My 15-year-old son and I are sitting in the car in our driveway. I’ve asked him about his grades, and tripped a live wire.
Simon, the child who has 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 is 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.”
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 4, 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.”
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 am 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. 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 in the near term. What is 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 am 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 am 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 am breathing 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. She wonders if I’m too hard on him, if maybe I’m missing signs of of something bigger. She questions his healing, my parenting, our relationship. She is 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 is dropped, 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 are 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 is 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 am 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 in to 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,” and I hold on.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. A widely-published blended family expert, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and stepfamily dynamics. When she’s not writing, she’s feeding the children and livestock, and turning off lights in empty rooms. Follow Kate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram coaching, support and inspiration.