By Allison Slater Tate
Though I think I have blocked most of middle school out of my consciousness in the interest of self preservation, I do still possess a few vivid memories 28 years later. Among the best: the night of one of our few middle school dances that fulfilled every excruciating promise of its kind, including boys on one side of the darkened, slightly gym and girls on the other, punch bowls and bad snacks, bored chaperones, and a distinct lack of actual dancing.
My neighbor’s dad brought us home, and I remember bursting into my bedroom, still decorated in the yellow gingham wallpaper of my childhood nursery, and throwing myself on my white wicker canopy bed, my cheeks flushed from the night’s excitement. My room was tiny, but I didn’t know it. My lavender, art deco style boom box sat on my dresser, and I turned on the radio and listened rapturously to the same songs that I had just heard at the dance: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Starship’s “Sara.” I was buzzing on a cocktail of hormones, friends, and the possibility of romance (Romance would not actually arrive in any real shape or form for another three years). I was a first child with no one to model, the owner of a mouth full of braces, a chest I didn’t know what to do with, and zits that befuddled me. I still carried the baby fat of adolescence.
There was nothing about me that wasn’t awkward. And still, I felt broken wide open, like anything was possible. Thirteen is not the easiest age, but it has its own magic.
I’ve lost the braces, but I still have a chest I never quite mastered, baby fat of a different nature, and, most maddeningly, the zits have returned, full force. I’m 41, and now my oldest child is 13. I never imagined when I was 13 that I would still be growing up, and yet, here I am, growing up alongside my child, both of us learning how to deal with chin hair at the same time.
From the day he was born, I have been anticipating this time: he’s coming into his own, growing into a body that has always seemed to fit him like his father’s shirts, filling out both physically and emotionally. He has opinions and a sense of humor and when he speaks, he makes cultural and literary allusions sometimes that make my heart leap out of my chest because I realize how much he is aware of now, how much he is in the world. He’s filling out his high school registration papers. He has middle school dances of his own.
He and I have our own awkward dance going on between us, too, because, frankly, I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. I have never parented a teenager before, and he has never been a teenager before. If there is anything I have learned in the past almost 14 years, it’s that every single child is different, so there’s really no book or set of instructions I can pore over and study and learn that will tell me exactly how to navigate his last four years at home. I have to wing it, and that feels a little like being 13 myself: broken wide open, like anything is possible.
That feels a little more terrifying from this vantage point.
So I worry about how much time he spends alone in his room, even though I know I did the same, because I miss him. I leave new books on the staircase where he might stumble over them, resigned to the knowledge that anything I recommend outright will be dismissed summarily. I yell up to him in the mornings to wake him up a minimum of three times, my tone and my threats growing fiercer each time, then seethe when he casually shuffles into the kitchen 15 minutes before we have to leave for school and settles in for a leisurely breakfast. I nag, he shrugs. I cajole, he demurs. Push, pull, back and forth, as we each struggle to lead and not to step on each other’s toes.
Sometimes we are really in sync, and I hate to even acknowledge it, because I’m afraid I will puncture some hole in the bubble and it will all crash to earth: he wants to spend time with us, or he tells me about his day at school in more than one sentence, or he texts me about a triumph over a particularly gnarly biology test. After volleyball practice, he and I swing through a local drive-thru and we talk about music or books or what he is analyzing in English class. I tried not to grin too hard when he recently mused, “I tend to like ’80s music the best. After all, it’s what I grew up on.” My work is done here, I thought with a mental fist pump.
Other times, we stumble and fall, and this is where the hardest work is: learning when to let him struggle and when to offer my hand if he needs a lift, encouraging him to stretch and grow even when it is painful. Recently, he pulled a stunt involving his schoolwork that I pulled when I was his age. Because I had done it myself, I called him out immediately. He was busted, full stop. The question was what consequences to give him.
In general, I have been pretty lucky so far. My teenager is most definitely a teenager, but he is mostly responsible, mostly reasonable, mostly a kid who doesn’t make me worry too much…yet. But the problem is, I know to sustain that, I have to draw boundaries; I have to be a parent when the situation calls for it. That day, I struck a compromise. I let him know how angry I was, and that there would be very real consequences for his actions. I let him know that if it happened again, the consequences would be much bigger. I wasn’t easy on him, but I wasn’t quite as hard as I could have been. I didn’t exactly give him the gift of failure, but I gave him the gift of one strike.
The worst part of that day was having to discipline a kid that has only made one B in middle school, a kid that is excited about joining the Debate Team in high school and tells me he “doesn’t need the drama” of a middle school romance. He never complains about volleyball practice, he comes and kisses my head every night at bedtime on his own accord, and he fiercely loves his baby sister. He’s a good kid. Don’t make me do this, I wanted to plead to him. Don’t make me come down hard on you. Because I knew that I had to, but I didn’t want to. I know we’re both learning, both figuring this out, and as much as I want to give him room, I want to make sure he knows I am not a fool or a pushover; I’m paying attention.
But this is the dance now. When they were babies, it was a waltz: there was a rhythm, a cadence to our days, so that even when the unpredictable happened, it happened within a pattern. But now, we’re two-stepping, quick-quick-slow-slow, turns as fast as we can take them. I’m trying to keep up, trying not to step out of turn, trying to keep him with me – my cheeks flushed, my adrenaline pumping, broken open, because that is the only way to do this.
Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and the mother of four children in Central Florida. She is a Contributing Blogger for Brain, Child, and she also regularly writes for the websites of both the TODAY SHOW and NBC News covering parenting and college stories. Her writing also appears at the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, The Mid, the Huffington Post, and the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/astwriter) or at her eponymous website, http://www.allisonslatertate.com.