My 15-year-old son and I are sitting in the car in our driveway. I’ve asked him about his grades, which tripped a live wire.
Simon, the child who's never had to work to succeed, is struggling mightily this year. A high school sophomore, he’s juggling a load of advanced academic classes and a busy extracurricular schedule, and those spinning plates have begun to crash all around him. Suddenly the child who once finished his homework at school can’t even start it at home because he didn’t understand the lesson. He's frustrated and embarrassed. He doesn’t ask for help, thinking he’ll catch up, and falls further and further behind.His grades are beginning to cost him. When his performance matched his potential, I enthusiastically supported his full social schedule. He enjoyed very loosely regulated use of his phone and other electronics.As I watched his grades decline, I began to say, "no" to his requests to hang with his friends after school. We lowered his screen-time limits and cut off his phone’s cellular data.This near-police state is uncomfortable for everyone, and long, angry conversations like the one we’re locked in now have become our new normal.“Why can’t you accept that this is just who I am now? Maybe I’m not supposed to get good grades anymore! Maybe I’ve reached the point where this is just too hard for me,” he argues.I’m quiet, and he continues.“This is the best that I can do, and it’s not good enough. I hate coming home. This is all we talk about. Why can’t we just stop talking about it? I wish I could go to sleep and have it be next year.”He’s not wrong. We do talk about his grades often, and I’m tired of it too. Unlike when he was four, he doesn’t spend all his time trailing me around the house. We don’t exchange 10,000 words in a day. I can’t work this topic in between long discussions about Pokemon and Star Wars. I seize any opportunity I have with him alone to check in on his progress. I don’t like the dynamic it creates either, but I’m stuck.“Dad doesn’t talk to me about this stuff. Dad trusts me to manage it,” he rationalizes.Simon rarely plays his father and me against each other but, as our eldest, he has the most experience plucking those strings, and the blow initially lands just as he intends. I can feel the blood start to flood my face.I'm already responding in my head. Of course Dad doesn’t talk to you about this stuff, Dad doesn’t check grades. Even when Dad and I were married, years ago, schoolwork was my domain.This isn’t about trusting you, kid, it’s about Dad delegating to me.Don’t flatter yourself and don’t imply that this is about one parent doing their job better than the other.I steady my focus on the topic at hand. “This isn’t about trust. I trust you. I also think you need help. Your grades matter in ways that are hard to see right now. What's your plan to improve? How can I help?”He doesn’t hear me. “Do you know how much I hate that you and Dad talk about this? That you work to have the same consequence? I can’t get away from this pressure anywhere. I hate coming home to both houses.”He continues, voicing frustration about the two houses he occupies, his large blended family, his stepparents. Outwardly, he is a well-adjusted, happy young man. Tonight I'm hearing a different side of his story. The anger and sadness continue to boil over, each voiced hurt overtaking the last like waves tumbling onto the sand.I stay quiet. I'm working hard not to let this trigger my own stuff. He needs a calm adult present, not a mom overwhelmed by her own guilt and grief. I breathe deeply, concentrating on dropping the tension out of my shoulders and keeping my hand on top of his. Sidestepping my own triggers is tough and requires nearly my full concentration.He rages on, but he can’t drown out the voice in my head. That voice wonders if I’m too hard on him, if maybe I’m missing signs of something bigger. She questions his healing, my parenting, and our relationship. She's loud and demoralizing, and I have to fight to stay present with my son.He pauses and, in the silence, I look across at him. His head's dropped and his shoulders slumped. He’s tired from a long day and exhausted by this late-night swirl of emotions. Suddenly I see my little boy in his rumpled six-foot frame and my inner voice goes quiet. I know what he needs. I remember how to be his mama.“We’re where we’re supposed to be, love,” I say softly. “All of us. You're supposed to be struggling with grades and school and balance and girls and friends and your parents. That’s what teenagers do. When I was 15, I wasn’t a fan of time at home with my family either. My parents weren’t divorced, but I carried different baggage.“Sorting out your baggage, figuring out how you carry it and how it shapes you is the work of becoming an adult. Figuring out what to do when things break down is more of that work. Asking for help. Trying something new. All of that is the work of growing up, and it's supposed to feel scary and overwhelming and uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard.”I don’t tell him how scary and overwhelming and uncomfortable adult work still is. How much I worry about the impact of decisions I’ve made and the words I say. How, just when I think I have it figured out, everything shifts and I have to start again. How hard it sometimes is to push through the story I’m telling myself and show up for the people who matter most. How, years later, I'm still learning about the baggage I carry. I don’t tell him the truth I’m only just learning: Growing up never really ends.“You’re doing your job as a teenager. I am doing my job as your mom. We’ll find our way through together.”I ruffle his too-long hair and get out of the car. The hour in the driveway is enough for the night.He grabs his backpack and starts into the house. “I love you, Mom,” he says quietly.I gather his gangly, suddenly grown-up body into an awkward hug. None of him fits where he used to, and he hunches down to put his head on my shoulder. This once-familiar act is uncomfortable for both of us, an achingly obvious metaphor for our interactions of late.“I love you too, sweetheart,” I tell him, and hold on.This piece was originally published on the author’s blog.