This Is What It's Like When Your Son Turns 13

by Rita Templeton
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His voice hasn’t quite deepened yet, but I can hear it coming sometimes, like a train in the distance. It takes on a gravelly tone, especially when I wake him up and he says, “Morning, Mom.” He’s waking up more reluctantly these days, no longer bouncing out of bed at dawn unprompted.

This is 13.

I don’t feel old enough to have a teenage son – didn’t I just graduate high school myself a couple years ago? – yet here I am. And here he is, my brand-new teen, so like and so unlike the brand-new baby he was last time I blinked. We’re both treading into uncharted territory now, like yesterday when he was born, and it feels both foreign and familiar: the transition into a new role, and the uneasy knowledge that none of it comes with an instruction manual.

His door closes and locks behind him these days, the rest of us no longer welcome in his room without appointment. I struggle. Do I let it slide? Allow him to keep it closed, but not locked? He’s entitled to privacy, I know, but the question is how he uses it. I’m sure part of it is … self-discovery (ahem), but does he also close the door because he doesn’t want me to know he’s revealing personal details to older strangers on the Internet, or watching disgusting YouTube videos, or engaging in some other risky online behavior? I read the horror stories. We didn’t realize, say the helpless parents of suicidal teens and school shooters and trafficking victims. I’m overreacting, I hope, but I can’t help waffling back and forth between allowing him privacy and invading it.

This is 13. It’s hard to let go.

He’s grubby, and he doesn’t care. I constantly nag: When did you last wash your hair? When did you last brush your teeth? Go clip your toenails. When he was a baby, I’d press my nose against the top of his head and inhale his sweet scent as deeply as I could. Now I catch a whiff and recoil, but I can’t just pick him up and strong-arm him into the bath the way I used to. I offer up deodorant and a new brand of toothpaste like gifts, and he responds like any kid who gets deodorant or toothpaste as a gift.

His computer desk, and every other surface in his bedroom, are littered with stale chip crumbs and dirty dishes, his floor mounded with laundry he’s failed to transfer to the hamper. I cannot fathom how he tolerates the filth, but it’s time to give him more control of his own domain. I ask how long he’s been wearing that underwear. “Like four days?” he shrugs, and I can hear a hint of pride, like it’s some sort of accomplishment.

This is 13, and it smells like B.O.

He still watches cartoons, but they’re big-kid cartoons, nothing you can find on Nick Junior these days. He still plays video games, but they’re big-kid video games, his choice of playthings much pricier now. I can’t pick out his outfits any more, but his idea of “dressing up” is wearing a pair of non-holey pants with his poop emoji t-shirt. His shoes are almost as big as mine, and when he’s shirtless, I can see he’s beginning to bulk up, the spindly, gangly baby-colt limbs slowly being replaced by something more substantial.

His pants are suddenly too short even though I literally just bought them. He inhales food like he inhales air, in a constant, steady stream (“Mom, will you pick up some Lucky Charms and ramen noodles and chili lime Takis?”), and I have to swing by the grocery store, again, while I’m out buying new pants. Again.

This is 13. It’s freaking expensive.

Thirteen is trying to hold onto a fish underwater, knowing that you’re eventually going to have to let it slip from your grasp. It’s the weight of not knowing how much slack to put in the tether. It’s the pride when you look at the independent person he’s becoming, and the ache of realizing he’s becoming an independent person.

He’s still affectionate at this point, and I relish each hug and ever-decreasing snuggle with the painful awareness that they may not last much longer. I swear I can still feel him in my arms as an infant, sleeping on my chest, sitting in my lap, like a ghost of a little boy who once existed. I will tousle his hair and caress his cheek forever, no matter how grown he gets. I have to. I’m his mother, and through a mother’s eyes, manhood is just an illusion. He’ll always be my baby, even though he’s not.

“You’re the best mom,” he says when he isn’t telling me I’m the worst. His voice is a little lower than it was last week. It’s a train I can hear coming, but all I can do now is step back and let it roll through.