My Baby Boy, My Little Man
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Surviving my son’s puberty as a Solo Mom
Let’s talk a little about the madness of puberty. My son recently turned 13. Granted, he’s one of the cooler kids I know—confident, funny, self-assured, smart. And yet there are those moments when I look at him and think, Who is this morose, uncooperative, belligerent, annoying kid? OK, I admit it: We just had an argument a little while ago, and I’m still a little steamed. Dare I try to write this article on the heels of such a moment?
I say yes because I’m sure there’s not one mother of an adolescent out there who hasn’t, at least at some point, felt so angry at her child that she wanted to spit (or worse). Meeting the challenge of keeping that anger (or any of our other emotions) in check while simultaneously applying discipline, structure, guidance, and a loving touch to communications with our puberty-crazed kids is one of the more surreal tasks for Solo Moms. However, it is essential work.
I have to constantly remind myself it’s his job to oppose me at his age. He’s setting healthy boundaries around himself, figuring out where he ends and his mom begins. But I miss being able to tap out when I need to and letting my husband (who died almost 7 years ago) take over, while I dial things down. Without the opportunity to step back and get some perspective, it’s hard not to feel like the stakes are high and fall into a habitual battle mode. It really helps me to have an extended family of friends and relatives of various genders and temperaments to provide me with ongoing backup and perspective, in addition to an occasional, much-needed break.
But there are other challenges besides hormones and cognitive development. Middle school is a notoriously tough time for all kids. Public school (where my son attends) has become a place more concerned with discipline and conformity than encouraging creativity and self-expression. And adolescence today is a far cry from what it was when we were kids. The complexity and violence of the world combined with the overwhelming level of media bombardment and electronic distraction seem to have escalated rapidly in recent years, leaving us all struggling to make sense of things for ourselves as well as our kids.
But personally, my own biggest challenge is reconciling my son’s need to assert his own independence with my own need to feel honored and respected. And, of course, this dynamic is complicated by the fact that I’m still emotionally tender and a bit vulnerable around the grief of losing my husband. It gets extremely tricky to tease out what part of the communication with my son is my own emotional stuff and what part is him being irresponsible or even antagonistic.
Here are a few lessons I’ve managed to pull out of this complicated emotional minefield. I will tell you right now that I don’t always remember them when I need to, but I’m getting better at not beating myself up when I don’t.
1. Remember he’s still a kid. In a solo-parenting situation, especially if you’ve lost your partner, it can be tempting to treat your little boy as your little man. After all, it’s just you and him against the world, and you may both naturally want to protect and comfort each other. But as nice as that may feel, it’s really important to remember that your little boy is just that. As much as he may act like he’s in a hurry to grow up, there’s a part of him that really needs to be protected and made to feel safe. Sometimes that safety comes in the form of imposing limits that will make him angry, but trust me, deep down inside, he appreciates what you are doing. Stand firm when you know something is important, and let him know you are serious. He will test your boundaries and push as hard as he can. Be ready for that.
2. Pick your battles. If you are feeling angry that you can’t get your son to do what you want, remember that this has more to do with you than him. You won’t be able to control how he feels or responds to you, and it can be maddening. My first impulse is usually to try to assert my authority and get him to give in. This has become a losing battle, and more often than not, it backfires in my face. What I’ve learned is that I can give my son choices that come attached to consequences. It’s up to him to decide how to proceed.
3. Manage your emotions. This is the hardest one for me: I get angry (Why won’t you listen to me?); I cry (How can you treat me this way?); I get scared (What will people think of you? Of me?).
And the middle-school climate doesn’t make things any easier. With large class sizes and an insistence on conformity, many schools have cultivated a rigid and punishing environment that can be extremely demoralizing. All this happens at a time when their brains are fairly scrambled and they may not be operating at peak efficiency. They need to know that at least one adult in the world understands what they’re going through, even if it seems that all they do is blame other people instead of owning their own choices.
It’s our job to let them know we hear them and that they have a right to their feelings, even as we attempt to teach them the basics about taking responsibility. The outside world can feel pretty hostile, and we have to do what we can to remind them that they are worthy and loved.
4. Learn to let go. Ultimately, this is as much of a time for us Solo Moms to take a developmental leap as it is for our sons. It’s hard for us to let go of our little boys and give them the space they need to become men. And the fact is, by the time our boys are adolescents, their personalities are pretty much formed. Our work now is maintaining a steady presence and being supportive of their process. Maybe if we understand this a little better, we’ll give ourselves a break and enjoy the fruits of all the work we’ve already done.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor who collaborates with other writers, artists, and creative entrepreneurs to develop and promote their projects. She is currently working on a collection of stories and poems about grief, parenting, and sexuality, which, as it turns out, are not always mutually exclusive.
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