By Jessica Lahey
Fifteen is protective of his space and his autonomy, but Fifteen loves me. Of that I am certain.
Fifteen isn’t easily impressed. The details of my teaching and writing, his father’s doctoring, his little brother’s imaginary battles for world dominance—these things rate a nod, maybe a raised eyebrow, but no more. To offer more might be interpreted as enthusiasm, and Fifteen doesn’t do emotional histrionics.
Fifteen has long been inscrutable, but he hasn’t always been an enigma. When he was little, he offered up his feelings on everything, particularly his love for me. He hugged, and cooed, and settled into my arms without reservation or reluctance. His love was available on demand, and I got a little too used to that abundance of adoration. Fifteen doesn’t do adoration anymore, but he does do opinions. He specializes in them, actually, and as he’s come of age with a cell phone in his hand, Fifteen’s lifelong verbal reticence has been supplanted by the convenience and emotional remove of the text. Texting allows Fifteen to voice his feelings and opinions everywhere, all the time, a sarcastic Greek chorus of one.
When a recent marital debate took a nasty turn into discord, my pocket began to vibrate. I suspected some sort of alert, a flood warning or approaching electrical storm, but no, it was just Fifteen, texting colorful commentary on our respective arguments from the next room:
BEN: You just crashed pretty hard
BEN: You’re spiraling
BEN: This is going well
BEN: Nice recovery
When the fight is over and peace re-stored, Fifteen rolls his eyes at our displays of affection and tolerates our need for hugs, but we are to understand that he does not, and will not, initiate that sort of sappy nonsense.
Where there was once abundance in his affections, we are now on meager rations, served up dry, with a dash of wit and superiority. And like any great chef, he metes it out in tasting portions, just enough to delight, never enough to fully satisfy.
ME: Everything go ok? Need anything?
BEN: No, I’ve started doing heroin
ME: Need clean needles?
BEN: No I’m sharing
ME: I love you, I miss you
BEN: It’s been 3 hours
When discourse sneaks over the line from affectionate into mushy during three-way text conversations, Fifteen offers subtle cues that he’s maxed out, and would like to be excused, thank you very much. He spends much of his day in his teen lair, a bedroom marked by the chaos of unfolded laundry and scattered guitar picks.
Fifteen emerges for food and hydration in regular intervals, but he can also be lured out of there by the aroma of his favorite meals. I am shameless in my use of these meals; I use them to express my love and foster conversation. The dinner table is still home to our favorite discussions, our dinnertime discussion of “High/Low/Funny,” in which we account for the best, worst, and most entertaining moments in our day.
Fifteen is protective of his space and his autonomy, but Fifteen loves me. Of that I am certain. His displays may be rare, but they are all around me, all the time. I feel it when he’s playing guitar in the kitchen, and switches from his favorite song to one he knows I adore. I hear it when he talks about his English class, and the unexpected realization that he, too, likes poetry. I hear it when he asks me about my work, my day, my worries.
And then, when I’m most hungry for it, he lets me see it as well, offering up an abundant feast right before my eyes.
BEN: I love you too.
Author’s Note: In the months since I wrote this piece, Fifteen has turned sixteen, and our relationship continues to change and grow. I like to think of adolescence as a very long pendulum in which our children swing away from us for a while as they gain confidence in their own autonomy, but I think my adolescent has recently started his return trajectory. As time passes, I’m seeing more and more evidence of his love. I figure if I’m lucky, and patient, we’ll settle into a much closer orbit.
Jessica Lahey writes the bi-weekly “Parent-Teacher Conference” advice column for the New York Times. Her forthcoming book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, will be published by HarperCollins in August.
Photo: Catherine Newman