As my 15-year-old son clumsily navigates his way through these treacherous middle zones where childhood and adulthood are smudged out in a smeared blur of identities—most aptly represented by some zany creature in mythology with, say, the body of a frog and a donkey’s head, which is to say utterly perplexing—I often find myself confused and angry and frightfully overjoyed, which is to say utterly perplexed. I mean, seriously. Who the hell is this frog-donkey?
So much of parenting young children mimics the careful maintenance of something you merely care a whole lot about. I don’t mean to completely diminish small children to the status of mere “things” in an absolute way but, let’s face it, they don’t exactly hold up their end of deep fulfilling interpersonal relationships. You just love them like crazy and take care of them. You carry them around, you strap them in car seats, you get them juice when they chime juice! and, generally, make sure they don’t die. But you don’t discuss whether or not Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism invalidates the profundity of his insight with them; you don’t ponder the insidious presence of misogyny in culture and film with them; and you don’t process your complicated feelings of respect and resentment for your boss with them either. You just try to get them to eat something because, for crying out loud, the only reason they’re so cranky is their glucose is crashing. What I’m driving at here is that, consumed by the practical tasks of meeting his needs, I’m afraid that I never got around to conceiving of my son as, like, a real person or something. Who had the time?
But during the last couple years, as he began to develop some higher level rational functioning, engaging in prolonged reflections that evolved into opinions (above and beyond some strong feelings about this or that Pokémon), it has slowly dawned on me that what I was caring for, what I was cultivating with all that concern and grape juice, would one day be a wholly autonomous human being, just like me.
Hold up now. Just like me?
This insight, though it of course carries the potential, on the surface, to fill a parent with chest swelling pride, does not strike me as an intrinsically fantastic thing. For starters, I’m on my way to being out of a job—a job that, in spite of its numerous tragedies of wailing and vomit, fills me with a great sense of purpose. Being a dad, taking care of and protecting a child, is pretty damn cool. And then he grows up a little and suddenly gets it in his head that he’s going to become his own man? I’m calling a foul. Go to your room.
But what really throws me is what the revelation that he is “just like me” reveals. The revelation points to obfuscation. It reveals a necessary concealing. Just like me in relation to my dad, my son—in order to endure and conquer that smeared blur between child and man—must create a shroud of secrecy in which to experience himself as a self as opposed to merely the object of my care. It’s absolutely essential that he defy me and lie to me. And good for him but he better not. My job, it appears, is to be torn in half.
It’s an urgent need, I think, for a lot of parents to, in relation to these ideas, think not my kid, so I’ll just talk about my own blossoming liar. The little guy needs his own world. And, in spite of the fact that I just wrote a sentence—just now! the sentence before this one!—that declared my son’s need for his own world, it’s still my sovereign duty as “the dad” to define and enforce (with his mother) the limits of his world—the boundaries we define as necessary to keep him healthy and whole and free of harm. Do your homework. Don’t drink. Never give out your personal information to strangers on the internet. And the frog body part of him craves that direction and loves it; my God he loves to make us proud.
But I also remember my crazy ass donkey head, too. Don’t you? My dad just doesn’t get it. Who does he think he is? Pshaw. And then? All those supposedly dumb ass thoughts led me to the most delicious realization I’ve ever had before or since: I can do whatever… I… want. From there I was just one step away from Faust’s untrodden, untreadable regions, crossing the line, transgression, on my way to who I would become. And to know that my son is right there, ready to explode into the shelter of himself makes me giddy with terror. I need to keep him warm and safe; he needs to play with fire. And there is room in this perplexity for joy.
Photo by Anders Sandberg
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.