It Really Does Get Better

Today, my firstborn, my oldest son, turned fourteen years old.

Just to refresh your memory, he used to look like this:

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SO squishy.

Now, he looks like this:

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SO many Nike products in one picture.

That’s kind of wild, right? (Also, those are men’s size 11 shoes he’s wearing right there. I was absolutely unprepared for how quickly teenagers grow out of apparel. We had to buy him dress pants and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt for chorus this year and while everything fit fine for the fall concert, it was getting a little snug for the winter concert, which means, I can only assume, it will all be too small by the spring concert. Even the tie, probably.)

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I know everyone’s favorite thing to say to new parents is, “IT GETS BETTER!” Three words meant in the best possible way to buoy the spirit of beleaguered caretakers. This message is always delivered one of two ways: with much excitement and enthusiasm (by a parent whose kids slept through the night), or, with a tinge of regret and a deep sigh of resignation (by a parent whose kids STILL aren’t sleeping through the night).

The thing is, it really does get better. It’s amazing to look at pictures of Henry as a baby and realize how little we understood about the journey ahead. We still don’t really understand the journey ahead but our kids are all potty trained so somehow, that journey seems a little more agreeable than it did a decade ago.

Here’s a short list of everything that the kid in the second picture can do but that newborn in the first picture was totally incapable of doing because he was a baby:

  • Emptying the dishwasher.
  • Toasting his own bagel. Heating up his own frozen pizza. BAKING muffins like a real full-grown human!
  • BABYSITTING HIS YOUNGER SIBLINGS SO MAMA CAN RUN ERRANDS ALL BY HER LONE SELF.
  • Vomiting in a proper receptacle. (Great news for those parents out there of middle-of-the-night bedroom carpet pukers.)
  • Doing his own laundry (thanks middle school life skills class!).
  • Completing his homework with almost complete autonomy, tracking what needs to be done and when it’s due.
  • Soloing at every sports practice or birthday celebration or school activity. In fact, I don’t even think twice about anything other than a drop-off anymore because I’m pretty sure my attendance will only embarrass him anyway.
  • Packing his own luggage for trips and vacations. The kids may not always pack enough but they don’t pack enough all on their own which is really all I can ask for.
  • Owning a knowledge base to fix almost any IT issue that arises at the house.

When I asked Bob what he thinks is easier about having older kids, his response was, “They can fetch things.” Like, Bob’s reading glasses. Maybe an extra blanket if Bob has a chill. Or, for example, Bob’s medications. So, retrieving items for the elderly is apparently a checkmark in the teenager column for sure. Or, the encouragement we need to adopt a retriever of some sort.

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I recently started driving Henry to and from school each day since the middle school bus is the Wild Wild West of the adolescent years. I assumed I would loathe the inconvenience of the across town location and traffic navigating that driving him would require. I was super surprised to find myself enjoying the commute immensely. The dedicated time together has led to some interesting discussions on a rather wide range of topics that are not exclusively sports related! I find myself looking forward to the drive.

It’s precious time with a precious son who, at fourteen years of age, is such an enjoyable and interesting human.

Life since those newborn days has gotten easier. It’s gotten lovelier. It’s gotten more intense. It’s presented new challenges. But, it’s definitely gotten better.

The More Things Change

I had a chance to visit my alma mater with Henry earlier this month. The last time I was on campus, I was entering my third trimester, pregnant with the same kid that just asked me on the drive out to Indiana what a 401k is. Time is funny like that. One minute, you’re crouched over their crib moving stuffed animals to a safe distance. The next, you’re putting a television in their room and making them pledge not to watch questionable content on Netflix.

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It was a bit surreal to be back in my college town. Especially with a teenager. Goodness, I was a teenager when I began school there. Only about four years older than Henry is now. Drunk on freedom. (Also, probably alcohol.) Walking the same streets with your teenager that you walked as a young adult while fervently hoping and praying that the beautiful person next to you doesn’t make the same mistakes you did is quite a trip. I refrained from pointing out the houses and apartment complexes where I partied the hardest, preferring to prudently hi-light the remodeled student recreation center and underground library instead.

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Things have changed so much in the fourteen years since my last visit. New buildings. New businesses. New bars. Everything a little different, even if achingly familiar.

For one thing, transportation on campus has changed dramatically. When we first arrived and began walking around on Friday afternoon, I noticed there were these lanes next to the sidewalk. Sometimes separated by a median, sometimes just painted lines. The minute I realized – and began to appreciate – that they had finally designated separate bike lanes, a student flew by us on a motorized skateboard. That was the beginning of a weekend filled with a lot of things… zooming in our peripheral vision. Motorized skateboards. Motorized bicycles. Motorized scooters. Many things with wheels wheeling students from place to place. In ye olden days, we walked or rode bikes until things turned icy in winter and then we just, well, walked.

The dormitory situation has changed, too. Campus seemed filled with new apartment-style dorms. They looked very fancy and very comfortable. I distinctly remember that by the time I graduated, some of the newer dorms being constructed were designed suite-style, with attached bathrooms for each room. I remember being jealous of the incoming class of students that didn’t have to haul their shower basket down the hall wearing flip-flops and a robe, to the communal bathrooms. But, now some of these even newer places have balconies. And, Starbucks in the lobby. I mean, what luxury is this? The dorm I lived in as a freshman, has air conditioning now. What kind of grit are we instilling in our next generation if they can’t even make it through an Indiana August in 90 degree heat on the twelfth floor of a building that has no hope of a cross breeze?

Also, I guess most of the dining services have been consolidated now. No one heads to the basement of their dorm each morning for questionable scrambled eggs. Now, you go to a stand alone dining hall that services a few of the dorms that are clustered in that area. I mean, the dining hall we stopped into was lovely and the selection of food was kind of amazing but there was not a single deep fried button mushroom with a side of ranch dressing to be found and so that made me sad. Times have certainly changed.

The student union looked mostly the same – all dark wood paneling and quiet nooks and crannies – until we rounded the corner and were greeted by the blaring white spaceship lighting of an Amazon pickup store. So, that’s a new thing, I guess. Back in my day, we used to have to beg the video store delivery guy to stop and get us snacks from the convenience store next door on the way to our dorm. These days, the kids can get parts for their motorized skateboards delivered next day. By drone, probably. Right to the balconies of their air conditioned dorms, I’m assuming.

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It wasn’t all new. Indiana is still just as flat as it’s always been. That hasn’t changed. We took the non-interstate route north from Indianapolis to reach Lafayette and the flatness is truly remarkable. After almost six years of living in the mountains of Virginia, I think I had forgotten what it’s like to be able to see all of the way to the horizon. Henry must have thought I was delirious from the long drive because I just kept saying, “Can you BELIEVE how FLAT it is? I mean, SO FLAT, right?”

I took Henry to Arni’s, a Lafayette tradition since forever. They’d remodeled the restaurant at some point in my absence so that was freshened up a bit but it still smelled the same inside. Just like ever-so-slightly burnt crust. The pizza was the same, too. A thin crust with tangy tomato sauce and topped with sliced mushrooms that came from a can which is the only appropriate way to top a pizza with mushrooms. The salad has remained the same as well, made from non-nutrient dense iceberg lettuce with copious amounts of shredded cheese and hard-boiled eggs. Served with what can only be described as a tureen-sized container of Thousand Island dressing. I love a restaurant that still serves Thousand Island dressing.

The football game was just as much fun as when I was a student, too. The stadium hasn’t changed much, albeit maybe a little bit bigger than when I was last on campus. I seem to remember an addition going on, funded after one particularly successful football season that has yet to be replicated. It was also a little bit colder than I remember ever being bothered by as a student. I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve lived in the south for eighteen years or because I wasn’t insulated by beer consumption. Regardless, all-in-all just as thrilling and nail-biting as a Big Ten college football game always promises to be. The band just as entertaining and awe-inducing as I remember. I loved it. Every minute of it.

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At one point during our weekend on campus, Henry mentioned that he felt a little out of place walking around. “It feels a little weird,” he said. Like he was too young to be there. Too young to really belong just yet.

Which, I understood since I felt a little too old to be there. Especially jarring since it seems like just yesterday that I was there, seventeen years old, wondering if I belonged, too.

He can’t imagine what lies ahead and I can’t believe what lies behind. Everything past, present, and future. All together. Time is funny like that.

 

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.