My 11-year-old son Matthew sits in front of the TV, a plate of tater tots balanced on his knees. He’s wearing a ratty Giants hoodie—the one he purchased with his own money shortly after they claimed their second World Series victory and before we moved from the Bay Area to Central California, where kids his age are just as likely to pledge their loyalties to the Dodgers or the A’s. He shovels tater tots into his mouth, guffaws at something a character on his current favorite TV show (Fresh Off the Boat) says, absently scratches the dog’s ears.
A few feet away, his 9-year-old brother is sprawled out on the dog bed. His brother laughs too, but not at the same things. His inability to pick up on suggestive innuendos is but one thing separating him from his older brother, who will soon cross the divide from tween to teen.
We are both in the middle. Me: 35 but still kind of feeling like the person I was at 18, reinventing myself and trying to figure out who I am now after an unexpected move back to the city my husband and I grew up in after spending all of our adult lives, and our kids’ early childhoods, in larger and more progressive cities.
Matthew: 11, not quite a teenager but not really a little kid, either. He wants it all and doesn’t want to wait. My son and I navigate these messy middle spaces in blundering and often graceless ways. We are both moody; we clash more frequently than usual.
“Mom. Mom!” I look up from my computer; I have a deadline and the 9-year-old has a “family project” due tomorrow. My mother is coming to watch the kids and I’m distracted, attempting to write and help with the homework and clean at the same time.
“What? Is this important?”
“This new computer I want is only—”
“No.” I’m so tired of this conversation. Sometimes it’s an iPhone, not a computer, but the laundry list of things my child (who doesn’t seem to recognize his privilege) wants grows longer by the day.
He gets the computer he already has taken away because he’s been using it to chat with strangers without our permission. He’s been chatting to a Dell service representative in India, or maybe Mexico—who even knows. He just wanted to talk about computer hardware with somebody.
He refuses to order off the kids’ menu at a Mexican restaurant, yet ends up eating only half of his burrito. He won’t take the leftovers to school for lunch because he lost his lunch box and he doesn’t want to take a brown bag because “people laughed at me the last time I took my lunch in a bag and said we must be poor.” I roll my eyes; I do that a lot these days, but then, so does he.
The moments of true connection don’t come as frequently, or as easily, as they did when he was two and I could steal a few minutes with him by bringing out a stack of books or turning on The Berenstain Bears. My younger son will still allow me to snuggle with him on the couch and read to him, but Matthew retreats to his room with his own book.
We’re in the car, waiting for my younger son to finish swim practice. I’m listening to “U Talkin’ U2 To Me?” a comedy podcast that—with its inane and frankly ridiculous humor—helped lift my spirits in the aftermath of our move. Matthew is reading a book. On the podcast, co-host Scott Aukerman is playing a game with guest Todd Glass, asking him to identify snippets of songs as “U2 or not U2.” Matthew loves U2, and music in general, and I know he’ll appreciate this. I take my headphones out and play the audio through the speakers so he can listen in. After several increasingly ridiculous song selections, we are heaving with laughter, knowing full well that the next song probably won’t be U2, either. The theme song from Cheers plays. Matthew and I are dying. My younger son gets in the car. “What’s so funny?”
Middle school looms. Sixth grade has only just begun, but they’re already going on middle school tours. He comes home from the first one brimming with excitement. He wants to go to the STEM middle school for the first two years of a six-year middle school/high school program. Students get to take courses in app development, architecture, video production. Admissions are competitive. We know he’s smart, but he’s also lazy, or maybe just bored. He got kicked out of the advanced reading group in the fourth grade because he refused to answer any of the critical thinking questions.
We’re stunned when we ask his teacher which middle school he thinks is the best fit for our bright-yet-unmotivated kid and he suggests the STEM school. We tell Matthew that if that’s what he wants, he is going to have to work hard. Privately, my husband and I wonder if he has the grades to get in, even though we know it’s perfect in so many ways.
He refuses to dress up for Halloween, then changes his mind when my husband and younger son head out to trick-or-treat. He quickly throws on his Giants hoodie and hat and swipes my Urban Decay eyeliner (shade: Perversion) to tattoo “2014” on his cheek. It is possibly the world’s laziest Halloween costume, but his team has just won the World Series for the third time in five years; people will forgive him for dressing as an enthusiastic fan.
He gets into the STEM middle school. We high-five and celebrate with sushi. He seems to carry himself a little taller. We share the news with friends and family and he revels in the attention.
He has a D in History because he didn’t complete an in-class assignment. He half-asses every household chore he’s given. He complains about a classmate who annoys him, but the way he says he reacts to said classmate verges dangerously on bullying territory, and we have to warn him to cut it out. He cries when I ask him to take out the garbage. He picks fights with his brother. He tries to wear the same gross t-shirt three days in a row, as if I haven’t noticed. Yet when he showers, I have to remind him we’re in the middle of a drought. He stays up too late on a school night because he’s reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the fourth time.
He patiently helps his 3-year-old cousin build a Lego house. He cooks dinner by himself—spaghetti and meatballs—and asks if we can invite my parents over to share our meal. He helps my mother-in-law reconfigure her laptop. He runs into the store and buys a gallon of milk while I wait outside with the dog. He still sleeps with the stuffed bunny he was given for his first Easter.
It’s spring. Track season has started, and my boys come home from their first practice brimming with news and requests for new shoes. My 9-year-old tells me the coaches want parents to come help at the practices.
“Do not come, Mom,” Matthew orders. “Don’t. I don’t want you there.”
I show up anyway. I watch him run his warm-up, long and lean and full of speed and grace I didn’t know he possessed. When the coach—new to elementary school but not new to coaching—asks me which kids are mine and I point them out, he gestures at Matthew. “Ohhhh. He’s a really good runner. He has a natural stride. Do you run with him?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t listen to me. He’s lazy.”
“They’re all lazy.”
Later that night, he stops me in the hallway. “Can I have a hug?” This is new. This is something I haven’t heard in months, maybe years. I no longer have to bend down to hug him; I can no longer even rest my chin on his head. In a year’s time, maybe less, he will have surpassed me in height. I fold his skinny body into mine. “Thank you for coming to help at practice today,” he says. “I’m glad you were there.” I ask him if he wants me to help again on Wednesday and he says yes.
A U2 song comes up on shuffle. I start crying before Bono even starts singing because I know what’s coming: “Baby slow down. The end is not as fun as the start.”
Sometimes the end—or the beginning of the end—is more fun than the start. But it’s never entirely carefree the way life was before grownup responsibilities. And you can’t go back and relive those starting days once they’re gone. I am often wistful, and sometimes bitter, about decisions I made and didn’t make. I know that it’s impossible to have it all, that something is always sacrificed, that maybe if you work hard and get really lucky, you may get most of the things you want.
But it’s not a lesson I want my oldest child to learn now. I want, desperately, for him to slow down, even though that’s not something 11-year-old boys do. Since he doesn’t, I do. I slow down, every once in a while, to take in and enjoy this middle space—this awkward, frequently shitty, occasionally breathtakingly lovely (for all of us)—middle space.