By Mahshid Hager
My son, Sacha is turning 18 in about a week. Last night while I was cooking dinner, he joined me in the kitchen and we started talking about his birthday celebration. He is not sure if he wants to do something big or something small. He is not sure he wants to celebrate at all. “It’s just another birthday anyway….” he says.
It is true. Age, after all, is just another number. “Are you excited about turning 18?” I ask. “I guess….” he says. Typical teenager, you have to pry things out of him sometimes.
“What excites you most about turning 18?”
“That I won’t have a curfew anymore.”
“I know, I know. I still have to let you know where I’m going and when I’ll be home. But I can stay out later….right…?”
“Well, legally yes, you don’t have a curfew.” I explain to him that since he is still in high school and lives at home, there will be some limitations to how late he can stay out, especially on weeknights. “I can deal with that” he says.
Phew…. That was easy. But then again, this is how he has always been. He doesn’t argue much. He follows rules for the most part, accepts consequences without push back. We have been lucky like that with both of our boys.
I tell him “18 was such a big deal for me.” I lived in Germany then. The legal driving age in Germany is 18, so I started taking driving lessons and got my license. It is also the legal age for going out to local clubs. The drinking age for beer and wine is 16, but at 18 you can order any alcoholic beverage.
” I don’t like alcohol” my son tells me. “I don’t think I want to drink.”
“Can I have that in writing?” I think to myself but don’t speak it out loud.
“You’ll get to vote in the next election!” I’m genuinely excited about this. “That’s a big responsibility”, he says. “I won’t do it unless I have studied the candidates and really know the issues.” I have a Proud Mamma moment right here. My boys have watched my husband and I pour over election ballots, research issues online and discuss our choices. I guess they have been watching and listening.
I mention to him that our current custody arrangement expires once he and his brother turn 18. He says “That’s going to be really nice actually.” He tells me that he doesn’t think much is going to change, as far as how much time he spends with me or with his dad. He thinks that he will mostly keep to the current 50/50 schedule. “But it will be really nice to just do what is convenient. Like, If I want to spend the night at dad’s I can just do that. Or if I want to do something with you on the weekend I won’t have to worry about whose weekend it is.”
When people ask me about our 50/50 custody arrangement, I always say “It’s great. It works well for us. The kids are so used to it.” But at this moment, I have a new realization of how difficult the past twelve plus years have been for my kids. It’s not easy at living in two homes, with two very different sets of rules. The boys have to always be mindful of this schedule. It is a constant factor in all of their day to day planning. Yes, we have all adjusted, but it has not always been easy. “I am so sorry for how hard it has been at times. And it makes me glad to think that it will become a little easier for you, as you turn 18. That is for sure something to look forward to.” I think this next phase of our custody arrangement will be really interesting and a new adjustment for all of us, I assume. I look forward to it.
“What else is on your mind? What else will be different as you turn 18?”
“I’m a little worried about how I will be seen by everyone as an adult. I worry about what people will expect of me.” Since Sacha turned about 16, he has been referring to himself as an “almost grown man”. I have always found this amusing. As his mom, I can look at him and still see the little boy that liked to sit in my lap and play with his matchbox cars. Meanwhile he is towering over me and drives his own car and doesn’t really need me for much these days. If I worry about him doing something, or if we “lecture” him, or if I remind him of something that he thinks I shouldn’t, like chores or to set his alarm clock, he’ll say “MOM, I’m almost a grown man!” It always makes me chuckle and he winks at me or chuckles back and we move on. But now that he is turning 18, apparently he has some hesitation around becoming an actual grown man.
“What worries you about that?” I ask.
“I feel like people are going to expect that I don’t make any mistakes. I worry that I will hear ‘How could you do that? You’re an adult now.’ I worry that I’ll be expected to work and be financially responsible for myself.” Whoa! That’s a lot to hold. I had no idea he was worrying like this.
“That sounds like a heavy load.” I tell him. I explain to him that even though turning 18 is a milestone, things will not be changing drastically or quickly. I explain that I see 18 as the beginning of young adulthood and that Patrick and I are here to support him and to make sure this transition is a smooth one. I tell him that I still made lots of mistakes after I turned 18 and that that is normal. I tell him, once again, as I have many times before, that mistakes are expected as they are part of learning. I watch him settle and soften as I’m talking to him.
His worries get me thinking though…. When is my parenting role, I mean my active involvement, over? As a family therapist, I sometimes deal with issues that arise from over involvement of parents in their kids’ lives. Families can get enmeshed or entangles in not so healthy ways. In the Iranian culture, it seems that the parents stay actively involved in their adult children’s lives for a long time. Iranian parents can have a say in your major life decisions: what you study, what carrier you chose, who you fall in love with and marry, how you raise your kids…. I know that I don’t want to do that. But will I know when it is time to pull back? I assume that, like with many other parenting issues, there will not be a clear guideline on this, no text book that will outline the exact timelines for pulling back and letting go. It will depend on the individual and it will be trial and error until we get it right. I hope that this learning curve will be easy to navigate.
Parenting is the strangest job in the world. You start off being fully responsible for this tiny, little being. I mean their life literally depends on how well you take care of them. You have to keep them safe and tend to them around the clock, teach them everything they need to know and anticipate and take of their every need. Then, as they get older, how well you do your job becomes the opposite of what you have been doing. Don’t caretake too much, let them learn on their own, teach them how to stay safe but then trust that they will actually take care of themselves. Though this transition happens in a titrated way over many years, it can still feel like it is happening at a dizzying speed. I constantly find myself pulled in two different directions, responding to two different impulses. We have been encouraging the boys to find jobs during their school break this year. It has been a process, but they both found some work this summer. As they come home and talk about how “hard” the job is, how tired they are and how “bored” they feel, part of me still wants to say “Oh honey, let me make it better. You don’t have to go back. It’s ok” Crazy, I know. The more rational part of me knows that I am also, still in charge of making sure these young men become responsible, productive adults in the society. So I insist they keep at it, offer support where I can and trust that it will get easier with time. Parenting is the strangest job in the world.
“You know after you were born, I stayed in the hospital with you for two days. When we were finally released, I cried all the way home!”
“You were my first baby. I had read all the books about raising a child that were recommended to me, but I still felt so unprepared to take care of you. What if I couldn’t calm you? What if you got sick? I just couldn’t believe they let me take you home. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so scared I would screw it up.”
“But you didn’t. You learned?”
“Yes. You taught me. I was much more confident when your brother was born.”
He gives me his kind smile and a nod. I love his smile. I am so grateful for moments like this, when we just come upon each other in the house and take some time for a small chat, knowing that eventually he will be a grown man and not living at home any more. These moments have become more and more precious to me and I really appreciate them.
“I can’t believe that was 18 years ago. I can’t believe you’re turning 18! Time goes by so fast.”
As if he had just read my mind moment sago he says: “Before you know it, I will be 21! That’ll be exciting!”
He chuckles and comes over and gives me a hug. And off he goes.
P.s.: The above conversation and the related stories are shared with permission from Sacha.