My dear son,
I’m writing this letter while you’re lying next to me in bed, reading. See, you’re 9 years old now, so you get to stay up until a very-late 8:30 p.m. On nights I put you to bed versus Jack, we often find ourselves curled up together with our books (you’re currently reading a “Teen Titans Go” graphic novel).
It’s one of my favorite times together. We don’t talk much, but I get a bit of that uninterrupted, one-on-one closeness with you, times that seem to grow fewer and fewer as you grow older.
You’ll notice that I’m writing this well after your May birthday. I had planned to at least start your letter that evening, but mere minutes after we got home, you accidentally slammed Jack’s fingers into the door jam in a fit of rage, and we all headed to Urgent Care to ensure they weren’t broken.
You were devastated. Partly, because you unintentionally really hurt your brother. Mostly, I suspect, because you felt your birthday night was ruined. You’d already had a tough day at school; you were really bothered by a snotty remark from a classmate about your birthday: “Congratulations, Charles, you’re one year closer to dying.” WTF, kid.
Birthdays were special in my house growing up, and I treat them the same way as a mom. That night, you were going to pick a place to eat dinner, and we had purchased a giant ice cream cake. All those plans got messed up the moment we heard Jack’s scream. (Sadly, for me, I had just taken the bottle of wine out of the fridge and set it on the counter.)
Luckily, Jack was OK, and an In & Out Burger was close to Urgent Care, so the night wasn’t a total wash. And, I hope you learned a valuable lesson about actions having consequences.
Speaking of lessons, this has been a year of challenges and also wins as you continue to grow and mature. Since you began preschool, you’ve followed the same pattern: The year begins great, but we start to hear about behavioral challenges around November. We work on those and winter goes well, but then issues bubble up again in the Spring. This year was no different.
In third grade, we’ve had two parent-teacher conferences, four meetings with the after-school program coordinator, and one call from the principal. At one point, you were in danger of losing your spot in that after-school program for poor behavioral choices. We told you that if we heard from the school one more time, we’d make the choice that you wouldn’t be able to look at a screen until the end of the school year. Things shaped up after that.
Third grade has been tougher for me as a parent. All of a sudden, you’re coming home with very adult questions and facing more complicated psychological situations at school. I’m incredibly grateful that you ask me these questions (ex: “Mom, what does it mean to be gay?”), so that I have a chance to frame a response that reflects our family’s values — and also one that is factually correct.
In the car one day, we were listening to a podcast about what age parents should start talking to their kids about sex. We thought you were buried in a book (note to self: children are always listening), but you piped up, “I’m 8 years old, and I already know about sex.” Ummmmm, Dad and I locked eyes and communicated non-verbally, We’re not sure you do. While the “What Makes a Baby” book was pretty good about laying out basic facts, I didn’t think you knew the mechanics.
I scrunched up my face and mumbled some high-pitched tones that communicated, “Should we tell him?” and your Dad shrugged acquiescently. So, I asked you what sex was. After a few seconds, you admitted you didn’t really know, so I told you. After the explanation, I asked if you had any questions; you nervously replied, “Um, no!,” and immediately stopped talking to us.
A few months ago, we learned you had tested into G.A.T.E., scoring at the 99th percentile nationally. Dad and I attended a parents’ information session where the instructor reviewed a list of character traits that are often associated with gifted students. It was REVELATORY. Dad and I kept meeting each other’s eyes and mouthing, “OMG, this is Charlie!”
— Strong willed; resists direction
— Dislikes unclear/illogical areas
— Manipulates words/information
— Worries about humanitarian concerns
— Constructs complicated rules
— May become class clown for attention
— Asks all the questions and draws inferences
I could go on. Not to make this all about me, but I’ve never felt so seen as a parent. So many of your triumphs, your struggles, your motivations, your reactions align with these traits.
I have some complicated feelings about G.A.T.E. As a kid, I didn’t get into the program, even though most of my friends were in it, and I carried shame about not being “smart enough” for many years. But at the parent-teacher conference, I learned that it’s more about the way your brain works versus how “smart” you are. I’m excited that you’ll be in the program next year, especially since your school puts an emphasis on your emotional development in addition to your academic development.
Let’s talk about how independent you’re getting, you 9-year-old. A few months ago, we took your younger cousin to LegoLand. At one point, you, he and Jack ran ahead of your uncle and me and we ended up losing track of you for several minutes. However, I felt completely comfortable in your ability to handle getting lost at a theme park, which still strikes me as super weird. I knew you’d take care of the two younger boys and come up with a solution to get us back. And you totally handled it.
I’ve left you home when I had to run up to the store. Dad and I have gone on a handful of after-dinner walks alone — gasp! — while you watched Jack. One morning on Spring Break, I left both you boys in front of TV cartoons in the hotel room and went to the gym (Grandma Z was next door), and also let you take Jack alone on the lazy river. Sometimes I can’t believe it.
Even Baron has started to let you pet him!
Other highlights from your eighth year:
Halloween costume: Some kind of dragon zombie (scary dragon mask + black clothes). Initially, you wanted to wear a terrifying “Navy Seal Black Ops 6” outfit that came with a skeleton mask and two knives. We decided that was a little too fascist-state for us.
Favorite book: The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Grandma Z brought over the book one day (it once belonged to my Dad — cue tears), and you started reading it aloud with Dad at night. Now, you stuff this thousand-page book in your backpack most days and take it to school with you, so you can read on your own.
Best friend(s): Jet, Everett, Ryan, Cash (Allie from across the street is well into her early teen years, so she has understandably fallen off the radar)
Hobby: Video games. Oh, so many video games. When you were born, Dad made a onesie for you that said, “One day I will beat you at video games.” Well, that day is clearly here. You love Lego Star Wars and Mario Kart and Splatoon 2 (I guess the first one sucked?) and, of course, Minecraft. A few times this year, you’ve gone with Dad to an all-day video game session at his friend Josh’s house. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you happier.
Favorite dance: This is clear tie between flossing and the Snoop Dog move from “Drop it Like It’s Hot,” which you do when you think something is cool.
Favorite TV Show: Top Chef or Nailed It!
Favorite celebrity: John Cena, though no one knows why. I guess a bunch of your friends starting talking about him and you thought he sounded cool? You definitely were never exposed to this person in our house. Now, you have some disturbing, roided-out photo of him with angel wings as the wallpaper to your iPad. It’s. So. Weird.
Favorite food: You’d say ice cream cake, but I have to go with bacon on this one. At Josh and Lea’s wedding, they had a Bloody Mary bar with a jar full of bacon as a cocktail accessory. You kept sneaking up to the table and grabbing handfuls of the stuff to shove in your mouth.
Favorite sport: None. You refuse to go out for any team sports. You and Jack both cry when Dad and I have the gall to suggest we go on a hike. Dad and you tested rock climbing this year. I even bribed you to run a mile with me, hoping you’d find it fun. One bright spot is that you’ve begun taking gymnastics again (flashback to when you were 3, and you flat-out refused to do the first half of your gymnastics class…we ended up dis-enrolling you because you spent most of the class stubbornly sitting down in the middle of the group).
One night I got home late from work and sneaked into your bedroom to say goodnight. This is when you feel most vulnerable, when I can get you to share some details from your day just so I’ll stay longer. Somehow college came up, and you got very quiet.
“Mom, do I have to go somewhere far for college?”
“Of course not, baby. But I have the feeling that when you’re older, you’ll want to go out on your own and attend school elsewhere.”
“I know you say that. But it’s not true….(at this point, some tears begin to fall) ….Where ever I am during the day, I want to come home to you every night. Even if you make me move out, I’ll only live a few houses down forever. I want to always be near you.“
Oh, my sweet boy. My heart. There is some part of me that desperately yearns for that. At 9 years old, you are halfway to being an adult and I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.
But the greatest joy about being your mother is watching you grow and change and become the person that you’ll be. I imagine I’ll feel the same sense of awe and gratitude when you do leave for college, even though there will always be a Charlie-sized hole in my heart when you’re not physically here.
Until then, I will appreciate these fleeting moments — even the ones involving the principal, and especially the ones like now, when we’re side-by-side, cuddling with our books before lights-out at 8:30 p.m.