As I’ve reconnected with former listeners of Manic Mommies, I have reveled in the reminiscences of days gone by. Days filled with dirty diapers, toddler-size tantrums, sleepless nights, things stuck up noses, and problems that felt so, so big, but often could be solved with a snack or a good, long, nap.
I have also heard from some that what they really need now is a Manic Mommies for the teen years. Because while there was a wealth of information for us when the kids were young, those personal accounts start to dry up when the kids hit their teens.
Like many of our podcasting and blogging peers, we signed off just as our kids, and the problems we faced, got bigger and more personal. And the potential impact on our children as we shared their stories, felt too real – it’s one thing to talk about fighting with your son about wearing shorts outside when he is 3 years old. It’s another when he is 13. (To be clear, he wears pants and shorts voluntarily now).
Our now 16-year-old son (whom we shall Wolfgang, because that’s what I wanted to call him when I was pregnant, and I’m working to repair the shreds of his personal privacy) told me the other day that he was having a hard time connecting with his now 13-year-old sister (internet moniker to come), because she seemed distant, moody and had taken to locking herself in her room for hours on end.
As I wondered, not for the first time, at his maturity and sensitivity, I reminded him that she was the same age as he was during what he refers to as “the dark years.”
He doesn’t like to talk about those years often, but this time we both reflected with some wonder, that we made it through with our sanity, and our relationship, intact.
Because, for the “better part” of middle school, our son was a dark presence in our home. Often locked in the sanctuary of our basement, when he did come up for air, our conversations often ended in anger, frustration, and sadness. His anger was palpable and he was on a hair trigger. Often I was able to stay calm, but sometimes I cracked which only fueled the flames.
His favorite refrains were “you aren’t listening” and “you’ve changed.”
In the calms after the storms, I would tell him it was okay. That he was allowed to be a teenager. To storm. And scream. And rail against the world. That we were not going anywhere. That there was nothing he could say or do that would drive us away.
That’s not to say we didn’t walk away when space was needed – I put myself into “time out” quite often – but he always knew where we were. And that’s not to say we didn’t make mistakes, but we always owned up to them and were not afraid to change direction. And that’s not to say we didn’t have help – we found people to help him “clear the static” when he needed it, to talk about his parents and pains without judgment, and to also help him academically.
The saddest part of the dark times for me were the things he gave away. The interests he claimed he no longer had. The friends he no longer connected with. His struggle to “be himself” (and figure out what that meant).
Tears, on my part, were not uncommon and sometimes even leaked out in front of him. And while I knew this was “normal,” at my lowest points I wondered what happened to our sweet little man, and who would appear at the end.
For those of you reading this who are in the storm, I can’t tell you that it rolled out as quickly as it rolled in. But the truth is, it was much more gradual than that. The rages came less frequently and passed much faster. He made new connections. We talked more.
This summer we saw the most profound change in our son, and for that, I give much credit to summer camp and the leadership program he completed last summer.
The summer before last, in a last gasp for the darkness, he forced us to bring him home from overnight summer camp two weeks early. Despite his early departure, the camp accepted him into the program. And in the same safe haven in which I had found shelter as a teenager, he tried being himself – his athletic, smart, geeky, sensitive, funny, leaderly (yep, making up words here), thoughtful self – and was rewarded with friendship, encouragement, high marks, and enthusiastic praise.
To say his father and I were gobsmacked by the reviews we received when picking him up after a month would be the understatement of the century.
Coming back to school, he’s hung on to the person he rediscovered at summer camp. He’s tried new things (cross country!). He’s reconnected with friends. He’s reclaimed old interests. He’s got a girlfriend who appreciates him. He’s figuring out what he needs to do to succeed academically. And instead of spending most of his time in our basement, he can be found, instead, sitting on our couch talking to us.
I wish I could wrap this up with some words of wisdom, or that I could take full credit for the turnaround, but the truth is our son had to find his own way through the darkness, to the other side.
Photo credit: YMCA Camp Fuller