Parenting Older Kids

My youngest child, Patch, is now taller than me. This milestone sneaked past us sometime in the last few weeks. In contrast, both of my girls are shorter than I am and they probably will be their entire lives. This is a natural consequence of having a grandmother who was 4’11”. Thus my largest emotion in relation to Patch’s height is relief that he’s headed for at least average male height. I know how difficult it can be to be short and male. Patch’s feelings about his height are far more complicated. He spent a lifetime being the little one, youngest and smallest. Six months ago he still was. Now he’s taller than both of his older sisters and his mother. Within the next six months he’ll likely be taller than his dad and possibly his older brother as well. His world is shifting dramatically and as a result, he is anxious about all the things. Even things that would not have bothered him before.

Earlier this week I read a post titled Dear Lonely Mom of Older Kids. In it, Rachel Anne Ridge talks about how mothers chatter about their young children, but when the kids get older, we begin to fall silent. This is not because mothers of older children don’t need support networks and reassurance. I think that Ms. Ridge got to the heart of it when she said:

so much of it….you just can’t talk about. Because you suddenly realize that these kids are people. People with feelings and emotions. And you can’t go around blogging about their mean math teacher or their failed attempt at choir auditions. These are things that are too precious, too priceless, too soul-baring, too hard to share. They need you to be their safe place. They need you to keep their secrets. They need you to pick up pimple concealer at CVS and not breathe a word to anyone. They are so easily embarrassed and you must do your part to help them get through it.

The parent-of-young-children years are full of frustrations which are exhausting. The teen years, at least for me, at least for the last two years, have been full of frustrations that are heart rending. I’m weary and the stories in my head are a tangle of things I can tell, things I must hold safe, things that are joyful, but private, and things that hurt too much.

Link dances in the kitchen as he does dishes. He’s bopping around to music I can’t hear because the ear buds are transmitting directly to him and not to the world at large. I pause for a moment to watch him because just three months ago he did not smile at all. He was living in the bottom of an emotional pit. Now he is not, and I have to stop and appreciate that fact because not-living-in-an-emotional-pit is not the same as life-is-all-sunshine-and-roses. I spend far too much time worrying about possible futures that I have imagined, most of which I want to avoid at all costs. It gets so that I spend all of my todays trying to maneuver toward the imagined futures that I want for my son. Instead I should spend more time recognizing how far we’ve come and trusting that he’ll grow in his own way.

I have three teenagers and one pre-teen. In a few months my oldest will turn twenty and I’ll be down to two. Until next year when I’ll have three again. I definitely fall into the category of Mom with Older Kids. Yes it is lonely. I no longer have any casual friendships formed because my kid plays with her kid at the park. I’m leaving the era of carpool coordination. I’m often isolated, and this is only increased by an awareness that my kids are navigating some non-standard teenage paths. In fourth grade all the kids are doing pretty much the same things. I can can talk to any other mom-of-a-fourth-grader and know we’re on common ground. Her kid is also doing a state report, just like mine. By high school the kids are all scattered. My neighbor has a son who is my son’s age. He’s highly social, involved in multiple sports, always running off with her car, getting ready to apply for colleges. He’s on the path that is considered standard. My son is being partially home schooled because his anxiety and depression made public high school too overwhelming. Sometime in the next few months I hope to be able to coax my son into learning to drive. The differences between our sons does not mean that my neighbor and I can’t be friends, but it does mean that we need to do a lot more listening and question asking. We can’t assume that our parenting experiences are similar just because our sons are the same age. Which is probably good friendship advice for parents of all ages. Don’t assume that their parenting experience is the same as yours.

My teenage Gleek has been reading and writing horror stories. She loves them. I am disturbed by this, even though I’m aware that it does not necessarily indicate anything to be concerned about. Teenagers are often drawn to the creepy and unexplainable. They live in a strange space where so much of their lives is beyond their control and seeing that lack of control in stories can be very cathartic. In the last month I’ve watched her come out of her shell and form friendships that extend beyond school hours. She’s going to friends’ houses and bringing them here. This socialization was absent from her life for three years. Now it is back. She is happy. She is doing well in school. She is kind and empathetic. And she is writing creepy stories. So I watch. And I remember the good friends I have who write horror for a living. And I try not to worry that her life will become emotionally tumultuous again the way that it was two years ago.

Kiki has had an emotionally eventful college semester. A break up, roommate arguments, too many classes, too much stress. She’s called home and come home more often this semester. Yet I can see how each stressful thing makes her grow. She’s learning lots about herself, about other people, and about how she relates to the world. She’s learned how and when to ask for help. She’s grown so much, and that makes her want to run home and just be a kid for a bit. Good thing her spring break is almost here.

It is all mixed up together in parenting older kids. The hopeful things, the hard things, my emotions, their emotions. We make each other mad and we give each other joy. When I do manage to connect with other mothers of older kids, it helps. Ms. Ridge’s post helps. Which is why I keep working to untangle my thoughts enough so that I can write about my thoughts and my children. Because there are lots of other families out there who need to be able to see that the media-presented version of teenage life is not the only valid path from childhood to adulthood. And because I need to find ways to tell the stories so they can stop circling endlessly in my head.

The thing is, even at its hardest and loneliest, I still prefer parenting my older kids to the thought of going back to the little kid years. My teenagers are amazing. They have perspectives I’ve never considered. They make me laugh. I’m glad I have teenagers and I look forward to growing with them as they become adults.