He is fifteen now.
He is fifteen now, and I am upping the ante. For your birthday present, I grin, I will be teaching you to do your own laundry. He snorts: Some birthday present.
But I am not joking. Oh, sure, I’ll wait a few weeks, but this teen will be washing, drying, and folding his own laundry by the end of the calendar year. In college I saw boys utterly inequipped to manage their personal belongings, and I scorned them. Even then I conjured up this bit of future time and vowed that no child of mine would arrive at university unable to fend for himself in the most basic of ways.
(I’d meant to train him sooner, but time did that parabolic magic trick it’s wont to do. In my mind he is only five years old, or maybe eight, but in reality he has only a few years left living with me.)
The laundry is the easy part. Fifteen is also time for other, more troubling, more troublesome things.
In the car he and I are discussing how my parenting style differs from his father’s. And then, suddenly, he has moved on to his grandparents. I haven’t moved on. I don’t want any part of moving on to this particular topic. But here we are nonetheless. He’s a canny child who understands that there must be some relationship between how we parent and how we were ourselves parented.
I sigh, unprepared and unwilling to chip away at his child’s version of who my mother was.
But I start talking, because he is fifteen, and he is ready, even if I am not and may never be so.
I talk and talk. Every now and then I check the rear view mirror to see where my words are taking him. He is sitting up, listening, and nodding every now and then. I tell him that my mother couldn’t parent very well because she was ill. I share some of my tamer memories: of being nine and writing out checks to pay the family bills, of coming home in the afternoon from middle school and having to wake up my mother, still in bed, still in her nightgown.
And oddly we are back at the laundry, as I inform my son that I was taking care of my own laundry (and, sometimes, my mother’s) before I turned ten years old.
I am not proud of these facts, I add. They are meant to be explanatory. I wasn’t allowed to be a child, so if I have erred as a parent, it has been to coddle too much rather than too little.
And now I stop. There is so much more that I could say, but I think I’ve said enough for now.
Does all of this surprise you, about grandma, about me?, I whisper. I’m not sure what I wish his answer to be.
Not at all, he replies, gruff and aiming for confident. Yet his face is red, and his voice is trembling.
On some of my bitter days, I fear that parenting is the biggest sham of all. We tell our babies pretty little packaged half-truths, or outright lies, and then spend the rest of their childhoods ever so slowly unwrapping them, one strip of tape here, one flap of paper there. And what do our older children finally discover in the boxes? Presents like doing one’s one laundry, which appear to take away just as much as they give.
Today, needless to say, counts as a bitter day.