’ve been of certain kids who come around from time to time–the ones whose parents we never see, who leave only after everyone else has been summoned home, who seem to be pretty much on their own.
Where are the parents, we wonder among ourselves–“we” being the parents who exchange phone numbers, consult over curfews, and do routine fact-checking by text. Don’t they care?
Mine did care, and I always knew it. Always. But my memories of being taken care of end with my sixteenth birthday (perception is probably the better word…I’ve never been on the street–I was absolutely provided for). No blame and no shame here: my father was very sick, my mom was doing her best, I was being a pain-in-the-ass teenager, and we were all shipwrecked and rowing in different directions through a terrible, terrible storm. We lost each other for a while.
When we came back together, I was on the other side of 18, and our relationship picked up where it would have with a young adult and her parents. And went on from there. Though darker days lay ahead with my father, my parents have both been there for me in ways that others have envied. They’ve shown me what a gift acceptance and support is to grown children who are still growing. Those “missing” years are just a few pages from a much larger story.
Except that I’m parenting a sixteen-year-old of my own now, and it’s sometimes strangely counter-intuitive. I have to remind myself that he still needs me. That even as he is appropriately pulling away, it’s also appropriate for me to pull him back. To be the counterweight tug at the end of the ever-lengthening, ever-loosening safety line. Sometimes I have to remind myself that we’re not finished here yet, when my biographical clock tells me we ought to be.
Growing up is such a pushme-pullyou continuum, maybe every parent of a teenager feels this way. Like half the time we’re just guessing–how much slack to let out and when to pull up tight. One minute you’re talking to an emerging adult; then the child reappears. Maybe it’s disorienting by nature.
But the uncertainties are layered for me. The hardest work of parenting is withdrawing your own baggage from your child’s journey. Sometimes my son wraps his giant arms around me, and I realize with a pang that I haven’t really hugged him in a few days. Then I panic, thinking I’m not being present enough, that time is running out for us. And I know by the anguish in that thought–the hot tears in my eyes as I type it–that it really has nothing to do with here and now. This is my haunted place.
Seven years ago, as a tornado was bearing down on us at night, my seven-year-old son woke up to see Mommy and Daddy carrying his sleeping brothers downstairs to shelter, and believed he had been abandoned. For the minute it took Patrick to sprint back up the stairs for him, this was his reality. Not that we had more kids than we had sets of arms and were coming for him as fast as we could, or that he was in no more danger than any of us, but that he had been left behind. I know that no matter how many times we revisit that moment with him and give it context, and even laugh about it, a part of him remains in that room, small and terrified and left behind.
We all have haunted places. In them, aren’t most of us children, believing ourselves to be all alone? The awful thing about raising kids is that it leads us back to those left-behind selves. The beautiful thing is that we go back as parents, and maybe we can retrieve them.