A low, growling moan stole my attention from the keyboard. “What the heck?” I mumbled, rising to track the noise.
I found my baby, curled, on the sofa in the family room. Still in his pajamas, his freckled face glistened with oil and light sweat. His eyes squeezed shut, as his glasses dangled from one hand thrown over the side. I could smell his 13-year-old perspiration, just as I could smell him with full diapers at 18 months. He’d grown, but some things stayed the same. He was still my baby, the youngest of my three children.
His moaning gripped my heart and I stood over him, staring.
He had lurched into puberty over the last 6 months. In spurts, he had grown from two inches shorter than me, to three inches taller. His weight pushed ahead and his arms and legs were now longer and stronger than my own. His limbs often ached. His mood darkened with testosterone surges that hit him like a 4.5 earthquake. He stared, stunned, at pimples and muscles neither of us thought belonged to him. I could no longer lift him, push him, direct him, change him or move him physically in any manner. If I were to distract him from his moaning, words, tones and well-placed touch would be my best tools.
“Honey,” I whispered. “Are you okay?”
He budged slightly, rolled his eyes through bulging tears and mumbled, “No. No. I am not okay. I am dying.”
I sat slowly, butting him to make space, reaching to rub his near shoulder. “Liam,” I soothed, “you are not dying. You are in puberty and sometimes the hormones congregate and, well, create a real mess, like you are poisoned.” I hoped that sounded sufficiently scientific.
“You are going to get through this,” I added encouragingly.
“No, Mom,” he said gruffly, tears now tumbling from one eye, “no, Mom. You don’t understand. My inner child is dying.”
He was wrong. I did understand. As his inner child faded into sweet memories, my baby grew into a man, a very large man in fact. I understood too well.
Teen time, I’ve learned, rivals toddler time in its demands emotionally and spiritually upon me as a mother. My toddlers all experienced a wide range of frustrations, expressed with an impressive array of biting, yelling, screaming, jumping, throwing, kicking and general wailing without regard for others. I coaxed, distracted, bribed and disciplined them through the challenges of learning to talk and walk and learn the limits of the physical world they longed to conquer.
My teens have proved similarly desperate and needy as they negotiate the frustrations of bodies morphing overnight, emotions they thought only adults suffered and longings to tackle a range of new “firsts.” We have dealt with door slamming and locking, balls and shoes winged across the room and out windows, shouting, hissing and stone silence; hitting, punching and kicking; and refusals to groom, dress and appear on time. (Blessedly, we did not have any repeats of the biting phase.) While my teens’ frustrations exploded in similar expression to younger years, my tools for helping them learn to talk and walk in their growing adult bodies changed considerably. For example, rather than tickling them and singing “Farmer in the Dell”, I learned, instead, to order a large pizza with pepperoni, take them to a matinee movie or ask about a favorite teacher from school.
I have, in total, managed children through 3 toddlerhoods and 2 teen times. Now, I found myself at it again. As my youngest child negotiates puberty, I have learned yet more about the bittersweet similarities between toddlerhood and teendom and my own emotional resistance to letting them grow, letting them go. Acutely, I understand that this time, Liam’s teen time, is my last time as the monitor mother, at least, with my own brood.
Sitting there on the sofa, gently massaging my teen’s muscled shoulder, I recalled my recoil each time my toddlers’s first steps turned into a full run. The excitement of my children going upright inevitably turned acid as I realized, surprised, that another baby had gone mobile and was not a baby anymore. Liam moaned again, stretched out and knocked me off the sofa. This, then, was my baby now – a baby who I urged at age one to “Sit down, Liam,” shamelessly prepared to prolong his baby time, cozy on the floor with me.
But grew he did. I stared down at his young man body, groaning, awkwardly splayed upon a sofa he did not fit. I resisted an urge to suggest that we play with his Hot Wheels or Lego’s. He was growing before my eyes.
“Your inner child, Liam,” I whispered, “does not die. You, my dear, are always my child, but you are always God’s child, too. You know?”
“I know, Mom.” He moaned.
“And it is as a child, God wants us to come to Him, each day, everyday, all of our days. You know?”
“I know, Mom.” He moaned again.
“So, hang on, my son, you are loved.” And then I added, “How about I order some pizza?”