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Oedipus in Suburbia

May 19, 2012

So it’s summertime and everyone is out of school, which is great.  Secretly you welcome the built-in excuse to get very little accomplished, though you suspect that this summer might be easier than others…after all, the children are getting so big!  You live in a town where it is possible for kids to be very independent–they can ride their bikes everywhere, they can go to the pool and stay for hours unsupervised, they can get themselves over to their father’s house and to friends’ houses without any help from you.  They get up in the morning and go off to half-day camp–the younger is a camper, the older a counselor–all by themselves.  You’ll have them with you every afternoon and every day for lunch–you’ll have to make sure you have milk and sandwiches around, that sort of thing–but honestly, how hard is that?  It’s not like having babies or toddlers, for crying out loud.  In a way, you feel kind of guilty, like you’re not really doing enough to hold up your end of things.  Just because they’re independent doesn’t mean you should necessarily ignore them, tempting though it may be.

You decide that this will be the summer you make a real effort, instead of taking the path of least resistance (reading magazines at the pool day after day after day while the kids do god knows what, for example).  This summer, you’ll plan educational and enriching activities–picnics, museums, concerts.  You’ll take the kids hiking, even camping.  After all, your fifteen-year-old is overdue to turn all remote and teenagery, so your days of sappy, happy togetherness are numbered.  Remember the summer you were fifteen?  You spent it sneaking out of your parents’ house, smoking pot, and kissing boys.  So far your son seems innocent and pure, but perhaps your parents thought the same thing about you.  Maybe your son is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, up to no good behind your back. Maybe he’s just on the verge of turning wolfish.  Either way, if you keep him busy with lots of high-maintenance wholesome activities, he won’t have time to look for trouble.

The week after school lets out, your teenager certainly seems to be around a lot. When you wake up in the morning, the minute your feet hit the floor, he wanders into your room. (He’s used to getting up early for school, you suppose.  But why is the eight-year-old still asleep?)  He shadows you as you stumble around the house doing what you do every morning–measuring coffee grounds and turning on the machine, groggily unlocking the doors to the porch, shuffling out to get the paper.  The few seconds it takes to walk to the end of the driveway and back are more peaceful than the rest of your routine, and it takes you some time, in your sleep-addled state, to figure out why. Your son, who is disinclined to follow you outside, waits at the front door till you get back, at which point he picks right up wherever his morning monologue left off. He is full of news and observations. He would like your opinion about things. He would like to recount the plots of various television shows, the high points of South Park and Tosh, never mind that the two of you watched these television shows together the very night before, and that you are therefore up to date. Those seconds walking down the driveway, you realize, when his voice is coming from inside the house, are the quietest moments you get until he hops on his bike and pedals reluctantly down to the corner, calling an extra, wistful goodbye over his shoulder, and rides off to his job at camp.

You are not, nor have you ever been, much of a morning person.  Your ex-husband didn’t talk much at any time of day, and you’ve gotten rather used to easing into the day with a few minutes, even hours, of quiet.  During the school year, your older son gets himself up and off to school before you’re even awake, and your younger son prefers to get up at the absolute last second–he’s got it down to a science–that allows him to dress, bolt a bowl of cereal, grab his backpack, plant a kiss on your cheek, and tear down the street to the bus stop as the bus rumbles around the corner.  Not much time for chit-chat, which is just fine by you.

But now your mornings are uncharacteristically noisy. Your older son has beautiful blue doe eyes; they follow you adoringly as you pour out cereal and attempt to read the paper. You are like some cartoon from the 1950s, with you as the grouchy husband and your teenaged son as the talkative wife; in a vain effort to cut off conversation by cutting off eye-contact, you hold the paper directly in front of your face as you read. Your son is not deterred. He reads whatever headlines he can see out loud, and muses over their significance. What do you think, he would like to know? Your younger son, munching his cereal in silence, looks at you expectantly. You grip the paper tighter, mumble some reply, fight the urge to slam your hand on the table and hiss, through clenched teeth, that BREAKFAST is not an appropriate time for TALKING.

Finally, they leave. God, it’s peaceful. You repair to the porch, where you squander your precious child-free two and a half hours reading in an ecstasy of silence.

At eleven forty five exactly, your spine begins to tingle, and your shoulders hunch with dread. It is some sort of atavistic response–you remember the feeling vividly from your younger son’s babyhood, when it came on like a case of hives right before his never-more-than-forty-minute nap came to an end.  Forty minutes is not a lot of time.  You used to go and stare at your older son while he slept for hours and hours every afternoon, willing him to wake up already so you’d have an excuse to quit pretending to work on your dissertation. But the minute your younger son’s eyelids fluttered shut you’d fling yourself into naptime with panicked frenzy.  You’d inhale lunch while reading the paper, one eye on the clock, your nerves on fire.  When he woke, as he always did, by summoning you cheerfully, your heart sank.

This is exactly how you feel now, as you hear your kids biking happily up the hill to you. They call out from the corner, bursting with news. Well, the older one calls out. The younger one is busy fussing with the gears on his new bike, the first bike he’s ever had that isn’t a hand-me-down, and you get the impression he would wheel it into the kitchen and sit next to it at the table if he could. Your older son couldn’t care less about his bike, which is actually your old bike, come to think of it. He’s a good kid, to ride his mom’s bike without complaint. A very good kid–and a very fast kid, too, because he’s somehow managed to make it from the driveway to your side, all sweaty and shiny and talking a blue streak, while his younger brother is still pedaling dreamily down the sidewalk.

Lunch is a social event, during which you hear all about the kids your older son supervises at camp, while your younger son eats his sandwich according to his particular ritual, taking it apart and putting it back together before biting into it, humming to himself. Your older son narrates his morning in real time. It’s not enough simply to listen, though frankly you have a hard enough time just doing that. You are also expected to respond. You are meant to react. To laugh, to enquire, to take part. It’s what you’ve always tried to tell your kids to do–they have a social obligation to feign interest when a boring adult or teacher or even another kid engages them in conversation. It’s part of being a human being, you’ve told them, being polite and considerate even if you’re not terribly interested in what someone else is telling you. You are not terribly interested in what your son is telling you.

Well, you say to yourself, it’s only June. This is some weird transitional phase–it’s got to be. Remember how the transition from half-day kindergarten to first grade meant you got a wiped out, grouchy, weepy, starving child delivered every afternoon? Remember third grade? Remember the first summer after the divorce? There are bumps and stumbles, hills and valleys, and this one, though annoying, is certainly not the worst thing that could happen.

On the Fourth of July, you find yourself on a blanket with consoling-windows friend and her husband and son, along with your boyfriend and his daughters.  It is hot. Too many children want to sit next to you. Your boyfriend’s daughters want to braid your hair; your younger son wants to lie across your lap. Your older son, peeved, settles for a spot leaning against your knees, and the very close, sticky presence of so many children makes your skin crawl.

Consoling-windows friend snickers from her lovely, child-free side of the blanket while your older son presents every single firework as an object for discussion. Mom, did you see that one? Mom? Hey, that one was green. Whoa, that was a big one! Mom? Mom? Consoling-windows friend’s giggle is devastatingly infectious; when your son turns around to make sure you are right there with him as far as the latest explosion went, he catches you wiping away tears of suppressed mirth. His face falls into his shoes. “Am I bothering you?” he asks plaintively. “I just wanted to make sure you saw that.” No, no, you say, I’m just–it’s something else I’m laughing at, honey. It’s not you. Consoling-windows friend snorts. She has three sons, older than yours; you distinctly remember times when she could not so much as walk to the kitchen without being shadowed by some gangly, chatty, shaggy-headed creature in oversized clothes, who would stand behind her as she answered the phone, or wait patiently, mid-sentence, while she finished writing something down, or bend over to put his enormous unkempt head on her shoulder while she stood with her teeth clenched, trying not to flinch.

“They need girlfriends, or something, but they don’t have them yet, so it’s like we’re their girlfriends,” your brilliant wise editor friend tells you on the phone. Her middle son is also fifteen.  “It’s worse than just the talking, though the talking is pretty bad. They also want to TOUCH you all the time.”  You shudder. This has recently become true. Your older son stands too close to you, always, and at the pool he has taken to occupying the lower half of the very chaise longue you are trying to stretch out on. Every day you attempt to foil his nearness by commandeering several lawnchairs, arranging them around you, and piling them high with pool-related detritus, to no avail. Your brilliant wise editor friend is nonplussed. A back injury forces her to work lying down in bed, and every night after supper, while the rest of the family disperses with their laptops or goes off to watch TV, her middle son follows her upstairs and mopes around until he makes his move. “He won’t go so far as to actually lie down on his father’s side,” she says.  “Instead he scootches into the eight-inch space between me and the edge, and then throws his arm across my waist.” You chuckle indulgently–so far, thank god, your son draws the line at getting in bed with you.

He has, however, no qualms about summoning you to his bed–where he calls every night for you to tuck him in and kiss him goodnight, as if he were a toddler. He wants you to sit with him a while, chatting about this and that, rehashing the events of the day. Because you are seldom apart, these bedtime confidentials tend not to break a lot of new ground. But they’re not, truth be told, unpleasant. You lie across the foot of your son’s bed in the dark, half listening to him describe his second at-bat in today’s baseball game, or articulate some half-baked theory about why communism actually makes sense. Sometimes he talks about school, and sometimes about soccer, and sometimes–rarely–he asks you to weigh in on an issue he’s anxious about, and then listens carefully to your response. You remember your mom telling you that bedtime was when all the skeletons came out of the closet, that it made sense to sit with your kids for a few minutes every night, even if you were exhausted, even if you were desperate to get away. Kids will open up at bedtime, she said, in a way they won’t during the day. Getting your son to open up does not seem to be a problem, at any time of the day or night, but it’s actually quite relaxing there in the dark, and your son’s monologues are oddly soothing. And amusing, come to think of it. Perhaps you’re finally cracking under the pressure, identifying with your oppressor. He is the Symbionese Liberation Army, and you are Patty Hearst.

But if this is so, there’s freedom in your oppression. Driving to New Hampshire for a week in a cabin with your boyfriend and all four kids in the car is a veritable sitcom of delight. The teenagers are like some sort of vaudeville act–the younger kids goggle with admiration, while you and your boyfriend laugh and laugh. The whole week is like this. No one argues or sulks. The weather is beautiful. There are no petty squabbles, no quarrels, no conflicts. Your son is the funniest person you have ever met in your life.

This was last summer. Since then, he has turned sixteen, grown about five inches (he is now taller than you are, and you are reasonably tall), and started (unnecessarily) to shave. His voice is deep. He texts you from school, calls you from the bus, saves his best stories for you. When you laugh, his face lights up. He teases you for being his biggest fan; you tease him by saying he’s definitely the coolest person in the family, a popular crowd all to himself, and you’re a wanna-be, a mere hanger-on. “You’re so good for my self esteem, Mom,” he says, laughing at you laughing at him. “If a joke doesn’t go over at school I always say to myself, ‘Screw you guys, my MOM thought that was hilarious.'”

You remember the terrible twos, the even-terribler threes, the fucked-up fours. All in all, you vastly prefer the sweet sixteens. Turns out you and your ex-husband have managed to raise a nice kid, after all. You worried so much, and everyone warned you it would be awful. “Just wait till he’s in high school,” they all said. “It only gets worse.” And look what happened instead. It gets better and better, and although you suppose the tide could turn at any moment, you’ve given up fretting. Why sell your kid short? For now you’ll take him at his word when he tells you, as he does at night when you go in to kiss him, that he’s happy, that school’s excellent, that everything is actually (here he yawns, and turns over on his side) really great, Mom, it’s all good.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2012 12:34 pm

    I love this more than I can say.

    My little boy often feels like a tiny boyfriend, sitting close, hanging on every word. It makes me both claustrophobic and giddy at the same time.

  2. SarahB permalink
    May 19, 2012 12:46 pm

    My heart about exploded reading this. Should we be so lucky!

  3. May 19, 2012 1:48 pm

    Everyone looks so sad for me when they find out I have all boys and no girls but now I have the perfect blog post to direct them to as an antidote for their unnecessary sympathy. Thank you, thank you.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 19, 2012 3:05 pm

      Boys are great. No regrets here…

  4. May 19, 2012 3:01 pm

    I don’t want to wish away the baby and toddler years, but I can’t wait for this stuff, too. And I hope we raise boys who are decent humans like you’ve done. The days when the toddler is being the shittiest of all shits it does seem an impossible goal…

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 19, 2012 3:07 pm

      Of course one never knows, and everything (good stuff too) is a phase, but it is funny how very few people ever mention that teenagers are their own kind of fun. Consoling windows friend always told me they were, but I didn’t believe her.

  5. May 19, 2012 3:54 pm

    This is some beautiful writing, and a beautiful portrait of a phase that seems light years away but I hope will be as weird and fun as you describe. My son is only two (and my second son about to be born), so in the middle of toddler and newborn madness it’s nice to think of them as scruffy lanky teenagers!

  6. Sam permalink
    May 20, 2012 3:47 am

    My oldest is 15 1/2. Then there’s the 3yo and the still nursing 1yo. All boys. Some days, I want to punch anyone that touches me. They ALL WANT TO TOUCH ME A LOT. My teenager is VERY modest about his body. Wont walk around the house without a shirt ever. BUT HE STROLLS INTO MY BATHROOM AND HAS FULL CONVERSATIONS WITH ME WHILE I AM SHOWERING. WITH GLASS BETWEEN US AND NO CURTAIN. Please tell me this part will end. Please.

  7. May 20, 2012 3:57 am

    This is so lovely. You’ve really done a fantastic parenting job. Wonderful beautiful writing too. What a talented lass you are!

  8. May 20, 2012 7:15 am

    I loved this post. My sons are 13 and 19 and my 13 year old does these things. Beautiful.

  9. May 20, 2012 1:58 pm

    Sounds like he is one of your biggest fans as well.

  10. May 21, 2012 3:45 am

    This si so awsome!! My boychild is only 6 but I hope to bring him up to be a good boy who still loves his family no matter how hard its going to be! thanks for this.

  11. May 21, 2012 8:16 am

    Still got a way to go with my boys before they are that age (but boy do they talk!), but this was very touching, as well as very recognisable. I suppose everyone has told you already how lucky you are that they do talk to you, haven’t they?

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 21, 2012 10:12 am

      Secretly, sometimes I fantasize about having one of those teenagers who grunts and goes in his room and closes the door, instead of Sir Chats-a-lot, though.

  12. May 21, 2012 9:44 am

    Oh, I’m so glad I read this.

  13. Was Living Down Under permalink
    May 22, 2012 11:01 am

    This made me laugh. And then it made me cry. Really beautifully written.

    My oldest is a girl and she’s only 5. But boy does she talk a lot. First thing in the morning. On and on and on. And all three of them can never seem to get enough of touching me. My hair, my hands, my legs. None of it is mine. Sometimes it takes all of me not to say please give me some space. I imagine space will come eventually and then I might be wishing for them to be around me. Still, it’s nice to know that my reaction is “normal”.

    My littlest one is a boy. He’s 18 months. He still sleeps with us and I can’t help looking at his sleeping baby face and wondering what he’ll be like as he gets older into his teenage years. Kinda fun to think about it. Thanks for your insight 🙂

  14. May 22, 2012 2:08 pm

    This is truly great! Thank you for vocalizing what I think of my teenage nephews and niece!! You obviously are a great parent. Here’s to many many more posts like this about your sons. Cheers,

  15. youngest wren of nine permalink
    May 22, 2012 2:50 pm

    You lucky duck! Over here, it’s been more standard teenage fare: one very sweet but extremely discombobulated (which he cannot really afford to be, with final exams not even a year away); one who really does not want to communicate and would, I sometimes think, prefer to be out of the house altogether, and, oh, don’t get me started on the girl. (Here’s a good German word for you which I hadn’t thought about or used in ages but which fits her perfectly: “schnippisch”.) It’s not all bleak; we certainly have our moments but, in sum, I think this period has been the hardest and most unrewarding stretch of parenting I have done. And I honestly don’t think it has much to do with parenting skills (because, hey, I’m a great parent, too); I do think it’s mostly temperatment and, well, luck.
    [Btw, e-mail notification doesn’t seem to work — I only saw your post because of Waffle’s tweet.]

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 22, 2012 8:48 pm

      Schnippisch! Brilliant. It is, as you say, sheer luck. And he was a hellion for years when young, I promise, which makes this new stage so much more lovely.
      I have no idea how to fix the email notification thing; I do apologize. Am idiot. Re-added signup thingy for email subscriptions, but I don’t know if that helps. So sorry.

  16. May 22, 2012 10:30 pm

    the other night, i was standing in my daughter’s bedroom door to say goodnight. i could hear the little voices behind me, and when i turned around i could see the boys, leaning on the rail of their bed, through the dark. “she’s soooooo beautiful,” said the 6-year-old, “she’s the most beautiful one in the whole world.” “Yes,” replied the 3-year-old. “We should marry her.” my daughter thought they were talking about her. “No,” said the 6-year-old, “we meant mom. But you are so beautiful, too.”

    what a beautiful post. i’m so grateful for my boys, and yours sound top notch. thank you for this.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 23, 2012 9:11 pm

      I love “We should marry her.” How delightful…

  17. May 24, 2012 9:49 am

    I lie in the dark each night with my 9 year old boy, letting him talk and talk. It is my favourite part of the day. The time is too precious to wish away but thank you so much for offering such a positive picture of adolescent boys – lessens the dread somewhat. Great post, made me cry, in a really good way.
    Mya x

  18. May 28, 2012 1:15 pm

    Beautifully put.

    My 3 boys are men now – you’ve made me wish for a few snatched moments of their youngs lives over again. How quickly it all went. Treasure it while you can.

  19. May 29, 2012 3:54 am

    Hello again, I’ve just nominated you for the Inspiring Blog Award – don’t know if you have it already or not, or if you even do this kind of thing or not, but please see it as a sign of appreciation and how much I enjoy reading your blog.

  20. Keren permalink
    June 2, 2012 6:43 am

    Oh, this is timely, reading this now. My six year old boy is a talker, too. He commentates his own life and I have often wished for a end to the ceaseless warbling, for a bit of peace. And today in the car, half an hour into an intricate description of the Lego Ninjago universe, I finally told my boy that I wasn’t really all that interested. In the hurt silence that followed I realised that in wishing for the silence, I’d never stopped to think what that silence would feel like. It felt bloody awful. To not know what is going on inside that precious head of his? I now hope he never shuts up. Stupid plastic ninjas and all.

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