Years ago, a wise and trusted friend -- a veteran mother - told me that the summer before sophomore year of high school was the summer. The summer for crossing over, the summer of risk, the summer when all of those things you were scared straight about in junior high health class didn't seem so bad anymore. The supervised backyard bonfires with buddies, laden with hot dogs and s'mores supplies make their way to the beach minus the adults, plus a cooler of whatever it takes. It is the summer to tune in, to ask questions, to be more prepared and present than before, she tells me. Guard yourself from the sting of adolescent betrayal and get ready to parent.
I measured this offering against my own teen years in the nineties and felt connected to its truth. Late in my freshman year of high school, I chugged Zima from a plastic ribbed cup around a dining room table with my closest friends while their older siblings looked on at us in agreement of our inadequacies. We hardly noticed. For a short time, everyone was funnier and wilder and more lovable than I remembered earlier that day in school -- including me. My body warmed with risk and reward, as I became someone who challenged the boundaries of what every adult I adored said was off-limits. At some point that evening, not long after the initial bliss, but still hours before midnight, I began alternating between vomiting and sobbing. Never again, I vowed.
But I could never go back to the person that did not, nor did I want to. And that summer we hung with whomever had beer, regardless of our affection for them. We smoked pot in the cornfields and had sex with the unworthy. It's funny how I file those days under fun, and somehow those memories can make me cringe and nostalgic all at once. I was fortunate enough to have the genetic freedom to walk away from it at my choosing. I mostly abstained from substances during the school year, due to the self-inflicted seriousness of my student athlete responsibilities and personal reputation. Shame was always lurking and I was aware at how great of an example I could become to those that needed a weapon for their cautionary tale. So instead, I longed for summer and each June we outdid the last -- concerts and house parties, thirty packs and bong hits, boyfriends and road trips -- until we had to grow up and out, finding our fun in the new cities that were home to our universities. We lived to tell about it. And as fresh as those warm summer days seem, the decades have slipped by, and now I'm parenting them.
My very own baby boy has approached the summer of risk. How can this be? Last year it would have been hard to imagine. However, the drugs and alcohol dialogue has been the primary subject of our recent and constant narrative around growing up. Last week, he called me into his bedroom after his siblings were asleep and with only a slightly teasing tone, asked, "Remind me again of your consequences for smoking pot or drinking?" Quietly assessing if he could live without Driver's Ed or the healthy freedom he's grown used to, I leaned against him lovingly. I know he's feeling the social sting of abstaining and the heavy burden of responsibility, curiosity and risk. I know this because, it seems to me, I just lived it. I know this because he tells me. We have cultivated this give and take, a vow for transparency we committed to -- rather organically -- somewhere along the way. It can be beautiful, an art of understanding and acceptance. It can be challenging as we fumble through our own realities hoping we are still as lovable as we were just before our honesty revealed.
Knowing that blindly applying high expectations without reason can force behaviors underground, I refuse to let: "Never. No. Absolutely Not." stand alone. It's not enough. I am not enough. I enlist stories and strategies of family and friends, encourage conversations and questions outside of our home. We pour through consequences beyond my own -- school and sports, police and other parents, unwanted fights and fiascos, hook-ups and headlines. I tell him out of love that I will make it as hard as I can, for as long as I can, but the choice is ultimately his. The road of choices is a great part of becoming, a road I will not deny him. So we sit, late into the night, allowing our way through this conversation only to have it again and again. How easy it would be to deceive me. How thrilling it might be to party. I know, I tell him, I know. How easily I could turn away, hiding behind my own typical teen stories. How simple to let go, picking up the pieces only when they're found. I know, he tells me, I know.
It isn't as it once was. It isn't as it will be. Willing to see and be seen just as it is now, just as we are. I find it all unanswerable, but still seek the answers. Perhaps it is in the unknowing and imperfections that we will find our way. Careful and caring, turning towards each other, instead of against, is the way to quiet all that calls. Sculpting our own path to truth and connection, in full expression and understanding is all I can offer my child. This supple, subsisting approach - like all of parenting - is both plenty and hardly enough. But there is power in the slow, a day after day defense, we try to build refuge against risk.