"The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice." -- Peggy O'Mara
I have been seeing this quote often lately and frankly find it somewhat terrifying. I spend a great deal of time listening and talking with my children about life, their feelings, their worries, their gifts and challenges. I've always been their biggest fan. I have encouraged them to be true to themselves, to believe in themselves, and to impart that message to others. I never stop telling them how much I love them. Maybe I deserve more credit than I give myself. But with the current teenage behaviors predominant in our home, I can't help feeling that if Peggy O'Mara is correct, then the inner voices of my children might sound something like this --
"Are you kidding me?" "I have had enough!" "There are wrappers all over this floor!" "Where is your backpack?" "Did you forget your water bottle, again?" "Seriously, it smells like a farm in here." "This is the third time I have told you that dinner is ready." "You are NOT wearing that." "Why does my living room look like a frat house?" "Did someone seriously eat the entire box of Cosmic brownies in the past hour?" "GET IN THE CAR!" "Oh my God, we are so late AGAIN!" "I am seriously going to burn those headphones." "Is ANYBODY listening to me!?!"
Each day I wake with the best intentions and a kind and patient spirit, but inevitably the AM hours run astray. At six thirty each morning I tickle bellies awake, and sprinkle kisses and "Morning, sunshine's!" Two hours later after constant reminders to brush teeth and get dressed, preparing four different breakfasts, running back and forth multiple times to retrieve forgotten items, driving to four drop-off locations around town, listening to back seat bickering, and making the same request five times to sleepy headphoned teens with no response, my nerves are shot.
"This is NOT happening again tomorrow!" I say. "Let's go, let's go!" I say as my younger son decides to play soccer on the way to the car. "There needs to be way more responsibility," I reiterate to my oldest son as we reach his destination, my last and final drop off. "Okay, Mom," he says patronizingly as he exits the minivan. I hate leaving things on such a naggy note. "I love you!" I yell out desperately through the van window. He raises his hand in an acknowledging goodbye as his hooded head fades into the crowd. I sigh in frustration.
So many days the way I want to parent and the reality of parenting just don't line up. I know what I want my children to learn and remember from my mothering, but I worry that with the craziness of life they might not always get the message. With teenagers, the challenges increase. It's their job to be like porcupines -- prickly and defensive and seemingly unhuggable all the while in desperate need of love. They declare their independence by keeping you at arm's length, even though they need you more than ever. It's easy to get caught up in their defenses and end up feeling like you've failed them.
My oldest son recently spent some time away from home at a sleepaway camp. It was the first time he had been away from us for a prolonged time without any contact. It truthfully came at the right time for both of us. We had been butting heads lately, and I knew some space would be good. Even the morning he left we locked horns. I was frantically trying to get everything packed, my worries about him leaving camouflaged in watching the clock furiously and analyzing his every move. In turn, his anxieties about leaving were disguised in dawdling behavior and inflammatory responses. I nagged. He whatevered. Thankfully, we had the car ride to Camp Squanto for both of us to relax. I was able to tell him how proud I was of him for taking on this new adventure solo. He told me how much he was going to miss me. And then he was gone. My car, my home, and my heart with a gaping hole where my first born used to be.
It certainly was nice to have a break from the teenage battles, and there was definitely less mess to pick up. But I soon realized how much I missed having my oldest child around. I read something interesting on the internet, heard a new song on the radio, or saw a new vegetarian restaurant being built in town and ached to share it with him. I became acutely aware of how much I enjoy sharing life with him. I missed our discussions about music, food, God, and current events. I missed how we look at each other and roll our eyes in commiseration when the "younger" kids are acting up. I missed how he laughs at me when I try to talk about technology or electronic music, but how I can see in his face that he truly values my opinion when I talk about the important stuff. I frequently thought to myself, I hope he knows despite all the bickering that goes on between us how much I not only love him, but truly like him as a person. I vowed to tell him those things more often when he came home.
Liam returned from camp with all of his limbs intact, a farmer's tan, and what seemed to be another inch or so. He gave me a long hug, raided our pantry, and then escaped to his room to check his Instagram account and catch up on gaming for the next few hours. Later that evening, he crawled into bed next to me ready to share some of his experiences.
He told me of spiders in the tents, and the cast of camp characters. He shared how he was able to maintain his vegetarian diet in a sea of mess hall meat. He relayed nature trivia and first aid tips and instructed me on how to play canoe battle.
"I really missed you, Mom," he finally said. It was what he said next that surprised me. "What I missed most about you was hearing your voice."
"Really," I laughed, "I thought that would be the one thing you would be glad to get away from -- me nagging you all the time."
"No, he scoffed, "you just do that because you love me and want me to do the right things." He stopped and thought for a moment and then continued. "It was weird, though," he said, "because I could hear your voice inside of me whenever I was afraid, or didn't know what to do. I would instantly hear what I knew you would say to encourage me or help me. And I would hear you telling me you love me." I tried to hold back my tears.
"I'm so glad to hear that, Liam," I said. "While you were away I was thinking of how much more I badger you than tell you all the things I love about you and am proud of you for." "Well," he said, "I don't say thank you enough to you either." "Maybe we can both try harder to do those things," I said. He smiled. I passed him the remote and began to fill him in on all the younger kids' antics that he had missed out on.
The next morning was like he had never left. His level of hygiene and mine were once again mismatched, everyone was running late, and the usual chaos ensued. He passed me on his way to the car, an open bag of potato chips in hand. "Liam!" I said in exasperation, "potato chips for breakfast? Seriously?" "What," he said nonchalantly in a muffled mouth full of chips voice, "I had waffles first." He put the bag down momentarily and lovingly helped his little sister up into her car seat. I tousled his unwashed hair and said, "It's a good thing I love you." He smiled knowingly at me as he climbed into the passenger seat and turned up the radio.
Our dance through these teenage years is far from perfect, but it is comforting to know he is hearing the words I most want him to remember. His absence reminded me that we only have a few years left before he will head off into the world and leave our home, the loss of his presence more permanent. There are only a few years left to fill his inner voice with words of wisdom and love. So I try to remind myself to love more than I correct, and to appreciate more than I complain. My hope is that as he heads into adulthood and my voice starts to merge with that of his own what remains of mine is this:
You are and always will be a beautiful child of God. You are a gift to your family and the world. Learn from the past, have hope for the future, but live in the present. You can do anything you put your mind to. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, but always try. Happiness is about making the most of what life gives you. Take a shower, put on clean clothes, and brush your teeth and your hair. Be truthful. Clean your room, make sure you are getting enough protein, go to class and meetings prepared, and show up early. Do the extra credit. Be kind to others. Treasure those you love. Stay close to God. Write lists, you need them. Take care of and appreciate the Earth. Be your own best friend. Shut the door- of the house, the car, the bathroom, the refrigerator. Be grateful. Take your headphones off, put your screen down, and listen, my beautiful boy. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.