My fifteen-year-old son and I are sitting in the car in our driveway. I’ve asked him about his grades, and tripped a live wire.
Simon, the child who has never had to work to succeed, is struggling mightily this year. A high school sophomore, he’s juggling a load of advanced academic classes and a busy extracurricular schedule, and those spinning plates have begun to crash all around him. Suddenly, the child who once finished his homework in school can’t even begin it at home because he didn’t understand the lesson. He is frustrated and embarrassed. He doesn’t ask for help, thinking he’ll catch up, and falls further and further behind.
Other parts of his life are changing, too. When his grades matched his potential, I enthusiastically supported his full social schedule. He enjoyed very loosely regulated use of his phone and other electronics. As I watched his grades decline, I began to say no to his requests to hang with his friends after school. We lowered his screen time limits, and cut off his phone’s cellular data.
This near-police state is uncomfortable for everyone, and long, angry conversations like the one we’re locked in now have become our new normal.
“Why can’t you accept that this is just who I am now? Maybe I’m not supposed to get good grades anymore! Maybe I’ve reached the point where this is just too hard for me.”
I’m quiet, and he continues.
“This is the best that I can do, and it’s not good enough. I hate coming home. This is all we talk about. Why can’t we just stop talking about it? I wish I could go to sleep and have it be next year.”
He’s not wrong. We do talk about his grades often, and I’m tired of it, too. Unlike when he was four, he doesn’t spend all his time trailing me around the house. We don’t exchange ten thousand words in a day. I can’t work this topic in between long discussions about Pokemon and Star Wars. I seize any opportunity I have with him alone to check in on his progress. I don’t like the dynamic it creates either, but I’m stuck.
“Dad doesn’t talk to me about this stuff. Dad trusts me to manage it.”
Simon rarely plays his father and me against each other, but as our eldest, he has the most experience plucking those strings, and the blow initially lands just as he intends. I can feel the blood start to flood my face.
I am already responding in my head. Of course Dad doesn’t talk to you about this stuff. Dad doesn’t check grades. Even when Dad and I were married, years ago, schoolwork was my domain. This isn’t about trusting you, kid; it’s about Dad delegating to me. Don’t flatter yourself. Don’t imply that this is about one parent doing their job better than the other.
I steady my focus on the topic at hand.
“This isn’t about trust. I trust you. I also think you need help. Your grades matter in ways that are hard to see in the near term. What is your plan to improve? How can I help?”
He doesn’t hear me.
“Do you know how much I hate that you and Dad talk about this? That you work to have the same consequence? I wish you’d run your house and he’d run his. I can’t get away from this pressure anywhere. I hate coming home to both houses. Too much noise. Too many people. It’s crazy.”
He’s frustrated and upset and rapidly contradicting himself. I take a minute to notice and celebrate the coparenting consistency win that is annoying him, and tune back in as he continues.
He rages on about the effect of our divorce on him and how uncomfortable he is with his stepparents. This is new information to me, as Simon has historically been the most open and accepting of his stepfamily members. Outwardly, he is the most healed from the divorce, nearly a third of his lifetime ago. The anger and sadness continue to boil over, each voiced hurt overtaking the last, like waves tumbling onto the sand.
I stay quiet. I am working hard not to let this trigger my own stuff. He needs a calm adult present, not a mom overwhelmed by her own guilt and grief. I am breathing deeply, concentrating on dropping the tension out of my shoulders and keeping my hand on top of his. Sidestepping my own triggers is tough requires nearly my full concentration.
“…in a do over, you’d choose Gabe.”
I stop him, even though I’ve only heard the last snippet of that hurled accusation.
“No,” I tell him. “I wouldn’t.”
He’s crying now. Red-faced and angry, he shakes his head.
“I wouldn’t,” I repeat. “You and your brother and sister are three of the people I love most in the world. Your father contributed half of each of you. If I were granted a do-over, and chose Gabe, I’d miss out on three of the greatest gifts of my life. I’d miss the start of our family, and your dad was my partner in that. The story of our family is a happy one. It is an incredibly important chapter in my life. My marriage to your father ended because it didn’t serve us anymore, and we wanted different things in our future. I wouldn’t change anything about my past. It brought us here, to exactly where we are supposed to be.”
He doesn’t look at me. His head is dropped, shoulders slumped. He’s tired from a long day and exhausted by this late-night swirl of emotions. Suddenly I see my little boy in his rumpled six-foot frame and I remember how to be his mama.
“‘We’re where we’re supposed to be, Love,” I continue softly. “All of us. You are supposed to be struggling with grades and school and balance and girls and friends and your parents. That’s what teenagers do. When I was fifteen, I wasn’t a fan of time at home with my family either. My parents weren’t divorced, but I carried different baggage.”
“Sorting out your baggage, figuring out how you carry it and how it shapes you is the work of becoming an adult. Figuring out what to do when things break down is more of that work. Asking for help. Trying something new. All of that is the work of growing up, and it is supposed to feel scary and overwhelming and uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard.”
I don’t tell him how scary and overwhelming and uncomfortable adult work still is. How much I worry about the impact of decisions I’ve made and the words I say. How just when I think I have it figured out, everything shifts, and I have to start again. How hard it sometimes is to push through the story I’m telling myself and show up for the people that matter most. How years later, I am still learning about the baggage I carry. I don’t tell him the truth I’m only just learning: growing up never really ends.
“You’re doing your job as a teenager. I am doing my job as your mom. We’ll find our way through together.”
I ruffle his too-long hair and get out of the car. The hour in the driveway is enough for the night.
He grabs his backpack and starts in to the house. “I love you, Mom,” he says quietly.
I gather his gangly, suddenly grown-up body into an awkward hug. None of him fits where he used to, and he hunches down to put his head on my shoulder. This once-familiar act is uncomfortable for both of us, an achingly obvious metaphor for our interactions of late.
“I love you too, Sweetheart,” and I hold onto him anyway.