This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Meagan
Yesterday, my 17-year-old son William and I got in a bit of a tug-o-war. In the end, we both won…and we both lost. Here’s the story.
First, you have to understand a little more about my darling, giant 6’4″ man-child, Will.
On the podcast, we call him “good ol’ reliable William” – because most of the time, he is. From infancy, he was calm and quiet, with a predictable and lavish sleep schedule (the first and only baby I ever worried may be sleeping “too much”.) His moods were mostly mellow and from a very young age, he seemed able to control and direct his emotions.
As a teenager, he’s scored brownie points with me for his willingness to chip in, do what he’s asked, and rise to meet expectations. With Will, I rarely have to ask twice.
Of course, all good things have negative sides, and with Will, alongside great reliability has come high expectations. For years there has been a sort of sense of tit-for-tat, an unspoken “if I scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine….right?” on his part. Occasionally I have gotten the feeling that Will believes that if he just toes the line and does what he’s asked, he’ll be rewarded with ultimate freedom plus nearly unlimited chauffeuring privileges. Considering he’s by far my most active kid, socially and otherwise, the amount of stuff this kid expects to be allowed to do – and driven to, no less – is a heavy load even during a pandemic. And often, I push back – sometimes directly, sometimes a bit more, uh, passive-aggressively.
Yesterday was just such an example. I’d planned to go sledding with the kids and assumed that Will would be on board. Alas, he was not. With the semester wrapping up and a few things left to turn in, plus practicing parallel parking for his upcoming driver’s test and getting in a conditioning workout for swim, Will didn’t want to add another two or three hours to his packed Sunday afternoon schedule for a family outing. I felt the loss, as I knew he’d have fun if he went, and that we’d all have more fun if he was there, and anyway, shouldn’t he WANT to spend time with us?
In my defense, Will does ask a lot, and his desire for autonomy doesn’t always line up with his age or leave a lot of room for family time.
In his defense, I’d signed him up for an activity he wasn’t thrilled about during prime weekend hours, without asking him first…and then I expected him to be excited about it.
I sat on Will’s bed, as I often do when we talk, and we hammered it out from all sides, civil words dripping with tension. At one point, he may have angered me by suggesting that he should get to control his entire calendar. At another point, I may have laid on a subtle guilt trip and thrown the word “entitled” around a few too many times.
Will finally stood up and opened his bedroom door.
“Am I being shown the door?!” I exclaimed.
Will raised his eyebrows, and I took the hint.
I huffed my way down the hall to my room, wondering what my much more authoritarian parents would have said if I had attempted to kick them out of my bedroom, but by the time I reached the hallway I was already laughing at myself.
As toddlers and preschoolers, how many times had each of my children figuratively “shown me the door”?
Of course, when they were little, that sentiment may have included a head butt, a thrown toy, a defiant “NO!”, or a full-on tantrum. Will’s composed gesture – a polite, but very clear, “it’s time for you to go, Mom” – both stung and made total sense: he needed a break so he could manage his emotions and absorb some of the requests I’d made of him, and I needed a break to wrap my head around our changing relationship and the fact that somehow, my baby – another one, how does this keep happening?? – is standing right on the edge of adulthood.
Later that night, after the sledding outing sans Will, I went into his room to say goodnight. We’d both softened by this point, and we laid on his bed facing each other, hammering out a compromise: we’d set aside specific family time each week, during which time he wouldn’t schedule anything else. And if I set something up during another time that wasn’t our pre-scheduled window, I wouldn’t just assume he could make it – though he’d try hard to if he could.
I left his room both encouraged and kind of sad. I’d won…but I’d lost, too. Our relationship – always my biggest priority – was intact. But it felt like a turning point of sorts.
For years, your kids are your tag-alongs, always willing or at least obligated to accompany you on any task or outing – if you want them to. Sometimes you don’t, and they protest, but really, in those younger years – even with as overwhelming and exhausting as it can be – the parents hold most of the power.
Over time, that power balance shifts. It’s supposed to. It has to. For parents, it’s the natural order of things. For kids, it’s the exciting path to adulthood. But I think it hurts for all of us. We all lose, even as we’re all winning.
The thing is, there’s no getting around that tension and it starts happening at birth. Every weaning baby, every I-do-it-my-SELF toddler standoff, every preschool power struggle…it’s all leading you to what your child is supposed to eventually be: an adult.
Will and I are trying to navigate a transition that has happened billions upon billions of times, but for us, it’s happening for the very first time. William doesn’t know how to be a 17-year-old boy any more than I know how to parent this specific 17-year-old boy. We are a brand-new, unique mom-and-burgeoning-adult-child duo, trying to figure it out as we go, and hopefully giving each other as much grace as can be expected along the way.
If you’re still in the infant or toddler or preschooler phase, I hope you can take heart from two thoughts: first, none of this is as impossible as it seems. It happens gradually, and the same mantra I recited to myself when my three-year-olds were being jerks or my eight-year-olds refused to hold my hand – don’t take this personally, mama – is still repeating on a loop in my head.
Second, I have never regretted my insistence on looking at the big picture and always, always putting the relationship first – whether that means offering “tough love” or choosing to let something go. That “relationship first” stance has never failed me in 23 years, no matter how many times it means doing something I know will make a kid or two angry at me…or how many times I’ve had to apologize when my anger or frustration has taken me to dark places.
It’s always bugged me when motherhood is referred to as a “job.” This is so much more than a job, friend, though it’s also the hardest work you’ll ever do. In no paid job does an employee handbook change from day to day with no warning. In no career will you care so much about the wellbeing of the people you work alongside even as they drive you up the wall. In no 9-5 will you learn so much, yet every day be more aware of just how little you know.
It’s humbling, life-changing, and yes, hard. It’s a lifetime of winning and losing. Today your 2-year-old is insisting on picking out her own clothes, so you’ll take a deep breath and let her wear the Elsa dress. Again. Tomorrow, your 17-year-old may show you the door, and you’ll eat crow because it turns out you may have misstepped and, turns out, you aren’t always right. You’ll compromise later, just like you’re learning to do right now.
Keep your eyes on the horizon. As long as you’re willing to be humble, loving, and strong, all at the same time – and keep trying over and over in the hopes you sometimes get it right – you’re exactly where you need to be.