This Is Adolescence: 13

I have a teenage son.

It gives me pause to say it aloud.

Just like I stumbled over the words “fiance” and “husband” when I first spoke them, there is something surreal about hearing myself admit to having a teenage son.

He certainly looks the part.

When he sleeps, he takes up the entire bed. He throws his long, toned arms overhead in repose. Even on the coldest nights, the covers are cast off, and he dons the obligatory teenage sleepwear–gym shorts and an oversized t shirt.

When did he last wear pajamas? A year ago? Two years?

There are no pajamas in the land of 13.

When he stands, 13 is tall enough that I have to look up to meet his eyes, indigo like his Father’s. They share the same broad shoulders and enviably long legs. I know those legs by heart. I see them every day as 13 maintains his three-stride-ahead-of-me distance. He carries himself with just as much confidence as his Father and a touch more humility.

Is it wrong to hope that’s my doing?

13 has an upper lip in need of its first shave.

He ambles around in a men’s size 11 shoe.

He grunts more frequently than he speaks.

When he does talk, his voice is so deep that–when I hear it from a room away–I wonder which of my children let the strange man into the house.


I am negotiating with 13 as I write this. He is painfully private, so I feel it’s only right to ask his permission before writing about him. His reply? “You may write about me. But it will cost you.” He lobbies for a YouTube account. I have something less permanent in mind. Like a chocolate milkshake.

Negotiations remain at a standstill.


I am puzzled by 13 as I write this. He would eat buffalo chicken sandwiches every day of the week if I let him. And chase it with a jar of olives. I find wrappers in his pockets from packs of Mentos. Mentos. Are they back? Were they ever really in?

13 fills every blank space in his first grade brother’s My Book About Me with the word “poop.” All 63 pages.

13 ducks when I reach out to fix his hair. He allows me to kiss him goodbye and goodnight, but he rolls his eyes almost every time I do it.

13 removes the tank lid from the toilet, assesses why it won’t flush, and remedies the problem in under a minute. Yet he wants me to spread cream cheese on his bagel.

13 prefers to stay home and watch Jimmy Fallon clips rather than accompany his buddies to a middle school dance. “Why would I ever want to go there?” he asks.

“I know what that means,” I whisper my husband. “It’s The Girls. He isn’t ready to be around The Girls yet.”

13’s only wants are Doritos, video games, YouTube videos, and sleep.

Rinse (really well. And, I beg you, rinse again) and repeat.

I know this boy.

Except maybe I don’t. Because one day, he rolls in and announces he tried out for a part in the school play. And he’s made it. He doesn’t remember which part he got, but it’s a big one.

The one thing he is specific about?

“The Girls. There are lots of them,” he smiles and raises his eyebrows as he relays this.

Wait, he’s not smiling.

He’s beaming.

So maybe he is ready…it just needs to be on his terms.


I am frustrated with 13 as I write this. When I reach under his bed in search of a missing  Nike Elite sock, my hand brushes his laptop. His school laptop. Which he should have with him right now. Because he is at school. I am frustrated not because he has forgotten it. In a house with five males, things get forgotten. I am frustrated that his laptop is in his room when we have a clear no-electronics-in-the-bedroom rule. A rule he continues to break.

I don’t find the overpriced sock. Instead I find the security blanket that was his comfort and constant companion through the first years of his young life. To anyone outside our immediate family, it looks like a rag collecting dust. For me, it’s like bumping into a dear old friend. It is his Velveteen Rabbit, the most treasured item from his childhood.

But he is 13.

Has it been abandoned? Outgrown and forgotten like Jessie in Toy Story? A movie we watched together a decade ago while he sucked his thumb, wrapped in that very blanket and snuggled on my lap.

Or does he leave it under his bed on purpose? Does it comfort him at the end of each day to know that it still exists and is literally within his grasp?

I know better than to ask him. His answer would come in the form of Sarcasm. 13 speaks it every hour of every day. Except for the thirty minutes before he goes to bed. Which coincide with the thirty minutes I’m most mentally and physically drained. He is quieter than ever–if you don’t count the grunting–so when he speaks, I try to listen. It’s then that he allows the mask to slip, and I glimpse the young man who wants to do right. By himself, by his parents, by his brothers, by his teachers, by his friends.

We speak in hushed tones in darkness, save for the faint glow of a street light that casts a single beam through his bedroom window. Comforted by the shadows, he breaks down the difference between cool and uncool. Listening to him, it occurs to me that cool is not just an adjective. It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adverb. It’s the object of every 13 year old preposition. The gap between his definition of cool and mine would take several oceans to fill. It’s the difference between having experienced life and having one’s entire life still ahead of him.

He explains why he doesn’t text an old friend as much and that it doesn’t bother him.

Confides that one girl is not as friendly in his eyes as another, but he is in no hurry to speak to either of them.

I answer questions if he asks, and rail against the voice in my head that aches to turn every moment into a teaching moment. It is the most well-intentioned part of me. It’s also the part that shuts him down most quickly.

I walk away from those insightful nights with a better understanding of where 13 believes he resides in this world. He wants to fit in, but is not uncomfortable standing out.

It’s not a bad place to be.


I am captivated by 13 as I write this. He is our oldest child. His firsts are our firsts. Ours is a complicated dynamic because 13 has three younger brothers. It’s noisy. It’s smelly. It’s snacks all the time. There is bleeding. We have stitches. My husband and I have little confidence in our ability to anticipate what 13 needs because this is the first time we’ve parented 13.

Hello, how do you do?

So much of our interacting is my asking him not to do some things…

“Please don’t tease your brothers,”

“Please don’t curse at the dinner table,”

“Please don’t cook anything while you’re babysitting,”

…while begging him to do others…

“Please change your socks. Every. Day.”

“Please wait to tell me this story when we are not around little ears.”

“Remove your headphones when I’m speaking to you. What did I say? I SAID REMOVE YOUR HEADPHONES WHEN I’M SPEAKING TO YOU!”

13 enjoys his math teacher so much that he agrees to spend his Sunday afternoon volunteering at a school open house simply to spend more time with him.

For all of his grunting, 13 grows animated when the subject of Santa Claus arises. This is his fourth Christmas in the know, but you’d never guess by listening to him regale his younger brothers with stories of that time he heard reindeer on the roof. He’s no readier for the magic to end than we are. We are bonded in our enthusiasm to keep the littles believing.

When we go out in public and I have the wherewithal to step back and let him take the lead, I am able to appreciate the young man he is becoming.

I find that I like him.

He is clever. Well spoken. Smart. He engages comfortably with adults. He enjoys people and wants to put them at ease. He is an old soul. He reminds me of the things I love most about my Dad.


Yes, I miss when his hand was little, and it fit so perfectly in mine. I miss the way he climbed onto my lap. I miss hugs initiated by his little arms. I miss singing him a lullaby every night.

But 13 is good stuff.

It is watching The Walking Dead with him, but knowing, no matter how much he begs, he is way too young for Homeland.

It’s skimming the last hundred pages of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 because I can’t wait to give it to him to read next.

It’s intentionally sitting next to him on a haunted hayride so that I can seek refuge behind his broad shoulders.

It’s talking more candidly about health and human sexuality because I want him to be informed, be safe, be respectful, be happy. I want him to feel normal.

It’s knowing that he is going to make mistakes–that he needs to make mistakes–and hoping they aren’t the kind of mistakes from which he can’t recover.


He remains three strides ahead of me on the sidewalk.

I’m no longer the central character I was in his story a mere decade ago.

13 feels compelled to walk his own path. His need to brave it on his own transcends my desire to be alongside him every step of the way.

Where I fit into his life is not his concern.

That I am here is all he needs to know.

I will not look to close the gap between us.

For now, I’ll stay out of sight, out of mind–yet still within arm’s reach at the end of the day.

Just like his beloved old blanket.

It’s not a bad place to be in this surreal world of mine.

Now that I have a teenage son.

TIA logo


This is the third installment of This Is Adolescence. It is a true thrill to be a voice in this writing series. Thanks to Lindsey Mead and Allison Tate for having me. Lindsey kicked off our series with a beautiful look at age 11. Allison followed with insight about 12 that so paralleled my experience with 12 that if I didn’t know she lived in Florida, I’d believe she were my very own peeping tom right here in Philadelphia. I’m looking forward to reading ages 14 through 18, written by Catherine Newman, Jessica Lahey, Marcelle Soviero, Shannon Duffy, and Lisa Heffernan. 


They Call me The Gatekeeper

Parenting is a tricky bastard. It moves. It shifts. It misleads. As soon as you feel you’ve got a firm grasp on it, it turns to dust in your hands, blowing right through your over-confident fingers.

It leaves you frazzled. Wishing for a do-over. It makes a fool of you.

I have been a parent for only 12 years. Yet I recognize it for the nimble minx that it is.

When I think about the kind of parent I want to be, I picture a scene from a movie. Like Diane Keaton in The Family Stone. As loving as she is loved. Filled with compassion and joy. She radiates in the company of her husband and children.The dinner table scene? It gets me. Every. Time. It. Gets. Me.

But life isn’t like a movie. The dinner table at my house is more like a scene from Animal House than The Family Stone. There’s nothing romantic about a family dinner. Real life is a bunch of rowdy kids around a table making fart noises in their armpits. They say things like, “your meatloaf is disgusting,” and, “When’s Dad going to be home, he’s more fun than you,” and “I never remember what happened at school, who do you always ask,” and “I hate everyday Math”.

Oh…wait, that last statement was mine.

Have you ever seen Bridesmaids? Remember the part when Rita talks about her 3 boys?

Well, we’re almost there. Actually, we may even be there, but I may be a little bit in denial. The disgusting part has arrived, uninvited, on my doorstep. The scent that filled my home and defined my first decade of parenting is now gone.

Not a trace of baby powder left.

Armpits whizzing past me smell like hoagies.

Sneakers left by the front door stink like roadkill that has been left to bake in the sun for days.

Showers are taking FOR.EV.ER.

When I pick through the piles of dirty laundry to locate and wash the totally overpriced and quite frankly butt-ugly Nike Elite socks that are all the rage among middle school boys, I find washcloths. Oy. Doth my nose detect a waft of shampoo when the boys emerge from the shower? It does not. I don’t want to know what’s happening in there. I don’t need to know what’s happening in there. That’s why God put doors on bathrooms. To keep some mystery in the house. If my boys could be a little less European about how frequently they shampoo, I’d be super jazzed.

I’m saying things I never thought I’d have to say aloud. Things like, “I think it’s a bad idea to be naked in the same room with the cat.”

And, “Please remove your nose from your brother’s butt cheeks. You’ll smell that fart soon enough.”

And, “Dancing on the breakfast table naked sure looks like fun. But swinging your man jewels around like that is considered inappropriate in most circles. Also, I don’t really want your penis near my avocado smoothie.”

Did you grow up watching The Cosby Show? Remember when Heathcliff Huxtable would threaten his kids, “I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out”?

And your parents would laugh, and you’d think, “I don’t get it. Mom and Dad are laughing. I’m supposed to be laughing, so I’ll laugh, but I don’t get it.”

We’re officially there. And, son of a bitch four times over, I get it.

Indeed. I get it.

There are no prize-winning scripts in parenting. It’s just you, your children, and the great unexpected.

What will they do?

And what, pray tell, will you say in reply?

Just last week, I sat across the dinner table from Waldorf and said things to him I never imagined I’d say to my child.

“Listen to me, and listen to me good,” I hissed, jabbing my finger in his direction to hammer my point home.

“You are acting like a colossal dick. Your attitude is crap. You had better turn it around, or when your father gets home from work, he will fucking JACK you.”

Say what? Jack you? Like car jack you? And how big is the difference between acting like a regular dick and acting like a colossal dick? Is it measurable?

But I was on a roll. And there’s no stopping Mom when she’s on a roll…

“Look at my face,” I said. “I am The Gatekeeper. Every decision that is made in this house must come through me. If you don’t change your attitude immediately, I will remove everything fun from your life. I can do that. Because I am The Gatekeeper. And I control all the things. The fun things. And the not fun things…all the things. I control them all…”

In all of the Hollywood inspired visions I’ve had of myself as a mother, I never once fantasized about cursing my oldest son out. Or threatening him physically on behalf of my husband. And I especially didn’t picture myself reaching into the depths of 1984 to channel a character played in Ghostbusters.

Does Diane Keaton do that? No she does not.

Apparently, I do.

I’m a little worried about this new phase of parenting we’re entering in my house.

We haven’t even hit driving yet.

Or sexting.

Or driving while sexting.

One thing is for sure. This parenting gig is hard. It’s nothing like the way they portray it in the movies.

I know this. Because…

I’m just a girl.

Standing in front of four boys.

Asking them to pee with some precision.