Embracing the (Not-Yet-Fully-Formed) Teenage Brain

by Marty Ross-Dolen

stairsThe other night my son Sam and I were arguing at the dinner table. It started when he asked me if I would stay home and let Dad take him to his driving test alone. My feelings were hurt, which seemed to me understandable, and as I put down my fork I explained to him that this was a milestone in his life that I didn’t want to miss and, as his mother, I wanted to be there to give him a big hug when it was over.

He would have none of it. He retorted angrily that I make him nervous, that I put way too much pressure on him, and that “Dad is the one who really taught [him] how to drive anyway.” I countered, feeling equally irate, pointing out that I had taken him driving almost as much as Dad and had taught him just as many rules of the road. What I didn’t mention, of course, was what he also knew: Regardless of my willingness to get into his passenger seat, I would say a silent prayer before each venture, hoping it would not be my last, and that I would grip both arm rests with sweaty palms while practicing breathing exercises for the whole of the jaunt.

“This isn’t about you, Mom,” Sam pointed out, exasperated and speaking the truth while leaning back in his chair, balancing on the two hind legs in that way that I regularly ask him not to.

* * *

No one ever told me that as a parent I would experience so much loss. Within weeks after his birth Sam grew out of his 3-month-size onesies, and as soon as I was dressing him in 6-month-size clothes, I had lost my lean newborn and gained a pudgy, smiling infant. With the onset of steps and words, I lost the baby and gained a toddler, and with jungle gyms and visits from the tooth fairy, the toddler left my side, and I welcomed a child.

And although it has been years now of mourning the loss of one stage while being introduced to another, I didn’t expect to be quite so blindsided the way I have been by Sam’s adolescence. I imagine this is due in part to his new height—the fact that he grew six inches in less than a year. Once a baby in my arms, born long at 20½ inches, he now towers over me sixteen years later, and I have to gaze upward to make eye contact with him. His voice is deep, his legs are hairy, and when he wants to show me kindness, he engulfs me in his arms or offers to rub my shoulders, his hands big enough to reach from my clavicles in the front to my scapulae in the back and actually work through the tense muscles in between.

I miss the boy that used to sit on my lap, the lightness of who he was, the one who liked to wear the T-shirt with the picture of the tortoise on the front. I miss his lack of knowing, his innocence, his short legs, his bangs, the cowlicks in his hair, the basement floor filled with Legos, his little pairs of underpants, how he couldn’t fall asleep without Lambie (the stuffed animal that I had to restuff, redress, and re-sew, twice). I miss my little boy, and, although I resist the thought every day, I can’t help but feel that he has disappeared.

* * *

So, meanwhile, I’m supposed to parent my teenage son and mourn the loss of my little boy at once. And this isn’t easy, because as much as I adore this new young man that has moved into my house, I only intermittently like him. He snaps at me, throws sneers my way, would rather chat with his friend-who-is-a-girl than let me in. He knows better than I do, almost always, and I watch him as he forges his way through his future, throws the picnic blanket that is his life onto the grass, welcoming the offers of delicacies that he may or may not like, preparing to bring the four corners together at once, hoist the whole over his shoulder, tie it to a stick, and begin his onward trek that is in the opposite direction of me.

But then he will surprise me. We will be sitting on the couch next to one another, and I will be telling him why he has frustrated me (he forgot to take out the garbage again) or why he has scared me (I told him to be home by midnight) or why I worry about his ability to take care of himself one day (a single bag of potato chips for lunch is not a nutritious meal). And I will always remind him that I love him and nothing will change that. Then he leans his heavy body toward mine and wraps me in his long arms and puts his big head in my lap. And we sit there, for a long time, in silence, and I run my fingers through his thick black hair, still fraught with cowlicks. And I think that maybe my little boy isn’t actually gone. Maybe he’s just hidden away.

* * *

My greatest challenge in raising Sam has been guiding him into the person that he is meant to be on his own, rather than the person that I would be if I were him. It would be easy to expect him to play the roles I wish I’d played, follow the rules that I ignored, and turn into a miniature male version of myself, only better, without all the mistakes. But the way that he bucks me, wants me off his back, changes his passwords without my knowing to keep me away, keep me at bay, makes it nearly impossible for me to control his youth the way I feel I am charged to as his mother.

Of course, I know that I am supposed to be letting him go. Intellectually, this makes perfect sense. He has reached an age and the physical ability to make a lot of his own decisions without me. And I do believe that I have managed to instill in him some core values that will keep him kind and caring toward others, mostly honest, and respectful of society. So in some ways I know that I am ahead of the game.

But what if I could have been there, helped him make that decision that he makes, the one that leads to something devastating and irreversible? Perhaps I could have warned him about getting into that car or taking all those drugs at once or not heeding the warning signals when that train was coming. I will explain to the police officer that I tried to tell him, that I offered to stay with him, always, that I promised I would keep him safe. And then I will fall into a heap, a lifeless bag of bones and skin, and I won’t rise up, ever, through all my remaining years. I will spend the rest of my life there, in that place, the place where I will become hollow, the place where I will lose my soul, become a mere skeleton of myself. The place where I was told that my beloved son is dead.

* * *

The opportunities for my mere presence to embarrass Sam over the years have been in great abundance. But never have I felt more publicly unwanted than I do now by my sixteen-year-old son. When he refuses to be seen in town with me, ducking in the car if we pass a friend or insisting on takeout rather than dining in a neighborhood restaurant, I must remind myself of the moments that we have when we’re alone together, brief wisps of time when he might ask me for advice or see if I’ll test him on his flash cards. Times when I’m not the enemy, the rule maker, the embarrassing mother. Times when I can hope to instill yet one more piece of wisdom, beg him to heed one more warning.

And I must remember that this stage, like every other one in its wake, will be gone forever too. That soon I will be losing my sixteen-year-old to a seventeen-year-old, and so on, and so on. Before long we will be celebrating his high school graduation, and then college will likely follow, with maybe more school after that, or a job. Perhaps he will move far away from me, or maybe he will return home, temporarily, before he marries, or doesn’t, or has children, or doesn’t.

* * *

“Please don’t do that to the chair,” I requested, and as Sam settled the two front chair legs back to the floor, I took a bite of my pasta and sat quietly before attempting to explain my reaction. I knew that his request that I not attend his driving test didn’t mean that I was a terrible mother. But I still couldn’t help but feel that the very essence of my role as a parent was at stake.

“Sam,” I said, “I think this conversation would have gone a lot better if you had asked me not to go to your driving test in a different way. Instead, you could have said, ‘Mom, thank you so much for helping me learn how to drive. I just wonder if it would be okay with you if Dad took me to the test alone, because I will feel less nervous that way.’”

Sam put down his fork and looked at me.

“Mom, I’m sorry,” he said slowly, with a continued effort to contain that part of him that wanted to explode. “I’m sorry that my brain is not fully formed yet, and that I am not able to put words together and formulate sentences in the way that you can, given that you have lived thirty years longer than I have.”

With that, a secret, knowing smile formed in my heart.

It’s okay, Sam, I thought. Take your time. There’s no rush.




This piece appeared originally in “Foliate Oak.” Ross-Dolen’s work can also be viewed in an upcoming issue of “Forge.” 

Category: Short Story