My Son the Ocean

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As I waved my firstborn son off to school on his 13th birthday, he flashed a grin before trodding through the snow to the bus stop. I spied through the window as the other kids greeted him on the corner. None of them wore jackets on the balmy 20-degree morning, although zero-degree Minnesota mornings still fail to motivate the middle school crowd to don a parka.

Watching the friendly banter unfold, I whispered a prayer, a plea, to God to wrap my son in holy arms and never let go.

Then I watched him go.

His long legs climbed onto the bus, his hands tucked in his hoodie pocket, hood covering his swath of long hair. It’s wild, watching a child grow. I never imagined it would be like this, like standing in front of the ocean day after day as the sun rises and sets over majestic waves, never knowing entirely what swims inside. I’ve learned motherhood is a tightrope, a thin line where ocean meets sand. If I’m extra careful, not too pushy, not too distracted, the ocean invites me in.

I love those moments; a story shared, a tidbit released about who said what in math class, or who is dating who. I try to play it cool, act causal without peppering my kid with the questions simmering on the tip of my tongue; Are you dating? Do you like anyone? Would you tell me if you did? Would I get to see their face? Have you ever kissed someone? What do you do all day? Please tell me everything!!! It burns not to blurt it out, demanding answers I know he’ll never release on command. So I hold them in, trying not to scare him away.

A year ago, he started sitting in the front seat of the car with me, finally old enough to graduate to shotgun, and I reveled in the side-by-side conversations. But within a few weeks, he started hopping in the back again, and I was confused.

“You always want to talk about stuff when I sit up there,” he said. “Too many questions, Mom.”

“I just want to know about your life!” I whined, and I watched a grin hit his lips in the rearview mirror. “Tell me something, child. I’ll take anything!”

When your kids are babies, you tell yourself you’ll be so fun and nice that they’ll listen to everything you say and be your best buddy forever. It’s a humbling role, lapping up drips and drops of information about the conversations and relationships your kid experiences every day that you don’t even know exist. Then suddenly, you’re asked for a ride to the movies, and you’re dropping them off with people you’ve never met before, stealing glances through the theater windows, and wondering if you’ve lost your damn mind to be leaving your child somewhere in public without you. Is that allowed? What are the rules? What would a parent say? Oh wait, I’m the parent. I’m supposed to know the rules. But can someone seriously tell me what the rules are here? I’m more of a rule-breaker than a follower, so this part of parenting is a struggle.

Uncertain if something terrible could happen, or worse, my kid might cause trouble left to his own devices, I considered sitting outside the theater in my car until the movie ended just in case he needed me.

He didn’t.

“Mom, my friends say you’re so strict. Why won’t you let me walk to the grocery store afterward? That’s where everyone is going,” he said when I picked him up. (I didn’t really sit in the parking lot the whole time. It seemed like a more significant time commitment than I wanted to make.)

“Wait, what? I’m the strict parent?” Shock and disbelief washed over me. Slight embarrassment that I suddenly wreaked of being “uncool” pricked at my ego, but then I realized I’d been given a compliment. “That is great! I thought I was slacking a little bit, but maybe I’m actually doing something right here,” I said more to myself than to my son.

He rolled his eyes and shifted dramatically in his seat in a display of frustration. “Mom, everyone else gets to go.”

I smiled back at him as I heard the one line I have learned throughout my thirteen years of experience that tells me I am on exactly the right track. “You can invite your friends over, but no loitering at Cub past dark.” Cue another eye roll.

Thirteen feels like a new ballgame, though. Like somehow I have passed into a different realm, an alternate universe where the sand is constantly shifting beneath my feet, and the waves roll without warning, then lay placid and low with no excuse or indication they will rise anytime soon. Then alas, a new wind blows, and the cycle begins again. It’s exhausting and terrifying and beautiful. I don’t know what each day will bring, what next year will be like, or who my son will become as he grows. But I’ll keep walking the line, peering through windows like a creepy stalker mom and biting my tongue. I’ll keep lighting up like a Christmas tree every time he walks in a room or flashes his gorgeous grin, rolling his eyes at me, saying, “Love you, Mom.”

Happy birthday, kiddo. Love you, too.

Now please come back and sit by me in the front seat. I’ll only ask a question…or two.


Photo: Guillaume de Germain via Unsplash

Krissy Dieruf is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children, loves to sing and dance around the house and has a soft spot for rebels and crazy hair. 

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