4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
My oldest boy turns 14 today and he’s not a total shit.*
This tells you so much. Like the fact that we sort of curse openly here. I never would have written out the actual word shit years ago when I started this blog. But we are in a new age now. I mean, have you read the lyrics to the songs they listen to? Not the bleeped out lyrics but the real, actual lyrics. Like literally google “Cardi B’s top song lyrics” or “Starboi3 song lyrics”. Then don’t even try to erase your computer’s history. Because you won’t be able to unsee the words you’ve been reading. Shit isn’t even a curse anymore, trust me. You’ll long for the word shit.
I’ll never forget that day we were walking in the woods, me and my four toddlers ages 5, 4, 4, and 2, like we always did. And I suddenly realized that I didn’t know which path we were on. Like I thought the exit to the woods was there, but it wasn’t. And it wasn’t back there. Or there. And I looked at my watch and saw that we were about to be late for something important. (Therapy? A doctor’s appointment? Story hour?) My oldest son turned to me, his cheeks red with exertion and sunshine, his hair tousled and bleached by the sun, and his eyes asked for reassurance.
“I think we’re lost,” I said instead.
“Oh, shit,” he replied clearly disappointed in me and life in general, his arms thrown out to either side. I was dumb-founded. Where in all the enormous, innocent world could he have heard that word? And how had he suddenly gotten so old? Cursing in such an appropriate manner?
It was one of my father’s favorite words, ostensibly, one of his last.
In the hospital, dying of sepsis after 18 years of fighting for his life, when asked how he was feeling, he pointed to the ceiling. “Whale shit is up,” is what he was saying. He was low. Lower than low, actually.
But if he’d known my kids, oh man, what a thing that would have been. The longing for that is something I carry in a secret quiet way like sand in my shoe. My mother, who I now talk to every day since March 15, 2020, has said more than once over this past year (because she repeats her stories even more than I do) that she only wishes my father could have known my kids, their funny antics, their talents, their weird personalities.
And that guy, my newly minted 14-year-old. I mean, really.
We are deep into wanting things here, mostly revolving around something they call “freedom” and something else we call “screen time”. Pretty much 50-90% of our conversations now come back to some version of one of those two things. And they’re both fuzzy and fraught and argument inducing. And yet, five minutes after getting his first real phone with his own phone number (and so many parental controls and limitations and caveats and consequences) I asked if he could play his piano solo for me.
Mind you, it’s 7:30 in the morning. And it’s his birthday. Also, he’s taking the SSATs today (basically the SATs, but like, younger?) Also, he just got his first new phone and it’s a super fancy one my husband and his brother loaded for him.
But my son patiently sat down and whipped through Mr. Brightside by The Killers (his current song along with Solfeggietto by CPE Bach.) While it’s no birthday gris gris, look it up and listen. You have to absorb the breakneck pace of the piano, the thrumming baseline as his left hand flies over the keys, and the first few lines. It feels sort of like the rush from tween to teen.
Coming out of my cage
And I’ve been doing just fine
Gotta gotta be down
Because I want it all
The kid is doing fine. He’s coming out of his cage. He works hard at everything, including lacrosse where he’s a tough lefty long stick middie, sprinting on and off the field, whether in drills or games. He’s a kid who sort of enjoys math but really rocks all the school stuff, helps his siblings with their homework, doesn’t kill his roommate brother who will not shut the heck up even long after light’s out. Sometimes he’ll look at his baby sister (who is a sassy ten-year-old by the way) and he’ll say things like, “She’s kind of adorable,” in that knowing way only someone who is actually older and more mature can say it. He builds bike jumps in the yard on the paths he cut through the woods when he was nine, now adding berms, drops, doubles, so that I can be terrified watching him. He does his chores without being a jerk about it. He sees my shortcomings and his father’s too and he rarely if ever throws that back at us (and man, can I tell you tweens love to do that. All. Day. Long.)
Like he’s good. He’s a good guy. I like him. So when I say my oldest boy turns 14 today and he’s not a total shit, I am saying that with a well of admiration and gratitude in my heart for all the ways he could go and the things he could be that truly suck Dua-Lipa-StarBoi3, if you know what I mean, but instead, he’s this: sassy, smart, funny, just the right amount manipulative, sentimental, loyal, thoughtful, empathetic, hard-working (like really, really hard-working), punctual, responsible, and perhaps best of all, interesting.
Early this week they were all practicing their declamation poem ad nauseam, a yearly challenge to memorize and publicly recite a poem that their school enforces. Each of my children was red-faced and nervous, lining up and stumbling through memorized stanzas, enunciating through braces, gesturing with hands not used to being so dramatic or emphatic. And I videotaped each one and made suggestions- be bigger, stand straight, slow down, taste the words , picture what you’re actually saying.
With my oldest son we talked about what his poem meant. The Bait, by Eric Chock. It’s a poem telling the story of a youth walking through the grass, finding a grasshopper to use as bait, and then using it to set his line to catch something bigger. I got a little emotional. Maybe he got a tiny bit emotional, I don’t know. We realized it was about the tragic beauty of adolescence, morphing from innocence into knowing, from childhood into adulthood.
So I just sent it along
with a plea of a prayer,
hoping it would spread its wings this time
and fly across that wet glass sky,
no concern for what inspired
its life, or mine,
only instinct guiding pain
towards the other side.
I guess the part that’s actually shitty about 14 (but a little amazing as well) is that I send my oldest child off that way too, although not tethered to a hook (except maybe the parental controls on that ding dang phone.) Like the boy in the story, “I’d float it out, across the gentle ripples, towards the end of its life.” But thankfully it’s just the end of childhood, which is rough anyway, you know? Like I’m not ready for him to take flight. But he’s ready. So we’re all easing toward ready. We’re almost ready. Like we’re maybe thisclose to being ready. And it sometimes breaks my heart.
So maybe in a daily way, the plea and the prayer is for him to rack his weights, put smell removers in his stinky sneakers, not tease his siblings, get off the screen.
But really, in the big lifetime way, our plea and prayer is for him to continue to leap, and stretch, to take flight across that wet glass sky, nothing holding him back, because he’s doing just fine.
(*Somewhere between the SSATs and ice cream and school and lost lacrosse games I sat down and read this to my newly minted 14-year-old. So he could say to change it or that it was silly or embarrassing. Toward the end of it I may have gotten in my head a little and started the chokey voice. So that kid set down his phone and put his arm around my shoulders. And when I was done, he said it was the best part of his birthday. See what I mean?)