My first born will be twelve in a few short days.
Twelve is between worlds, part fluffy chick, part weary adult. Twelve comes in from school each day and wants to sit down and watch a cartoon for children half his age, totally absorbed in the animated world of aardvarks. Twelve will cling on to me, still small enough to tuck under my chin and whisper that he wishes he was still at primary school. Twelve demands his own key to the door, but refuses to use it, choosing instead to pace up and down the road in the driving rain, all clenched fists and anxious eyes, if I am not home in time to let him in to the house after school.
Twelve wants to watch the news, eager to have the knowledge to passport him to the adult world. He asks question after question to make sense of it, unremitting in his quest to pin down the truth, the facts about the world he is going to. Twelve wants answers to be black and white; the realisation that the adult world he craves is more shades of grey panics him and sends him back to the aardvarks.
Twelve still kicks a ball at every opportunity, even absent mindedly idling bottle tops, dirty washing, cushions or anything on the floor with his foot as a ball substitute. He will then sit for hours watching sport on a screen, a little man-in-waiting. Twelve is too anxious to watch his team if he thinks they are going to lose, striding out of the room and ordering someone to turn it off, hummimg to himself – anything to take the embarrassment away.
Twelve often finds his brother and sister intolerable, embarrassing in their childishness, cruel in their closeness to each other. In his mind, they are children and he is the grown up and he does not or cannot access their world. Twelve reacts angrily to cleverly aimed, seemingly innocuous taunts from his siblings. He finds it increasingly hard not to hit back physically. He thinks I don’t see that he has been provoked, but I do. I must find a way to mother a man-child, who will be bigger than me one day soon, who is already stronger than me. I try to tell him I don’t always get it right, but I remember being twelve and I will keep trying.
Twelve chats easily to adults, particularly men. He often appears to find it easier than talking to boys, certainly than talking to girls. He chats readily and knowledgeably about sport and is animated and happy in their company. Adults love him too; he is not (yet) a typical (pre) teen, does not grunt and hunch but is articulate, clever and funny.
Twelve is crippled with embarrassment by me in public. He cannot make eye contact when being picked up in the car if his school friends are present. He does not say goodbye if being dropped off, but walks away from the car quickly, with determination and anxiety to get where he is meant to be on time. His shoulders are always hunched, his fists clenched; he cannot bear the prospect of being late. He is careless in his criticism of his parents, not yet realising or caring that prefixing an observation with ‘No offence, but…’ does not mean that that it will not cut to the quick. At the same time he is learning to apply this to himself – acknowledging with generous acceptance and without rancour that his younger brother is a better footballer than he is.
In private, Twelve wants cuddles and chats. He will kiss me on the face and press his still-smooth cheek against mine, asking me how my day was. He cannot go upstairs alone and wants to be tucked into bed. He says he will not sleep unless one of his parents is in the room next door, consciously keeping himself awake as long as possible in tense anticipation of something he cannot articulate.
He wants to play ‘capital cities alphabet game’ and I have nearly run out of obscure ones to test him on. I find myself revising in secret to try to prolong the games with him.
Twelve’s glass is half empty, but it has always been so. He wages a constant battle against real or anticipated disappointments. Aged five, eagerly awaiting his first World Cup experience, already seeing his place in the world of televised sport, he comments sadly and with heart-clenching insight after a few minutes’ silent viewing ‘but it’s just an ordinary football match on an ordinary pitch’. He copes with his regular disappointments by mythologizing his past, by giving compartmentalised, absolute assessments of times past. Current events or experiences rarely match his view of his past: the campsite we visited on holiday in 2010 is the best one we could ever go to; the book he is reading will never be as good as one he has already read and ‘to be honest, it’s not as good as….’is a regular refrain.
At the same time, he is increasingly aware of his part in the current generation, the almost-teenager has a healthy sense of entitlement and ownership of the world. Driving with him on a sunny day, he observes the bright greens of the trees we pass in our affluent suburb: ‘I’m not being funny, Mum, but in the Seventies and Eighties, were the colours as bright?’ He laughs, embarrassed – aware that what he is asking must be true, but unable to quite believe that other people, me, could have seen the world as though through his fresh eyes. He backtracks as I laugh, not wanting to be thought silly or having asked a stupid question. We compromise on agreeing that no, cars were not as colourful and shiny when I was his age but the trees and sky looked pretty much the same as I remember.
Twelve is lovely, complex, loving, bright eyed and bushy tailed, disdainful, world weary and sarcastic. He is a complete person, he is my son. He is two, five, ten, twelve, thirty, fifty and who knows what. I miss my baby, but I can still see him in there. I am looking forward to knowing the man he is going to be.