With two school-age children, mornings are a pretty tight operation in our house. It can get a little chaotic preparing to get our two boys out the door to school but I am grateful for our morning hustle because it invariably offers unexpected discussions in the car. Our routine for drop-off is simple. First my younger son gets out at his elementary school and then my older son and I spend the bit longer journey to middle school mostly in silence while he usually plays with his phone. I will try to make idle chit-chat with him that, far too often, results in eye rolling but, every now and then, he shares something that is, inexplicably and inevitably, discussion-provoking. With a middle schooler, I get very few opportunities for conversation and, those I do, are almost always dictated by him. He determines how much information he is going to share and when and how he does so. Long gone are the days where I can sit him down with a snack after school and try to pump him for information about his day, his friends, his trials of life. Instead, I sometimes get a stammering opening into a discussion that usually ends with him needing something from me (more often than not, his need involves cash). I cherish those rare moments that he chooses to open up to me and I am very strategic about trying to capitalize on them whenever I can.
That morning chit-chat, with just the two of us, can yield openings to conversations that lend themselves to moments of guidance on subjects that are clearly on my son’s mind. But, with just a few minutes, they are sprints, no deep dives. Whether he is conscious of it or not, he is very calculating about his timing. He has five minutes in the car alone with me and, typically, he waits until we are about 3 blocks from his school before he opens his mouth. Earlier this week, on the first day back at school after our weeklong spring break, at just about the exact same spot as usual, my son opened his mouth and what came out provided assurance that he is genetically connected to me. If I ever had any concerns about him being switched at birth, watching him blossom into a teenager and hearing some of his rumination, confirm that they sent us home with the correct child.
“It’s going to really suck to see all those kids with tans at school today.” The moment he said it, I knew where he was going. I also knew that this had been on his mind for a while now. “I’m really glad we didn’t go away like everyone else. It would suck to have get back to reality today. I hate the end of vacation so I am glad we didn’t go.”
Really? Such intense rationalization at 12 years old?
My poor son. I, being the mother, reminded him that all of his close friends were home during spring break. He then pointed out that it was all the rich kids – the kids from the other side of town – who had gone away.
“That would be so hard. I hate that about vacation. I’d rather not go.” He lamented.
Oh crap, he is not me. He is my mother!
I offered some basic wisdom to him, reminded him that we will, again, go on vacation and that, yes, going away can be very bittersweet because of re-entry but it is all worth it in the end. Oh yeah, and take lots of pictures. They will help you cope with the malaise that falls over you when you are back to your daily grind and cannot remember what it was like to be soaking in the sunshine on the beach or languishing by the pool. The photos will remind you that, in fact, it was not just a wonderful dream. You were there.
After I dropped him at school and tried to push aside all the guilt I often experience during these brief but meaningful discussions, I thought about our little chat. I thought about his patterns of behavior and his need to share these little nuggets with me during our morning routine. I reflected on his growing maturity and witnessing an observable shift to processing disappointment rather than having a temper tantrum (which, quite frankly, is what I want to do most of the time – thank goodness I have my children around to teach me appropriate behavior). He mentioned only about one hundred times how he wished we had gone away for spring break. He complained about how boring it was to stay home, especially when his parents had to work and were taking shifts to entertain him and his brother so they did not spend exactly 11 days in exactly the same indented spots on the sofa playing xbox. I could see his point of view and, while I felt sad that he was wishing for a vacation (aren’t we all?), I appreciated that he was not too burdened by it. But, of course, I wonder what goes on in that mini-adult brain. I wonder what he sees through his lens. He knows that he is not one of the rich kids – and that was the word that stung the most. He feels lacking and I don’t ever want money to be the definition of happiness for either of my children. My husband and I have struggled to shield my children from any financial woes we may have had at any point in time but, now, it is crystal clear that he knows. He knows we are not rich. At least not financially.
Earlier this year, we had a discussion with both of our children about money. We explained that this was going to be a tight year for us all because I am involved in a start-up business and I’m spending a good chunk of the year without a salary. Any money we have is going towards supporting us during the phase. This means no vacations this year. There will be no disposable income for eating out several times a week or for mindless shopping at Target. Every dollar is accounted for and earmarked to help change our lives, hopefully. We have explained all this to the kids and, to the best of their ability, they understand. But, they are young and they also remember wonderful spring break trips and beach vacations. (They, of course, do not remember how miserable they were on some of those trips and how much they tortured us but that is for another day.) We have been very honest with our children, not because we want to burden them with any of our challenges, but to allow them to understand that this is temporary and that we have a bigger plan in mind. We want to teach them about decision-making and hard choices and show them the silver linings that come with that. We never want to deprive them and probably have been over-generous with them to compensate for our own lacking childhoods. Our main goal is that, when it is time for them to leave their childhoods behind, they will feel that they were loved deeply and provided with a solid foundation. They will remember the vacations and they will appreciate, at some point, all of the hard work their parents put in so they could live a pretty nice life but I want them to also understand the struggle. There is no entitlement in life except for the entitlement of self-worth. Everything else comes at a price.
I am watching my son, half a year away from turning 13, begin to process life. I am trying to crawl inside his head to see how he puts the pieces together in his mind. When he says things to me that seem so far beyond his age, so much more wise than I expect my little baby to be, I am startled and overjoyed. I love that my children are growing and maturing. I love that I can have intellectual conversations with them and explore the world with a whole new dimension. And, at the same time, it breaks my heart just a little bit. I realize that, with this maturity, comes a transparency. We can no longer whisper, spell things out or use code words because they know. They get it. They understand what we are talking about. And, with sons, they are not about to let you know they know what you’re saying until they can strategically use it against you. They are not inquisitive about the travails of life. They do not ask for guidance. At least my kids don’t. Not until the road is dark and they cannot find a light to show them the way will they reach out, arms outspread, and say “Mommy, help me.” My son, already an inch taller than me, stands tall and proud and locks it all up inside. Then, every now and again, perhaps because he is slumped down in the car seat and not on the top of his game at the moment, he will exhale and a little gem will come slipping out. Sometimes I get a little periscope to see inside and catch a little glimpse of that maturing mind.
I learn from my children every single day. They show me what it is like to be happy and fulfilled young people. Their lives are not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and I die a little bit inside every time I see another piece of their innocence lost. I struggle with not solving their problems and letting them learn and figure out how to navigate the increasingly challenging waters of life. Yet, they teach me how to love and be loved. They remind me why I get up every day. They fill my heart with love and then have the capability of breaking it, with a sneer, a disapproving glance or the infamous eye roll.
This morning? Not a word. Some groans and a hasty goodbye when it was time for him to get out of the car. But, you know what? I’ll take it.