By Allison Slater Tate
Twelve is a bridge between childhood and the land of teenagers, a place of juxtaposition and paradox.
It’s the legs that really kill me.
At twelve, my oldest son’s face is still his face. Though his baby cheeks have hollowed and he now stands at my height, pointedly meeting my gaze when we argue, his eyes betray him every time: they still give me the face of the same baby I held in my arms twelve years ago, when I wondered for the first full year of his life if they would really stay blue. They did.
But not much else has remained the same about that baby from so long ago (and yet yesterday?) now, especially his legs. His stocky toddler thighs, the ones that curled into my body so easily when we still napped together daily, are gone. They have grown, beanstalk-style, until I find myself staring at them sometimes in bewilderment. They are not the legs of a child. These are the legs of a young man: long and lanky, increasingly furry, stretching out in front of him, capped by knobby knees I associate with baby horses or giraffes. I can’t believe those are the legs of my first baby.
Each age possesses its own magic, but twelve seems to shine a little more brightly than most to me. Twelve is a bridge between childhood and the land of teenagers, a place of juxtaposition and paradox. He still kind of wants to trick-or-treat, but he doesn’t necessarily want to dress up in a costume. He peruses the Lego catalog, but he doesn’t find anything he wants to buy with the same sense of urgency and enthusiasm he had even last year. He’s not interested in the pumpkin patch, but he likes to help get the decorations out of the attic. He doesn’t want to know the lyrics to “Let It Go,” but he does… along with the words to “All About That Bass.”
Twelve is both breaking my heart and healing it. After a colicky babyhood and a stubborn, incredibly willful toddlerhood, this child has blossomed into a full grown person, someone who reads faster than I do, who has hopes and dreams and goals of his own, who enjoys electrical engineering and marine biology and makes his own literary allusions that delight me when I catch them. He is a promise fulfilled: everything I ever hoped for, better than I ever imagined, a dream in flesh and Gap button-downs. He surprises me, sometimes, with unexpected kindness. Though everything is mortifying to Twelve, he somehow doesn’t mind telling me he loves me in public. He’ll still hold my hand. I could not have called this when he was 3 and 4 years old and a holy terror, but I am relieved and, yes, a little shocked that he has actually turned out to be pretty reasonable and cooperative most of the time.
But he can also sometimes be thoroughly exasperating. He can be irresponsible. Arrogant. Careless. He still does not understand consequences; he still doesn’t fear the world, for better or worse. He’s the same child who once jumped into the deep end of the pool before he could swim, who had to be rescued by a lifeguard at the beach because he did not believe a riptide could be stronger than he was, who ran into a tree trying to catch a frisbee because he didn’t look ahead. He believes, quite confidently, that he is smarter than we are. He scares me, because he is, more than ever, my heart walking around outside my body… only now, that heart walks on those long legs, with wizened eyes but without any life experience yet to inform his choices.
Twelve is PG-13 movies, absolutely mandatory deodorant, science fair projects, ear buds. Twelve wears ironic T-shirts (“The Periodic Table of Minecraft”) and shorts he outgrows almost before we can pull the tags off of them, sneakers larger than my own that wait to trip me on my way to the kitchen, socks I cannot keep white. Twelve is one-syllable answers and the occasional gift of a precocious turn of phrase, baby talk for his little sister and “‘Sup?” for his friends. It’s a lone pimple marring an otherwise still smooth and flawless face and long, careful fingers that belie the man he is becoming all too quickly.
Twelve is, for us, seventh grade. It is in all ways the middle: of middle school, of puberty, of “growing up.” I can see now the heartache that will come, slowly but surely. I don’t know all his friends, and I don’t know if he likes anyone in particular yet, but I know he will, and it won’t always end well. Similarly, I know other disappointments and other kinds of heartbreak are lying in wait, just out of sight. And there’s nothing at all I can do about it but love him and encourage him and hope that when the inevitable happens, he brushes himself off and keeps on the path that is right for him, probably while I hold my breath as close by as he will allow.
In many ways, I feel like I might be stepping gingerly into the hardest part of parenting: the actively letting go, the small glimpses of independence and shows of faith that will soon lead to driver’s licenses and Saturday nights out and college applications and internships and summers abroad and goodbyes that aren’t temporary. It’s not easy to manage the care and keeping of little people; the physical and emotional components of parenting are overwhelming when our children are young. But as thrilling as it is – and it is thrilling – to see my child grow up, healthy and ready to take on the world, my heart is heavy with the knowledge that being a good parent to him now is increasingly harder stuff than diaper changes or first grade homework. Bubble wrapping him would be easier, but it would be wrong.
Luckily, when I need a hug, he gives me one willingly. His arms now wrap all the way around me, his cheek next to mine, his feet on the ground. I hope those crazy legs of his hold him steady and strong when he walks away from me someday. I know now that it is my job to make sure they do.
Author’s Note: Adolescence was a period of my life that was both turbulent and rich in all kinds of ways: it was horrible, magical, challenging, and at times, unexpectedly wonderful all at the same time. Now, as I begin the chapter of parenting an adolescent, I am both intrigued and terrified. I wanted to initiate this series because I find having a “tween” almost like being a newborn parent again; it’s mystifying and isolating and I never know what is a “just a phase” or where the end of any given tunnel will be. My hope is that this series can highlight the edges of these ages – the round and smooth and the jagged and sharp – so we can celebrate them and face them together.
Allison Slater Tate’s writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. Find her at AllisonSlaterTate.com