I woke with the dog scratching at my door, as usual. Her needs first, then my own. Even before coffee. Rather like kids – their needs first.
Those needs are initially physical, and also emotional. Needs that evolve. Becoming more affective, more instructive, more logistical. By the time we’re dealing with adolescence, things have shifted dramatically. Parents are a means to an end as far as kids are concerned – the local ATM, the invisible source that fills the fridge, the distributor of car keys.
We know that we’re also the watchdogs of all things potentially hazardous – emotionally, socially, physically – to the extent that’s possible. Our approval and unconditional love remain essential. You might even get a 17-year old to admit to that, albeit grudgingly.
And it is still present. Their needs first. It’s automatic. So much so, that the five minutes or 20 minutes or three hours that they need from us, unexpectedly (and often at the worst possible time) become a series of interruptive rhythms that define our days and drive us crazy.
We could say no – to some of the craziness. The requests. The need for intervention. And we do, judiciously. Parenting provides no Idiot’s Guide, no viable handbook; we operate according to an unarticulated guidance system, different for each child at each stage. We sense our way, sometimes blindly.
In those first minutes of throwing on clothes and sandals to go outside, I was thinking about the day’s tasks ahead. About preparations for a short trip out of town – rare – and the responsibilities of things at home.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” I said to myself, in the infernal, internal dialogue that involves at least two and sometimes three different voices. I’d left everything to do with my needs for the last minute. My inner adult was wagging her finger. My inner child was whining. A raggedy collection of opinionated onlookers were chuckling and murmuring among themselves.
THEORY: We all live with constant internal dialogue, some in the first person, plenty in the second person, and occasionally, an assortment of commentary and argumentation in the third person. I suspect it is the extent of third person chatter, and the tone of admonishment or encouragement in second person, that differentiates the “reflectors” from the “coasters.” Or maybe just the crazies from everybody else.
As the dog did her business in the monkey grass, I noticed that the car was gone. I was relieved; my elder son had remembered to get up early and head to the babysitting job he’d agreed to take. He doesn’t love babysitting – and it’s “kid sitting” besides. A nice 8-year old boy he’s watched in the evenings from time to time, during the school year.
There was a lengthy and typically irritating conversation last night about his early rising. And more so, about his use of the car. Again. Since graduating from high school two weeks back, my car has been his car. Oh, he’s been quite kind about it, always asking permission in his I know just how to work you, Mom sort of way.
“You’re just home and writing,” he’ll say, with that little smile.
There’s something about the word “just” in that phrase that annoys me, but I let it pass. And he’s good about staying in touch, being home when he says he will be, and occasionally running to the grocery store to pick up this or that.
Nonetheless, my ability to escape is curtailed significantly. My freedom to write somewhere else, to see people. Admittedly, I’m at the beginning of empty nest syndrome, fully aware that in two months my son heads to college 900 miles away. I recognize that I’m more indulgent than usual, wanting him to have his first carefree summer since he was 10 or 11 years old.
As the dog tugged me along to the house next door, I noticed my car. It was parked in front of a neat, white clapboard bungalow, four doors down the street. I forgot how close this babysitting job was located. I kept walking – before coffee, with dog – and knocked on the screen door. My son appeared, The Painted Bird in hand, with an inquisitive look on his face.
“Did you really have to drive four doors down the street?” I asked. I couldn’t hide the smirk on my face.
He tried not to laugh.
“It made more sense to have the car with me, because I’ll need it in a few hours,” he said.
“Uh huh.” I shook my head, turned, and shuffled back to my little house. I took the dog off the leash, filled her bowl of water in the kitchen, washed my hands, and put the coffee on. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
FACT: Teenagers – especially boys – will use any excuse to drive. It was true 30 years ago when I was a teenager. And it remains the case.
FACT: Teenagers learn to “work” their parents. And we let them.
FACT: Parents find bittersweet amusement in echoes of their own firsts, their own discoveries, their own tussles when they were younger. It’s nostalgic, yes. And part of processing our own aging, the cyclical nature of the parent-child relationship, as we feel our roles shifting.
But I could’ve used my car this morning. I have errands to run. Tasks that are easier to accomplish early, before the day’s conflicting responsibilities drain the energy and resolve from my single mother stamina. Still, I put my son’s interests before my own – in this very minor example. Habit. And because fighting over the car – or most things – is exhausting. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
CONSIDERATION: There is great comfort in the wisdom of easy phrases, of “coaster” actions and axioms. Nonetheless, it assumes that they are universally true, and nothing is universally true. Least of all when it comes to human interaction.
Sometimes, the more things change, the more they change – as we change, in relationship to the world we know. We come to live with distance from our many selves, a sense of drifting, a lack of recognizable signposts.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about technology lately. About Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been reading about how marketers are increasingly using these once teenage cyberspaces to intrude – effectively – and make inroads into new markets with new “channels.” So I’ve thrown my hat into the ring, in a very limited way (kicking and screaming, according to one of my inner voices). Mostly, I want to understand. And not fall so far behind in techno-culture that I will never be able to catch up.
People enjoy meeting. Talking. Teenagers do so readily, without worrying about consequences like possible falsities and scams and hidden agendas, the downsides to social media. And marketers recognize quick, accessible routes to massive numbers of potential customers. Or at least a means to place a bug in the ear about their products and services. And why not?
CONSIDERATION: Somewhere in this scramble for the latest iPhones and Blackberrys, for streaming blow-by-blow headlines, for connections and comments that bombard us around-the-clock, for the thrumming and drumming of our own noise, we’ve lost something essential. We’ve yielded, implicitly, to a sense that the world is entitled to access us. Anywhere, anytime.
I bow to the advantages of our technologically connected planet. However, I will not bow to its intrusiveness, to the growing tendency for kids and adults alike to be glued to their devices while behind the wheel, in the checkout line, on a walk with the dog, during a school play, or in bed, next to their partner.
I mention “reflectors” and “coasters.” It’s an oversimplification. But useful. Those of us who think – constantly – reflecting on what makes sense in our daily lives.
- Is it sensible that you are accessible to your employer 24/7, whether or not you are being paid for it?
- Is it sensible to replace reading time with tweeting time?
- Is it sensible to let waves of technology make face-to-face conversation obsolete, and privacy, virtually – yes virtually – a thing of the past?
The more things change, the more they stay the same? Maybe yes. Maybe no.
Teenagers will always be teenagers, enjoying their firsts – cars, pranks, experiences of rebellion, experiences of love. Much will change around us, but key aspects of human nature and human development will not. I take solace in that fact. As for the rest? Let’s absent ourselves from our screens and cell phones, our incessant, obtrusive chatter that tunes us to perpetual “busy” and high speed “coast.” Let’s think about how we are changing in ways that may not be good for us, as individuals or parents, as friends or partners.
CONSIDERATION: Some things change for the better, some for the worse. We have a say in that. Each of us. Daily.
Ah… my son is back. The car, in the driveway. He just asked if I needed anything at the store. “Yes, please,” I answer. “Two quarts of milk for your brother.”
“No problem,” he replies.
He holds his hand out for money. I give him a five. He thanks me and leaves. It is, after all, another chance to use the car. The more things change, the more they stay the same.