By Susanne Paola Antonetta
When our teenagers seesaw between adult and child.
My son is calling us from his upstairs bedroom, his newly deep voice urgent: Mom! Mom! Dad Dad Dad! My husband sprints up the stairs, me just behind. We zigzag around the slalom course that is a seventeen-year-old’s room—the Little Caesar’s box a friend toted in last night, glasses half full of juice, hoodies strewn across the floor. Normally we are less than welcome here, in our boy’s sanctum sanctorum. But now he needs us, and just as if he were a toddler again, he simply screams until we appear, roused and ready to fix whatever ails him.
“Hornets!” he screams. And there are hornets, three or four of them, buzzing sullenly.
Jin as a child had a desperate allergy to hornet and yellow jacket stings. He wound up in the hospital in full anaphylactic shock after his first bite from a yellow jacket, and the allergist we took him to after his hospital release warned us even EpiPens might not be able to save Jin were he stung again. He had a long slog of desensitization treatments, several shots of weakened venom every week, then every month, with the amount of venom per shot ramped up until finally, after years, he could receive the equivalent of many stings at a time with no reaction.
Jin is no longer allergic to any insects, in other words, but the sight of hornets in his bedroom set off the old panic. My husband ran for the fly swatter and dispatched the bugs into whatever afterlife hornets swarm off to, then we were both politely but firmly ushered out of the sanctum.
A day after the hornet incident, my husband and I stood in the kitchen discussing an upcoming trip to visit family in Georgia when Jin came slouching in, looking for snacks and full of attitude.
“I’m not going!” he announced about the trip. “I don’t want to give up any of my summer.”
“Of course you’re going,” Bruce said. “We have plane reservations and you have to see your family and anyway, you can’t stay home alone for two weeks.”
“Can’t stay home?” Jin glared at us both. “Dad, I’m seventeen. I’m an adult now. I don’t need you guys here.”
My husband and I looked at each other, the same thought flashing through our minds: until a hornet flies into your room. We didn’t say it.
There are things we know to expect, going into the adolescent years, about teenagers. We’ve heard about the teenage brain: undeveloped, lacking the frontal lobe growth that gives what’s called in brain science executive function, meaning the ability to use impulse control, moderate yourself, think ahead. We expect teens to be messy and impulsive, to argue and demand their independence, sometimes sneaking more of it than we’re willing to trust them with.
I think the shock in raising a teenager can be how quickly they turn into children again. Something frustrates them and they bellow, shorn of any coping skill other than shrieking your name. Then the problem’s solved and they go back to being teenagers, as if the former state hadn’t even happened. It gives me maternal whiplash. The young adult looms over you—mine, at six feet, happens to loom far above me—and all of a sudden the child’s face looks out, eyes wide and helpless. He’s lost his favorite pair of skinny jeans, or he can’t quite remember what button starts the microwave. He can’t find the computer file for the English paper he spent hours writing. He screams for your help because that’s what he’s always done. Then, jeans, found, microwave whirring, paper located, the teenager steps up again, quite certain he can negotiate the world without your help.
It can be sweet to see that childlike need for us again. I imagine there will always be those moments, even when Jin truly is an adult, when he will dissolve before my eyes into my baby again, looking for something that’s ageless and primal and ultimately comforting from me, his mother. I have never, since Jin hit adolescence, been able to hear a war story about soldiers crying for their mothers as they died in trenches or on Civil War battlefields—that story you so often hear with war—without crying myself.
It’s the turnaround that makes my head spin: the moment after you pick hornet corpses from all the other detritus on the bedroom floor and get summarily dismissed, the casual assurance: how could we possibly think, were we to leave him alone for two weeks, that he might need us?
What do we parents do with him, this remnant of the child? Sometimes, when he weeps, as my son still does occasionally—over a friend’s betrayal or a girl who doesn’t like him, or not enough—we hold him for as long as he will let us. We try to be the parent he, at that moment, needs. Maybe we hope this look at that remnant child will not be our last glimpse of him, that somehow the role as mother will be, from time to time, this comforting, this pure. And we hope against all the world teaches us that when he cries out to us from his deepest heart, we will always be able to answer. But for now, sometimes we just kill his hornets and beat our retreat.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, a memoir and study of adoption, was published by W.W. Norton. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, a Pushcart prize, and others.