For every 100 books on parenting a newborn, there is probably like one on parenting a middle schooler. I remember yelling at my ex one day “next time you decide to abandon a family, don’t do it when the kids are in middle school”. All of us were once this precious, awkward age, straddling childhood and young adulthood and we lived to tell the story, or write about it. But, if you are anything like me, the middle school years, may still be a blur of anxiety. I prefer not to think about them at all. Yet, now I find myself parenting alone during perhaps one of the most challenging ages and I feel so ill equipped.
I currently have two 13-year-old boys living under my roof and I keep thinking “but I have never been a teenage boy”! Most days, I feel like I am talking to myself. The average response to my questions is a grunt, if they acknowledge me at all. One day, I tripped over something and gloriously landed in a laundry basket, yelping in pain as I landed. Forget the Olympic athletes, managing to land in a laundry basket without breaking yourself or the basket, a truly marvelous feat. One of my sons took one ear out of is headphone, cocked his head to the left, looked at me (perhaps just to make sure I was not injured enough to not cook dinner), and once he determined that I was alive, put the headphones back on and resumed his video game – no questions asked. I frequently ask them to do something and get a lot of “I heard you already” or “I know what I am supposed to do” only to wake up the next day to NONE OF IT being done. There are many days, the only words I hear are “when is dinner ready” and “can I check Amazon for…?”. One boys showers and primps for 30 minutes a day…. the other I have to question if he has showered this week or when the last time he took off those soccer socks was. Two nights ago, I came into the kitchen at 5pm to see that one had made himself FIVE burritos and was eating them…then he trotted in the kitchen 90 minutes later to question if dinner is ready yet. One boy drinks a half a gallon of orange juice every other day, the other a gallon of whole milk. I often just look at them in complete bafflement.
In between all this typical middle school boy stuff is the undercurrent of “should I be worried” and “is this normal”. For a middle schooler, I don’t think there is any such thing as normal, but it is more question of “is this too abnormal?”. If my ex had walked out when they were say, eight, it would be right to be worried if they suddenly became withdrawn, listening to music for hours on end, and sleeping until noon. Yet, they are 13, and even if the behavior change is sudden, I know I cannot rightly blame everything on my ex. So, I find myself doing a lot of observing, trying to listen more to their non-verbal cues, and trying to not make a big deal of everything. Developmentally, their behavior is appropriate, but it is also behavior seen in grief and trauma. So, sometimes it is difficult to determine where that line is and when to worry and when to intervene.
Friday the boys and I embark on our first vacation as a family of three. I am trying to keep my expectations as to their behavior low. At the same time, I really want this to just be a fun trip. The past year has been anything but fun, and I want to create some memories of us enjoying doing something cool together. I want my boys to see me smile and laugh again. I want us to learn that we can be happy as a family, even though our family looks different. I see this trip as kind of a milestone and I want to use it as an opportunity to bury the past year and start the next phase of our life.