One of the reasons I could never be a book critic — and why I’ve always sucked at arguments — is because I react to life with a lot of feeling, and can never quite seem to put those feelings into words.
I’m in this position now. How do I describe all of the complexities of you — my 11-year-old (gasp!) guy — at this stage in your life?
I was trying to think of some words this morning on the way back from the store with breakfast fixings. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and your cousin, Grayson, slept over after your birthday dinner with family last night. The dumb pandemic kept us apart for so long, so this time together — filled with laughter and shouting, good food and blissful chaos — felt particularly special. As the oldest cousin, you are the one they all look up to.
The words that came to mind were a mix of things, so I’ve decided to list them here — in no particular order — and just go with it.
Tall – You come up to my shoulder. You fit into some men’s clothing. When did this happen? This is not OK!
Smart – This week you take an assessment for an accelerated math program in middle school next year (middle school?? gasp!), and I know you’ll rock it. You’ve fallen in love with chess and are stoked to be going to chess camp this summer. You’re always reading, always; everywhere we go. The Golden Compass, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, Dragonlance, and Redwall series remain in rotation. You love thought puzzles, trivia, and “would you rathers.” You constantly ask questions. You designed an entire game of “Amazing Race” throughout our house for your grandmas.
Argumentative – You often challenge rules and requests, remembering that one time THREE YEARS AGO when I said the opposite or let something slide. “But, why not?” is a frequent response when I say no to something, followed by a litany of reasons why you think I’m wrong.
Loving – I always thought Jack would be the one to take care of me when I’m old and decrepit, but it might be you! You have the sweetest heart, and you’ve been particularly kind to me this year, always remembering to provide encouragement and give me a hug as I slog through my MBA program. Lots of “you can do it”s and “yay mom”s to help get me through. You always remember to hug me and say “I love you” before bed, or before you walk into school. You remember to tell your Grandmas how much you care for them and appreciate when you can see them.
You have a lot of heart for animals, too. The cats (yes, they’re still with us!) now allow you to pet them, even though they still run from Jack. You’ve decided you hate the Zoo because animals there are “kept in cages,” despite our efforts to explain the benefits and nuances of that truth.
Funny, Mischievous – Your laugh — those deep belly laughs — is one of the best sounds in the universe. You’ve watched a few stand-up comic routines with Dad, and some SNL episodes with me, and the sound of this laughter soars through our home. You’re developing Dad’s talent with puns. You went as “COVID” for Halloween (and even made the costume yourself). You love to tease me, calling my ’90s playlists and corny movies something the “ancients” liked.
Maturing – I’m stunned during those moments when you act far older than your 11 years. The other day, you came home from a movie night at Grandma’s and discovered we were watching “Rouge 1,” which had been on our family watch list for awhile. You asked to speak with me alone in the other room, and when we got there, you calmly, but shakily, explained that you felt hurt and angry that we were watching the movie without you. You used “I” statements! Well, I was floored and started crying because ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? Most adults have trouble recognizing — let alone verbalizing — triggers for their emotions.
You did something similar on a bike ride a few months back. You fell, and were upset. I tried to comfort you by saying that falls happen to everyone. “Mom,” you replied. “I know you are just trying to make me feel better, and thank you for that, but it doesn’t help.” Well, OK then!
Private, Homebody, Uninterested in Physical Activity – I grouped these because I think they’re interrelated. It remains a struggle to get you out of the house — especially when it comes to anything active. You want to be reading inside or playing video/board games inside or smacking your brother with pool noodles inside. You thrived during the two months of virtual school because you didn’t have to go anywhere.
Dad and I sometimes force you and Jack on walks, hikes, and bike rides — even just to eat dinner in the backyard — and it’s always grooooaaaaaaaan and whiiiiiinnnne and how much loooooooonger. I got you to run with me twice during the past year.
As a fifth grader, you had the option of getting a yard sign announcing your graduation. “No thanks,” you said. “I don’t want people knowing my business.” Um, are you sure you’re my kid??
Musical….Maybe? – You are so musical, Charlie — always singing and humming. You love EDM, and have even recommended some cool running mixes. Dad and I had unrealized hopes that you’d enjoy band this year (you picked the trombone because it had the “fewest number of buttons I need to press”). But, because of the pandemic, band practice was virtual this year, and it took place after formal school hours, when you were at the super-fun after-school program. You were never motivated to remember to log in, or you “forgot” your instrument at home on band days. You hated to practice. Your instructor wasn’t very engaged either, and actually left partway through the year. Dad and I should’ve been more on it, but we weren’t. When spring came around, we cut our losses, returned the rented trombone, and emailed the new instructor that you wouldn’t be signing in the rest of the year. Sigh.
When it came to picking an elective in middle school, you balked at band and orchestra, and initially rejected the idea of choir. This particularly pained Dad, who deeply feels the value of a music education (we were both choir geeks in high school; his won best in the country!). Dad struggled with whether to require you take a musical elective, but we both knew that would set you up for failure. Instead, you chose a general, non-music elective. After a few weeks, however, we noticed some cracks in your anti-choir façade, especially when we received an email from the school encouraging you to take a second look at the program. You learned that part of the course involved making your own music at a “digital workstation” and you were suddenly in!
I’m hopeful, but cautious. As mentioned, you can be a private person, and not a huge fan of getting up in front of people. Also, I’m worried that my BIG ENERGY around Broadway will discourage you from leaning in to musical theater (that’s what happened with “Hamilton”; I was just too extra about it when I thought you liked it and ultimately pushed you away). But choir people are awesome, so I’m hoping you’ll start to find some of your people in that group.
Sensitive – You’re like me — you feel things deeply and your emotions are always right on the surface. If you feel wronged, or if something isn’t fair or doesn’t go the way you pictured it, you can get overwhelmed. While home is always a safe place for this to happen, it sometimes occurs when you’re at school or with your friends. I know how challenging and frustrating this can be for you — especially since fellow 11-year-olds aren’t known for their emotional sensitivity.
I wish I could tell you what a gift this is — that emotional people experience the world in such a special way. We love fiercely, and live a life of many colors. But, that also means our brains can be prone to crushing self-doubt, anxiety, and depression, which can lead to all sorts of challenges. My goal as your mom is to teach you how to embrace this reality about yourself, but not let it control you.
Changing – You’re on the cusp of some big changes in your life. Already, your body is different and your voice is deepening. Your emotions swing. You often run into walls and stub your toes because it’s hard to keep track of your body in space. Dad and I need to be more cautious about what you’re looking at on the Internet, and what your friends are telling you about the world. Three boys at your birthday party already had phones (gasp!). (As an aside, I think you should get one in middle school, mainly for tracking purposes, but Dad is vehemently against it).
I remember middle school as a time of awkward transition, when I started hearing about drugs and sex and other adult things. It was tough, but I also remember the thrill of breaking away from my elementary school friend group, discovering who I was beginning to be as a person, and finding others like me.
I know you struggle with your identity. You feel self-conscious that you’re smart, love to read, don’t like sports, have big emotions. You’ve been called a nerd, and made to feel like the odd one out. I try to tell you that everyone feels like this — even as adults — but I know you won’t understand until you’ve lived more life. And that’s OK.
Gratitude — This is a word for me, about you. It perfectly summarizes what I feel about being your mother. You are complex, wonderful, dazzling. You were the child who made me a mother and you remind me every day what a wonderful gift that is.
Happy 11th birthday, my dear boy. In seven short years, you’ll legally be an adult. While this is boggling and terrifying, I can already tell what a cool adult you’ll be.
Perhaps you’ll still want to hang around with us “ancients.” I truly hope you do.