Have you ever compared photographs of the same person, taken fifteen or twenty years apart, and wondered what in the world happened? How could someone look so different because of a few passing years? Why do people age so dramatically?
The answer is simple: they had children.
We have two daughters, who are now in their twenties, and a son who is almost sixteen. I tell you this with more than a mild sense of surprise, because I never thought we’d all survive this long.
The girls were always several years ahead of themselves, as most girls are these days. Our younger daughter experienced her first boy-girl relationship when she was in kindergarten. She came home one day and told me that she’d broken up with her boyfriend. “I just don’t love him anymore,” she said, struggling to re-attach the left leg of one of her Barbie dolls. Our older daughter once received an arrangement of flowers, sent to our house by a boyfriend, when she was eleven. Both wanted to wear nail polish and lipstick well before my wife and I felt comfortable with it. Then they wanted their ears pierced. Then multiple piercings. Then tattoos. Most of all, they wanted to go to the mall. They always wanted to go to the mall, without us. We were never sure why. When we went to the mall, there never seemed to be much happening there. But we must have been missing something, because whenever we pointed this fact out to them they’d just breathe out really hard through their mouths and storm off.
And then, there were the friends. There is nothing more important to a teenager, and nothing more maddening for the parents, than the friends. Plans to go to a movie required a minimum of twelve calls back and forth, and even then, we were never sure what the arrangements were. Inevitably, the phone would ring around eleven-fifteen: “We thought Melissa’s mother was picking us up, but she can’t. Can you come and get us? And take Melissa and Jessica home? And can Danielle sleep over?”
Here’s a little thing that was probably nothing, but unsettling, nevertheless. Whenever my wife or I would pick up the phone and one of the girls was already on it with a friend, the conversation always stopped immediately. Dead silence. To this day I have never picked up the phone and heard one of our kids say a word, unless they were calling us to ask for something.
When the girls reached sixteen I taught them both to drive, but I can’t remember much about it. I’ve read that the mind has the ability to protect itself against trauma with an automatic amnesia response. This seems to be true, although I do occasionally have flashbacks of minivans headed straight for me in the side-view mirror.
At some point, it dawns on parents that they don’t really know where their kids are, and it’s another jolting experience. We knew what they told us, and we knew where we thought they were. But it was hard to be certain. That’s scary the first few times, because you start out with an infant and you have complete responsibility. As the child grows, you let out more and more line, but you remain in control. And then the line snaps and they’re on their own. For a while, you keep holding your end, unaware that the line has snapped. We thought we were still in control. One of the girls, at age seventeen, made us grandparents when we were still trying to figure out how to be parents.
We probably could have handled the teenage girl experience better, but pulling us in the opposite direction, like the gravity from some massive black hole, was our two-year-old son. He went through a period when he wouldn’t eat anything except the cat’s food and supermarket flyers, and he could take down a sheet of wallpaper in half the time it took us to put the cushions back on the couch. He especially enjoyed disappearing in a department store and hiding under a rack of pants. We always found him, relieved he hadn’t been snatched, but wanting to wring his neck just the same. Someone in the distant past coined the term Terrible Twos. I don’t know who it was, but I’m sure it was a parent. Most scientists believe that life as we know it will eventually be wiped out by a large object crashing into the earth, or by the sun exhausting its supply of hydrogen. I believe mankind will be annihilated by roving gangs of two-year-olds. They will hit us senseless with hard plastic toys. They will pour juice everywhere, causing all vital processes to get sticky and gradually come to a complete stop. They will tear up our books and take all the phones off the hook, and they will lose our car keys so we won’t be able to go for help.
People would sometimes ask us where our son got his energy. The only answer I could ever come up with was that he was well-rested. He had his own bed, and he went to sleep there every night. But he would eventually find his way into our bed. And for some reason, as he fell asleep, he would turn sideways between my wife and me, so that from above we must have looked like a large letter H. Then he would begin to hit me in the face with his feet and knees. Every night I would dream that I was sleeping with Chuck Norris. I’d never had this dream before, but then I never woke up with bruises before. In the morning, our son was again smart, cute, and funny, in part because he’d had a good night’s sleep. And each day I looked more and more like Woodrow Wilson.
Late night cramming for exams cut further into our sleep, as did one of the girls being out with our car past her curfew. Incoming phone calls in the middle of the night. Fights with boyfriends and the resulting depression or tantrums. And always, they needed something. As a parent, you know when a teenager needs something because they come straight at you, much like a minivan in the side-view mirror. They need money, they need a ride, they need to go to a party, they need to borrow something, they need and need and need. I often felt like that guy in The Birds. You know the one they find sitting on the floor in his house, his eyes are plucked out and he’s been pecked to death? I always wondered if he prepared for that scene by spending a week with teenagers.
Our son is now finishing the tenth grade. He has his own cell phone, which he needed so we “could always get in touch with him.” But teens know a cell phone can be turned off, and just like that the line begins to fray, and prepares to snap. We are there with him now, always thinking we know where he is, but never really sure. Unless he needs something else, and then we know exactly where he is.
Will we survive this ordeal? Yes. That’s part of the cruelty. Raising children doesn’t kill you directly. It’s more of a cumulative effect that takes years off at the other end. By that time, all of these little incidents will have faded from memory and everyone will blame our sudden demise on natural causes. They’ll say we just got old.
Our daughters both have boyfriends who come over to our house frequently for dinner. Our son brings home friends, and will soon be inviting girls over, too. Eventually every one of these visitors will spot an old photo of my wife and me, maybe one taken during our honeymoon. They will look from the picture, to us, then back again. Their faces will assume a puzzled expression, and they will silently wonder, “What in the world happened?”
It’s a long story.