It does not seem possible that I am a mother to a teenage boy. But it was indisputably thirteen years ago, on an uncharacteristically hot Bank Holiday Monday in a now unfamiliar city that I then called home, that my body began the slow, agonising process of expelling my first child.
Thirteen’s body is now going through its own changes to expel the boy and embrace the man, albeit in a steady, incremental fashion. Not for him, yet, the spurting growth of many of his peers or the comically large shoes I see in my hall when his friends are visiting. He is still in clothes for children two to three years younger than his age and is anxious about his short stature, asking me nervously, without making eye contact, whether he needs to have injections to make him grow, like his hero, the footballer Lionel Messi.
And yet there are changes afoot. If I catch a glimpse of him unawares, I can see a certain new breadth to his shoulders, weight to his body and length to his jaw. I catch sight of him in a certain light and, just in time, stop myself from reaching out to wipe away a smudge from his upper lip, realising that is the first suggestion of some facial hair.
Thirteen is now aware of things that we have not discussed. Unable to restrain himself, he laughs uproariously at a rude joke in a film we watch together, that I had assumed would go over his head. He tells me, consolingly, that his brother has no idea what he is doing when dancing thrusting his hips in and out in parody of something he, certainly, does not understand. ‘But you do have an idea, do you?’ I ask, faintly horrified and he nods, briefly, smiling reassuringly.
Thirteen, whilst slow to show physical changes, certainly seems to be experiencing the emotional challenges of puberty. He is disorganised, quick to anger and tears and can create an argument out of any seemingly innocuous comment. In the week before his birthday, Thirteen leaves one of his school shoes at a cricket match, shouts at me for not preventing its loss, despite not being at the cricket match, recovers the shoe from a friend at another cricket match later in the week and then promptly leaves it behind again at a new venue. His insouciance at the original loss – ‘we can just get some more’ – and the subsequent loss – ‘it must be fate, you need to buy me some new shoes’ fills me with rage, but also seems vaguely familiar. I recall my father’s rage when, at a similar age, he warned me not to walk up one side of the drive as there was a loose roof tile and my languid response as I shrugged my shoulders with a teenager’s sense of immortality was ‘if it’s going to get me, it will. That’s fate’.
Thirteen is mercurial with his siblings. One minute shouting sarcastically at his sister, chastising her for her shortcomings and irritations, shoving her ‘by accident’ in the way past, the next helping her with her maths homework, patiently cajoling the right answer out of a sobbing, hiccoughing, temporarily more vulnerable person than him. He has the ability to switch into a completely different personality, seemingly at will and can change from sullen and objectionable to compassionate and entertaining – and back again – in the blink of an eye. He is felled, quickly, by embarrassment and his siblings know and, on occasion, exploit this mercilessly. On a recent trip to the country, to fulfil his father’s only expressed birthday wish to go for a walk (possible only with the deployment of threats and bribes), Thirteen was reduced to a shaking, crying rage by his brother and sister mooning by the side of a field. The fact that no one, except possibly some sheep, would have seen anything and that, even if they had, would have merely shrugged and smiled and not thought any the worse of Thirteen because of his younger siblings’ behaviour, was of no consequence to him. His humiliation was complete, his life was (temporarily) over.
I find it difficult not to get drawn into pointless arguments with Thirteen, not to respond to his kneejerk objection to things I say. I am slow to adjust my behaviour and, whilst I can see on one level what the correct parenting technique would be (pick your battles, they would say, don’t waste your energy in this argument about whether he or his brother and sister have more days off school a year), I cannot yet control the impulse to get drawn into the debate with him. Perhaps by the time he is eighteen, or twenty five, or whenever he grows out of disagreeing with me on principle, I may have found the perfect technique for dealing with him. He is already developing the perfect technique for dealing with me: ‘I’m really sorry Mum’ he says, spontaneously hugging me tight one Sunday night, after a tense weekend. ‘What for?’ I ask. ‘Basically everything this weekend’ he replies and I am flooded with happiness at my mature, beautiful boy, who is an overgrown toddler, needing a hug after throwing a tantrum. I want to tell him that I get it; that no one understands being overtaken by hormones and wanting to sob over apparently inconsequential disappointments like a forty something woman.
Thirteen remains intellectually curious and accomplished, a high achiever at school despite very little apparent effort. ‘What’s this?’ is a constant refrain, as he (over)hears snatches of conversation between his parents. He wants to know everything and be in control of everything he can. He strives to make sense of the world and where he is going in it. He is principled and moral – his vegetarianism has lasted four years now and he even eschews, martyr-like, sweets containing gelatine. He remains fixated on sport, both on the field and on the screen. He refuses to read anything I get him for months, then eventually picks up one of the books, becoming immediately obsessed by it and the sequels, devouring two thick books in a weekend and refusing all entreaty to save one for the holiday starting two days later.
Thirteen still lives with his daily disappointments and fears. He has such inchoate fear within him that seems to attach itself to an ever changing target of catastrophes – Ouija boards at school, space, whether any of the chemical from his science lesson could have accidentally got into his mouth during the lesson before lunch, flying on a plane, whether his lost (thrown away?) peanut butter sandwiches could have been found and eaten by someone with a peanut allergy who could then have gone into anaphylactic shock. Scarcely a night goes by when he is not anxious about something at bedtime, claiming that he feels sick and that something is really wrong. Efforts to console him are increasingly difficult. ‘Plane travel is the safest form of transport there is!’ I trill cheerfully to him as he sobs about feeling paralysed with fear about getting on a plane to go on his long-awaited football trip. ‘WHAT ABOUT MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT MH370’ he yells back and I have no answer. Platitudes do not work with someone who is very clever, very anxious and very determined not to be talked out of it. I try to take him for a trip to buy travel sickness medication. ‘It’s just a placebo Mum’ he announces wearily and walks away: several hours later he cries in despair ‘but why didn’t you buy it for me?’
When Thirteen feels pain or worry, I feel it too, like a punch in the stomach. When he cries to me of his fears about space and whether we could all be swallowed by a black hole, I want to cry too, because I do not understand it either and I cannot make it better for him. Thirteen is having to come to terms with my inadequacies: I can no longer make things up to placate him, I can’t explain ‘space’ when I do not understand it myself and what terrifies him terrifies me too. How to explain to him that I’ve just learned how to compartmentalise, how to dissemble, even to myself, about things. That in the end it’s just too exhausting to worry about every little thing. That he will have to come to terms with accepting that not only does he not know, his mother doesn’t know, most people don’t know but actually most people don’t care and are happier for it. I think, I hope, he will get there in the end. Perhaps Fifteen will be cheerfully checking the stars through a telescope and Eighteen will happily hop on a plane to go on holiday with his friends. And perhaps not.
Thirteen is still connected to me, physically, viscerally. He may have left my body back in 2001, but the cord is pulsing fast and strong, just as the little boy he was pulses in him still, as he starts his adolescence.