You gaze at his face while he sleeps, especially on those nights when he passes out cold on the couch. His workload is overwhelming. You worry that it’s all too much.
You wonder if you can fathom what is going on inside his head, if you have an inkling really, trying to imagine the best of what is a tumultuous time, or possibly the worst period in his young life. So you try to accept that you will never know the true texture of these transitional years – what is painful, what is hazardous, what you can do to help.
You hold your breath, you offer a tender place to land, you whisper a prayer that he will make his way safely.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Recently, I happened onto the film version of 1999’s best-selling work, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I was quickly hooked; not only did I time travel back to my own (geeky) high school years, but I immediately imagined what it must have been like for my boys – both middle school and after.
I found myself back in that parental place of interminable worry, and the powerlessness that comes with the territory.
As a single parent, I was struggling to keep a roof over our heads. I had stresses of my own – for us – yet working from a home office, I was aware of most of the comings and goings and I knew many of my sons’ friends. Still, I realized I was dwelling on an island of ignorance – that I couldn’t possibly know what they were up to when I wasn’t there – the dramas taking place, the battles to wage, where and how they were finding consolation.
A 15-year old high school freshman named Charlie is the protagonist in “Wallflower” – introverted, out of place, scarred. We know there’s more going on than meets the eye, and the events that have shaped him are revealed as the story unfolds.
Charlie is soon taken under the wing of a small group of high school seniors. With them, he dabbles in drugs, experiences his first kiss, and when I see the party scenes, I admit my maternal buttons are pushed and I can’t help but ask: Where the hell are the parents?
On Being Deserving
As Charlie learns what it is to fall in love (and he doesn’t express his feelings to the object of his affections), he watches the girl whom he adores choose poorly, and she gets hurt. He asks a teacher whom he respects why this happens. The answer Charlie receives is this:
We accept the love we think we deserve.
It’s a line that sticks with me, a line I can apply to my own life, a line I need to remember. It is a line I continue to roll around in my head, as I consider the way I raised my sons.
Will they feel deserving of partners who treat them well? Will they give as good as they get? Will I ever know? Will I ever hear the “truth” of those middle years – what their lives were really like from 12 or 13 through 16 or 17? Is it necessary or even appropriate that I hear?
Will they ever speak to me about what divorce was like for them? What I might have done differently, so I can do better with them as adults? Would this knowledge create more likelihood of an eventual adult relationship of mutual respect and support? Do I need to understand any of this – if they ultimately become good men?
Watching Over Our Children
You encourage the quiet child to open up and it requires an angle, patience, occasionally luck. Like most adolescents, he will only share what he wants to share, and he is otherwise sullen or deflects with humor.
Then again, you tell yourself, his brother is a talker. But what do you really know about his life either?
Sure, you know some of the friends and more of the antics than he thinks you’re aware of. But what don’t you know that could hurt him in ways he’s too young to comprehend?
There are days, nights, weeks when all you feel is futility. You hope they will confide their secrets and their pain if not to you, then to another parent’s wise counsel. There are moments when you insist, and you suspect you are receiving only a partial accounting.
Flying the Nest and Breathing Again
When my firstborn went to college, his presence left an enormous void. Yet I breathed a sigh of relief that we had made it through. It was a year or two later that He filled in the blanks on several events I’d always wondered about, and others, despite my vigilance, that I never noticed.
When his brother flew the nest, I felt the same sense of relief. And I say this reminding myself that my kids were relatively “easy.”
Their leaving for college isn’t where the story ends, much less the concern. But those years in middle school and high school can be dangerous: drugs and alcohol, the potential for bullying, the need to fit in, the insistence of their burgeoning sexuality. We know they will suffer somewhere along the line. After all, didn’t we?
We may be dealt a hand of ignorance that is greater than we realize until many years have passed. We may choose that ignorance in a way, as the better part of valor, or simply, exhaustion. We know our children will question who they are and the nature of their worth. We can only hope that whatever we do and say, it will enhance their ability to recognize and accept that we are all “deserving.”
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