Thirteen

As of 5:22 this morning, I am the parent of a teenager.

That went fast.

I keep a set of pictures in my wallet. They’re of my children. One wallet-sized picture of each of them from every school year. I’m not even really sure when or why I started keeping them like that. No one seems too interested in school pictures anymore. I casually asked Henry if he wanted a set of this year’s photos to trade with his friends and by his absolutely bewildered reaction, I’m assuming students no longer do this. Just another industry killed by millennials or Facebook, I’m guessing they’ll say. But, on a moment’s notice, I can make the march of time tangible by pulling out the thin stack of photographs from my wallet, laying them all in a row, and marveling at how my kids have changed through the years.

I can see how my bespectacled kindergartner has become a bespectacled middle schooler. How he still, begrudgingly, after all of these years, agrees to wear the one collared shirt he owns on picture day. How he looks the same and yet so very different. How I think I can get a glimpse of what he’ll look like when another eight years pass. How I sometimes feel like I only know him in the present and have completely forgotten how he was in the past.

At thirteen, Henry has become a kind, interesting, funny, sporty, and (somewhat consistently) respectful adolescent.

I’ve found myself over the past several months asking other moms who have parented teenagers what the journey is like. I’m afraid I ask questions of them like I would the big cats caretaker at the zoo – a mix of earnest curiosity and inherit fear. The answers I receive are frequently mixed. For every, “It’s not so bad,” there’s a, “No comment.” One parent will speak fondly of the time while another just looks off into the distance, a little battle-weary. I’m always left with the impression that the teenage years are something to survive rather than relish.

And, we have many, many years of survival ahead of us. During a particularly challenging parenting moment a few weeks ago, when the dust from the frustration and the anger was settling all around us, I looked at Bob and said, “We have a full DECADE of parenting teenagers ahead of us. We didn’t really think this through when we decided to have three of them, did we?”

It’s strange to be beginning this journey. It makes me feel old in a way that turning forty never did. I’m old enough to have a teenager! I still remember being a teenager. It all feels like the start of something but also the end of something. Fun and exciting but also destined for frustration and heartbreak. But, that could describe every stage of parenting.

I suppose teenagers are just a different kind of difficult.

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In A (Mini) Van Down By The River

Remember that one time? When I mentioned that my kids weren’t interested in extracurricular activities? Well, they changed their minds. All of my kids. Changed their minds. All at the same time. My kids are doing all of the activities now. There are no activities left because my kids are doing them all.

Henry recently decided that Sports is his thing. It wasn’t for a long time. Now, it is. Doesn’t really matter which kind. He will gamely try them all – in a row. This past fall, sensing our reluctance to let him play tackle football, he asked if he could join a flag football league organized through the city’s rec department. We agreed that it was a good way for him to try the sport while not risking a traumatic head injury so we signed him up. The teams were well organized, the coach was super nice, and Henry really seemed to enjoy himself. I liked seeing him participate and try new things.

That’s how we added flag football to the schedule.

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When flag football wrapped up, I was looking forward to a long winter of sitting on my sofa in front of the fire not having to drive anyone anywhere. Then, Henry asked if he could try basketball. I explained that I felt like we had already sported so much and basketball overlapped a little with flag football and are you SURE you’re up for that commitment and it gets dark at, like, 4:30 in the afternoon now and there are so many good things on Netflix have you seen all of the good things on Netflix and even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I could see my future and it did not involve my sofa.

That’s how we added basketball to the flag football.

Charlie wanted to participate in flag football this past fall because Henry wanted to participate in flag football this past fall. Why not, we thought. In for a penny, in for a pound! Charlie doesn’t share Henry’s passion for the more technical aspects of the game though and was mostly in it for the shenanigans. Namely, chasing the other players around on the field without grabbing anyone’s flag. Which, as Charlie’s coach was apt to point out, WAS NOT THE POINT OF THE GAME, CHARLIE.

Shortly after Charlie’s stint as troublemaking team member began, it became clear that sports was maybe not the right match for his skill set. Around that same time, Charlie found out that a bunch of his buddies were in Cub Scouts. Much like tackle football, we had some reservations. But, since Charlie basically spends all of his free time each weekend hiking, fishing, hunting, and carving those statues of bears out of tree trunks with a chainsaw in the garage, we thought, hmmm, some sort of outdoor-centric club might be just the ticket for this kid.

That’s how we added Cub Scouts to the basketball and to the flag football.

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Millie had talked about taking gymnastics classes with enthusiasm for awhile but we had always discouraged her from pursuing her dreams because it seemed like it would really add to our workload. I mean, at this point, we had gone from zero (0) activities to four (4) activities. Where would this fresh hell fit in? When we discovered her in the basement one afternoon, constructing her own balance beam out of half-empty paint cans and a discarded two by four, we decided we had better enroll her in some sort of tumbling program. We can still really play up her hardscrabble beginning with the paint cans though when she films her Olympic team intro video.

That’s how we added gymnastics to the Cub Scouts and to the basketball and to the flag football.

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I feel like I haven’t sat down since September. Unless you count sitting in my minivan as sitting. Then, I’ve sat a lot since September. In my minivan. While I wait for my kids to do their things. I wrote this entire essay on my laptop from the confines of the driver’s seat of my Honda Odyssey. I basically live here now. I’ve got blankets and canned goods and extra power ports. I just drive from one parking lot to another. If the weather were nicer, I’d set one of those pop-up canopies down and chat with other parents who are also waiting aimlessly in parking lots.

In fact, I had to drive Henry to a neighboring town for a practice this week and my friend happens to live close by and I thought to myself, I should tell my friend to meet me in the parking lot, where I’m sitting in my minivan and we could catch up. She also has three kids in activities and even though I bet you’re thinking it would be weird to hang out with your friend in their minivan, she would absolutely not think it was weird. She gets it. I was disappointed when I hadn’t thought to bring a little wine or maybe some snack cheese.

I suggested to Bob that we get one of those gas tanks installed on our property – like the ones they have on farms – so we don’t have to worry about where and when to fill up our car’s constantly empty tank but he didn’t think that was a wise use of money. Whatever. That idea has legs for sure.

I have no succinct way to wrap this up other than Henry is done with practice in about ten minutes and then I have to drive my minivan home and look longingly at my sofa on my way to bed. If you need me for any reason in the coming months, just come find my minivan. Basketball is done in February – I think.

Wait, what comes after basketball season?

Not This Year, Satan

One of the great things about our school district is the delayed start time for middle and high school students. The older kids start AFTER the elementary kids. Instead of being the first ones on the bus, they are the last ones on the bus. I’m pretty sure the school district’s scheduling decisions were based on lots of science and not, say, an unmitigated fear of what teenagers are like when they’ve had to rise before the sun. Little kids usually wake first while big kids tend to sleep in. It’s all very logical and makes sense and I think it would work really well for families with kids that aren’t broken like mine. Because mine are broken and this setup has been terrible for us.

My two youngest, elementary-aged children would sleep until the average Sunday brunch time each and every day if I would let them. They are both extremely difficult to motivate in the early morning hours. Simply raising their heads off of their pillows seems like a monumental task, so crushing are their grade school responsibilities. Meanwhile, my oldest child, my middle schooler, could watch the director’s cut of “Titanic” in the free time he has each day between when he’s ready for school and when he has to leave to catch the bus. He has so many minutes to burn that he actually gets bored, inevitably following me from room to room trying to discuss some sports thing as I’m deep-breathing my way through my first cup of coffee while simultaneously packing lunches, trying to find PE-approved shoes, stuffing the green folder in backpacks, and imploring his younger siblings to please, for the love, JUST GET OUT OF BED.

Anyway, in summary, I spent most of last school year trying unsuccessfully to wake Charlie and Millie up while pretending to listen to Henry talk about football. It was just as much fun as it seems! If you’re guessing that there was a lot of rage involved in our morning routine, you are guessing correctly.

And, let it be known that I tried really, really hard last year to be kind and gentle and loving and patient and to not say the really bad curse words before 7:00 a.m. I had Waffle Wednesdays and French Toast Fridays and special lunch box treats and hugs and kisses and all manner of gentle encouragement to get those two little kids up and out the door. Morning after endless morning, it did not work.

None of it worked. I always ended up yelling. Every time. So much yelling.

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I vowed, Scarlett O’Hara-style, that this school year would be different. Because, I simply cannot have another year full of red hot rage over having to doula my children through their before school routines. I just cannot. I need greater independence from my perfectly capable children.

Last year, we tried out alarm clocks but it went poorly. In an era when you can, essentially, just yell commands in the direction of your phone or your Echo or your iPad or your mother, the complicated multi-step process of setting alarm clocks proved problematic for the youngest of our household. Each morning, Millie would turn her bleeping alarm clock off by… unplugging it. Effective, yes, but also not very efficient. That meant, each evening, we’d have to sit down and reset the time and then the alarms and also the snooze capabilities confused each of them and we basically abandoned the alarm clocks pretty early on in the school year.

This year, I procured a Google Home Mini for Charlie. Voice commands make it easy for him to set the alarm and also, as a bonus, I can always tell when he’s awake in the morning because I can hear him yelling from his bed at the top of his lungs, “HEY GOOGLE STOP STOP GOOGLE STOP.” Millie is still using an old-school alarm clock for now because her bedroom most closely resembles our local landfill and I’m using the Google Mini as the dangling carrot in my cleanup scheme. She’s only unplugged her alarm twice this year (so far) so I can confidently claim that we seem to have rounded that learning curve.

In an effort to further streamline our morning routine, I also bought these great dry-erase charts that I hung on the back of the kids’ bedroom doors outlining what they need to do every day. These charts are working great in that Charlie and Millie remember to ignore them almost every day.

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However, laying out the next day’s outfit the night before is critical for Millie since she is forever picking things to wear to school that she actually can’t wear to school. She always picks a miniskirt and sandals on gym days or wants to wear her gymnastics leotard on library days. Laying out her outfit the night before means I can fight with her about her clothing choices at the end of the day when I’m exhausted instead of fighting with her first thing in the morning when I’m also exhausted. The whole process is very frustrating but also adorable in that Millie literally lays out her outfits.

The charts are colorful and cute and all but I’m actually thinking about just laminating instructional signs and hanging them all over my house instead. Every morning is this hamster wheel exercise in asking my kids over and over and over again if they have their shoes or their library books or their sweatshirts or asking if they’ve brushed their hair and washed their faces. I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. Signs would make this way easier. Want to know what to pack in your lunch? There’s a sign for that! Asking me repeatedly what you need for flag football practice? Reference the sign! Curious how you can brush your teeth without leaving the bathroom looking like someone was murdered with Crest? I have a sign for that!

It wouldn’t be pretty to look at but at least any houseguests we may have would know how to pour themselves their own bowl of cereal in five easy steps.

I don’t want to seem overly confident or anything and I know we’re not that deep into the school year yet but I have super high hopes for less rage this year with our charts and our instructional signs and our more advanced alarm clocks. Last year was so endlessly frustrating that I think it can only get better from here, right? I mean, even if this year still proves maddening, I can always look forward to the middle and high school years with their later start times. That’s only – let me check my math here – FIVE YEARS AWAY.

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