Loco Parentis: The Son and the Fury
Staring up at her seething child, our parenting columnist asks: What do 13-year-old boys have to be so mad about, anyway?
Jake is angry.
My son has come home from school, where he’s been given detention for an infraction of the lunchroom rules, and he is fighting mad. He’s mad at the boy who ratted him out to the lunch monitor; he’s mad at the lunch monitor, who reported him to the vice principal; and he’s mad at the vice principal, who so far as I can tell acted with restraint and even compassion in the face of my son’s escalating wrath. I try to point this out to Jake, and just like that, I become the object of his anger: I always take the side of the school, I never listen to what he’s trying to tell me about what happened, I hate him, I want him to be just like his big sister Marcy, I am so unfair, and somewhere along about here we hit flash point, and he’s shouting and I’m shouting back, and I look at him, searching his dark eyes for a chink, any sign of my darling baby boy that I can wheedle and cajole, and there is nothing, only hardness and fury, as he glares back at me.
The strength of his anger scares me. It scares him, too, I think, as we square off against one another. In the past year he has grown much taller; he towers over me. He could kill me if he wanted to. And he wants to, at this moment. He does.
I wish I were exaggerating. I wish that my Angry Young Man really only wanted me to come down with a bad cold, or hangnails. But he wants to kill me, and here’s the thing:
I want to kill him, too.
MY SON AND I haven’t always been enemies. There were years and years when we were best friends, building LEGOs with each other, riding bikes, waiting breathlessly for the next Harry Potter book. But now that he’s a bona fide teenager, we seem to be mired in mother/son quicksand, sinking lower and lower the more we flail to connect the way that we once did.
How did we get from congeniality to here so quickly? Why do we push each other’s buttons with such expertise? It’s like driving a stick shift, talking to him these days. I start out purring in first gear: “Hi, hon! How was school?” “I hate school.” Jam it into second, throwing it right back at him: “You get out of life what you give to it.” “Where’d you read that—a Hallmark card?” Slam! Into third: “Ooh, you’re so smart. Can you explain how someone as smart as you has a D in band?” “Why don’t you explain why you won’t let me quit the stinking saxophone?” And then we’re careening along the Autobahn, no brakes, nothing to hold us back, spewing negativity the way a SEPTA bus spews fumes. Somewhere in mid-spew, it occurs to me that I’m the grown-up and ought to take charge, take the high road, set an example. But by the time I think that, he’s turned on his heel and stalked away.
I watch him go, the massiveness of him, the sparking, crackling electricity of his fury trailing after him like fireworks, cut off by the back door’s hard crack as it slams. I suck in the silence. I taste the air. I smell the burn.
It’s downright dangerous at my house these days.
ANOTHER CHANCE, because like the movie Groundhog Day, life with him is nothing but second chances to get it right. I come through the front door, home from work. He’s at his computer, playing a game, another game that makes rat-a-tat noises, soldiers or alien killers or thugs slinking through back alleyways. “Hi, honey!” I say, and kiss the top of his head. He smells of sweat and Axe spray and Dr. Pepper. He grunts, fingertips caressing the keyboard, focused on meting out death.
Does he remember the years when Marcy had started school and he hadn’t, when it was just he and I, wandering along the endless corridors of the airport, strolling through Bartram’s Garden, climbing the monkey bars at the playground and swinging on swings? Sure, Marcy had me first, but he had me last, and I was painfully aware that he was it, that I was never going to have anything to shower that much love on again.
Music spills from his computer: angry white boy music. Old angry white boy music: AC/DC. Whitesnake. His favorite, Black Sabbath. How does a kid even hear about Black Sabbath nowadays? And why do 13-year-old boys listen to this angry music? Jake lives the life of Riley; all he has to do is get himself to school and mow the lawn and play an occasional bit of saxophone, and in return we buy him everything his heart desires: Nikes, PlayStation, root beer and Popsicles.
The deal seems awfully one-sided, and I’m beginning to think the anger may spring from the fact he knows it. Evolution didn’t intend for him to end up this way. At 13, he’s a killing machine, biologically destined to prove his budding manhood by ravishing virgins and spearing saber-tooth tigers. What do we give him instead? Taking out the trash.
It’s a poor substitute for the thrill of the hunt and the manly camaraderie of carnage and pillage. Does this lie at the heart of my son’s discontent—that we’ve managed to deprive him of any real rites of passage? He’s not killing tigers; all he has to wreak his testosteronic fury on are the tiny facsimiles on the screen.
If Marcy and I were starving, our stomachs burning, our minds weak with fatigue, and Jake went out and killed a bear, slew a deer, even brought home a freaking rabbit, he would be our hero. We would talk about it for days, braid feathers into his hair, give him a tattoo, a nickname, write an epic poem about him: Jake the Hunter. Mighty Jake. This is what his soul is seeking. Instead he’s stuck learning French, and playing basketball at the Y.
Come to think of it, those games get awfully intense.
SEVEN A.M. IN THE House of Hingston, which has only one full bathroom, even though I grew up in a house with only one full bathroom and should have known better. Of course, my parents had four kids, and we only have two. I’m sleeping happily when something pierces my consciousness—Marcy’s voice, shrill and on edge: “Can you just let me in to do my teeth?” Jake’s reply is lost in the background sounds of running water and ’YSP that he has blaring, but it’s pretty well clarified for me by Marcy’s escalating pitch: “I just need to brush my teeth!” And this time, I catch Jake’s answer: “I’m doing my hair.”
“Can you at least let me in to get my toothbrush?” Conscientious girl that she is, she’s terrified she’ll be late to school. Jake is no doubt hoping she will.
“I’m doing my hair.”
And the inequity of it, the fact that he could do his hair in front of any number of other mirrors, whereas Marcy, who has recently had her wisdom teeth extracted and has an entire arsenal of products that she needs to (in her conscientious fashion) correctly do the job of cleaning her mouth there behind the door that Jake has locked, propels me out of bed. I stomp down the hallway. I rattle the door handle. “Unlock this right now!” I scream at my son.
“I’m doing my hair.”
I pound on the wood with the heel of my hand. “Open this door!”
Nothing. No sound, no answer.
“Open this goddamned door right now!” I screech, pounding furiously.
There’s a pause. The door opens in a sibilance of steam. There he stands, my son, wreathed in towels and clamminess, his expression the one he has perfected, stony impassivity. I long to make him feel my agitation, my rage, impress on him the unfairness of what he has done, causing Marcy to postpone a medical procedure for his own merely cosmetic one. I am so mad I can’t see straight, awakened for I-don’t-know-how-many-days-in-a-row by their bickering, his malingering, the knots in my gut from the fighting, the tension, my inability to bend his behavior to my will.
I raise my right hand. I go for him.
He blocks me easily with his forearm, and I realize: He’s too tall for me to slap across the face. When did I last strike him, spank him? Not since he was three or four. It never helped then.
It doesn’t help now. His stony expression never changes. “I think that’s child abuse,” he says, with absurd satisfaction.
“Go ahead and turn me in,” I snarl.
Marcy edges past us both. “I really have to do my teeth.”
WHAT I CAN'T EXPLAIN to my son—what I’m maybe ashamed to—is just how alike we are. I, too, in middle school was inappropriately loud and mouthy, ready to do anything for a laugh. When I look at Jake these days, my stomach churns, not just because of what he is, but because he reminds me of what I was, and how I made life harder by my intransigence. It’s a lesson I want to hand him like a nicely gift-wrapped package: Here, this is for you. But I wouldn’t have taken it, wouldn’t have believed it, at his age.
The fact is, I’ve lost control of my son. I can’t physically make him do what I want him to; I can no longer coerce him mentally. Yet I can’t stop trying, out of force of habit or sheer stubbornness or a pained reluctance to move gracefully from one role—center of his universe—to the next. I knew who I was when I fed him supper and read him stories and picked out his clothes for the morning. I’m less sure without those rituals. How will I define myself once he leaves home? “Mother” to me means mother of a child, not of a grown man. How do I remain a parent in perpetuity? I feel like Gretel, lost in the forest, the bread crumbs that grounded me gone.
I’m afraid of being left all alone. My fear makes me crazy and angry and sad, and I take it out on him, driving him away from me, precipitating what I dread the most. Is it like this for everybody, I wonder? Maybe it’s supposed to work this way.
JAKE IS SINGING.
On a weekend, early, I’m awakened by the sound of music. I lie in bed and blink and figure out that it’s coming from the room above me—Jake’s bedroom. Jake is singing. Not Black Sabbath, not AC/DC, not Judas Priest or Twisted Sister or any of his angry boy bands. He’s singing “Jingle Bells,” even though it’s nowhere near Christmas. He’s singing loudly, but not raucously, in his clear, pitch-perfect voice that has yet to change.
I open my mouth to yell at him to shut up. It’s early on a weekend, dammit, and he has woken me up and I won’t be able to get back to sleep. I’ll lie here and start worrying about him, about his anger, about all the time he spends on the computer, about his antisocial friends, about what’s going to happen to him when he doesn’t have me to pick up after him and make sure he isn’t late to school and get the spaghetti sauce out of his shirts. About what happens when an angry boy turns into an angry man. It’s the Muzak of my life these days, these anxious thoughts, a constant running clamor, and the only time it ever seems to stop is when I sleep. But now I’m wide awake, and it’s his fault, and another day is about to start off with anger and resentment and you said and you said and WHY CAN’T YOU and WHY DON’T YOU and the great wide gap between what he and I wish we were and what we are. Jake’s voice sails into the morning, a small brave craft unswamped by the waves of weltschmertz:
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way … ”
I shut my mouth. I shut my eyes. I listen to him sing.