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Through the Lens of Boyhood


Within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of…


When my firstborn was an infant and the days opened like huge blank canvasses, pristine, challenging and monotonous, I sometimes shared advice I knew would become more difficult to deliver far enough in the future to be unfathomable. My infant son’s hands and arms danced in midair, like some exotic meditative exercise and I knew about every bit of saliva that dribbled from his mouth. Not only was independence unfathomable, I couldn’t really envision his ability to roll over or crawl, climb stairs or toddle. “Don’t drink and drive,” I’d tell him. Rather than respond, the unblinking baby boy stared at me. “Use condoms,” I’d counsel, “regardless of whether anyone asks you to do so.” He wriggled in my arms. “No means no,” I’d declare. “These are things you need to understand.”

If I glimpse a photograph of that wee babe, he seems simultaneously completely familiar and almost a stranger. So is the mother who held that tiny boy. Time is strange that way.

My third son is twelve now. His voice has lowered but not yet dropped. He’s moody (actually he’s always been moody; he’s moodier). On the brink of adolescence, I feel his attentions shift, and so I love when we connect and shrug it off when he’s grumpy and try extra hard to blend into the background when he and his pals get silly together so that I can drink in their exuberant, giddy energies. Last night, snuggled under a blanket, we watched Boyhood together. He reserved the right to leave and watch something that interested him more (The Walking Dead). And then, he got sucked right in. We both did.

Beyond the simple but mesmerizing idea that time passes, the film illustrates how our stories happen not just because of time’s march or personality’s existence; so much of who we become occurs in response to what happens to and around us. This family, through the frame of Mason’s boyhood unfolding, faces all sorts of bumps and disappointments and growth, and little bits of joy. We see that love is and isn’t enough and certainly falls short. We see that however much we love our children, to raise them isn’t easy and can be burdensome. We see these things, perhaps, because anyone who has been inside a family appreciates their truths.

For many of us, parenting feels active, a verb, if not a life choice. It consumes us. We harbor a hope that if we do things correctly—best diapers or food, careful words, the key classes and just enough benign neglect—we can ace parenthood and ensure our children’s happiness and success. That’s a myth, of course.

Regardless of circumstance, whether we’re too young or too old or too much in need of an education or a steadier source of income, life happens to us while we’re parents. We lose parents or our relationships fall apart. We fall in love again and even if the new loves work for us, the same may not be as true for our children. A job takes too much effort and we can’t focus upon our kids or we don’t have a job that’s absorbing and we focus too much upon our kids. Insert your story here.

We can do many things, but control our lives isn’t one of them. The thing Boyhood illustrates as much as anything else is that within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of—and so we can continue beyond the years of boyhood or girlhood or intensive parenthood—to search out what and who to love, and how to love. That’s what I couldn’t have begun to envision when I kissed the smoothest cheeks I’d ever put my lips to: the sincere sweetness of goodhearted failure. Even though we’re much more worn, every single one of us, rather than feel sad to know this, I’m grateful. If it’s possible, I feel more tenderly toward my children, my spouse and myself now than I did back then.



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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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