Last spring, right around the time school let out (May-ish, when the air is warm but not yet humid, and everyone wants to have class outside (even the adults, locked in their offices of glass and steel and climate-controlled windows that won't open), and the kids are all just itching for the final bell to ring and free them from the prison that is school) last spring, I got The Call. It was not a Divine Call to join some religious order or nunnery. Wrong religion, wrong calling. It was the dreaded Call From School. My son, far from being sick, far from being awarded some educational accolade or middle school equivalent of a Nobel Peace prize, was being awarded a detention. Dammit.
My son-- bright and funny and smart and kind and thirteen and, yeah; I'll say it again: smart-- my son lied. He lied about where he was, when he was, and just what the hell he was doing. He was supposed to be at an after school club. He was supposed to be finishing up some homework. What he got was caught. What he got was in trouble. What he got was a two day (two days!) detention in the Vice Principal's office.
My rational brain keeps sending me soothing messages: "He's thirteen. He'll get it together. You weren't an angel at his age. Look where you are now."
My lizard brain has a salamander basking on a rock in the hot sun, flicking its long, poison-tipped tongue, and whispering seductively in my ear: "Duuuuuuuuuuuct tape. Ssssstrap him to the chairrr and let him sssssssufferrrrrr, Then ssssssell him" Visions of torture and retribution dance through my head.
Oh great. Turns out, I'm a pacifist with violent tendencies.
My first impulse was to reach for my well-used, dog-eared copy of The Rule Book: A Parent’s Handy Dandy Guide to Raising Perfect Children.
Oh wait— there is no such book. Or, if there is, I must have been out grabbing a cup of coffee when They (the omnipotent, omnipresent They)— I was out when all the other parents were getting their copies. As an added bonus, I had apparently also been absent the day They handed out The Single Parent’s Guide as part of the divorce settlement. I was on my own, flying solo.
Ah— the joys of parenting. Single parenting at that. It hits me oddly, that giddy, terrifying, swoopy, bottom-dropping-out feeling, all sideways and slanted and so totally unexpected. They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you makes you stronger. Right. At this point, I am Atlas, and all I want to do is shrug. I know, I know: it’s really no big deal. He’s thirteen. It’s a detention, not hard time on a chain gang. But, well— it’s a detention. It’s one more thing I have to deal with, in a long line of stuff I have to deal with.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my son: fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. There is nothing I would not do for him. But these moments, where I am so certain that I’ve committed some grievous parenting error, provided him with more than sufficient fodder for future therapy sessions, in which I will have the starring role as Ghengis Khan, Machiavelli and Medea all rolled into one. these are the moments I would gladly trade. These are the times I want to call for a timeout. The Universe is less than obliging.
This isn’t big stuff. Hell, the big stuff is easy. I am the Fixer of Broken Things. So I fix. I act. I do. You shoulder the big stuff because you can’t do anything less. I never realized that it would be the small moments that would trip me up, leave me clueless and frustrated and slightly panicked. You find out the hard way, when it’s 10:00 and you realize you’ve run out of cream for tomorrow’s coffee. It’s that chasm of infinite guilt as you send your kid off to school with that nasty, nagging cough because you have a meeting that you just can’t miss, not today. It’s not signing up for Little League because you work and who the hell calls a practice at 4:00 in the afternoon for God’s sake, and hearing your son say, as you drive past the ball field, in that voice that’s way too mature: “It’s ok, Mommy. Maybe next year.” It’s going it alone, again, ever and always, as you try to navigate through all the lonely, silent days. It’s the easy stuff, the quiet stuff that makes it hard to breathe sometimes.
This is the part, neither big nor easy, but certainly breathless and definitely painful, where I admit that I have no idea what I'm doing. And I'm afraid that I will screw up my kid. Have screwed up my kid. That I'm doing my best, dammit, and am terrified that my best just isn't good enough. This is the part where I say my ego was bruised, and what the hell kind of mother could I possibly be to letsego matter when it comes to her kid? This is the part where I admit, through gritted teeth, that I am more annoyed with the fact that I believed him, rather than the fact that he lied at all.
This is the whispery, secret and ashamed part, where I admit that I had a part to play in this. Not the lying part, but the part that led up to that, kinda-sorta. The part that I knew he was struggling, treading water and not doing a good job at that, and I? I turned a blind eye to it. Ok, if not blind, then at least half-closed and squinty. Because there was the job thing and the bills-to-pay thing and the this-that-and-the-other-thing thing that was really important and had to be done right now and I promise I'll notice you later. And help you later. And teach you. Later.
Later. Ha! He's thirteen: there is no "later."
And I knew that. I knew that he needed me now, and prayed that later would be good enough. Hooray me.
And then I remember: it is a detention, nothing more. Time served, punishment meted. Small stuff.
For all that it can be sad and lonely and silent, it is small stuff. Painful and prickly and breathtaking-- but small stuff nonetheless. He is resilient, that boy of mine. He is bright and funny and smart and kind and thirteen and, yeah; I'll say it again: smart. He pushes at the boundaries to find his limits (and mine). He's learning to taste the choices he makes, and savor how they feel against his skin. He is becoming his own, which is, really, the whole point.
This is small stuff, and these are small moments. He lied. It's a detention. We survived the storm (even as I brace for the next one). But for all that, I get friends who remind me to breathe. They drown out the seductive song of that damned basking salamander and tell me that the small stuff is just that: small. They tell me that even the big stuff is small.
In the midst this, I have found a few small truths: Parenting is tough (single or paired or in whatever village-shaped iteration one has cadged together to get through these moments). I screw up, make mistakes, doubt and wonder and panic and dither. I love my son. Fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. I love him even when he lies, even when he gets caught. And for all that I screw up and doubt and dither, my son knows that. Above all else, he knows that he is loved.
The trick, I think, is to breathe long enough to gather in all these moments– not just the minor panic and small fears, but the triumphs and joys, and-- most of all-- love, so that we can find that what we get, what we really get when all is said and done, is a life. Far from perfect, far from solitary. We get a life filled with everything and then some. And then I remember that it is all small stuff and I am filled.