Finding Our Place In-beTWEEN

Every mother knows that what they say is true – when you have a baby, your life changes overnight. But what they forget to tell you, and what took me by complete surprise, is that the crazy/comfy life you’ve settled into over the last ten or so years will change again when your child turns into a tween. And yes, it really does happen overnight.

My babies, when they were babies.

My babies, when they were babies.

When my babies were babies I spent countless hours trying to imagine what they would be like when they started school. What would they look like? What would their little voices, that so far had only uttered cries and a few coos, sound like? Would they run into school full of excitement on their first day of kindergarten or hang back, hiding behind my leg? I look back at photos of my babies and can remember staring at those little faces, wondering who they were going to become.

It was always about the big moments. My daydreams focused on our kids starting school, learning to drive, graduating, getting married, having our grandchildren…you know, the big stuff. But what I missed, and what no one ever really talks about, is that space in-between.

I’ve come to realize that this space in-between, that we are all up in right now, is the big stuff. I have always loved kids, babies especially (if I get the chance to hold a baby, good luck getting it back from my death grip), and I took to motherhood quickly and easily. We had moments of chaos, of course, but motherhood was my thing. With a baby and a toddler by my side I felt complete. My son and daughter are three-and-a-half years apart, which felt like the perfect spacing. I had a great helper in my toddler son and their big milestones were just far enough apart that everything felt new again the second time around.

But around the time my son was eleven, I woke up on what I thought was a normal day but quickly realized was actually the birth day of my tween. No one had informed me that my precious, huggable, loveable, sweet-smelling boy was swiped during the night and replaced by something…different. I gently touched his arm with my daily “Good morning!” and was met with angry eyebrows over his still-closed eyes. Blankets were quickly yanked over his head. “Honey, it’s time to get up!” I tell him in my usual sing-song morning voice, undeterred. “I’m AWAKE.” I hear from under the covers, muffled and annoyed.

My not-so-little boy at twelve years old.

My not-so-little boy at twelve years old.

Oh. Wait – what?

And that’s when it began. The little boy who, not very long ago, asked to “play my hair” as I tucked him in at night started meeting my hugs with a swift duck-and-swerve that he perfected to avoid any mother-to-son contact. “How was your day?” became the most annoying question I had ever uttered. Anything deeper than that was met by eye rolls and a non-answer.

As the days wore on I realized that this may be a phase, yes, but it was our new normal. The way things would likely be for the next eight or so (if we’re lucky) years. And no one had prepared me for it. I had imagined the parts before this stage and I had tried to picture the parts afterward, but this in-betweenness was uncharted territory. I realized that no one really talks about it because it’s awkward. It’s weird. This time period in my own childhood was awful. Middle school was awful. I was awful. So ignoring it seemed like a reasonable reaction…but clearly wasn’t going to work.

When our kids are babies we have so many resources for support. Shelves and shelves of books, a playgroup for every interest, fitness programs that include your baby and stroller…the options are unlimited. If you need a group of moms to connect with, they’re easy to find – as long as you have a little one by your side. Those groups start dwindling as our kids get older. And with that, we lose the shoulders to lean on and the advice and stories from those who are there in the trenches with us. It really does take a village but we need that village all the way to the end, y’all.

Now that my kids are 10 and 13 we really are fully immersed in the in-between. Two little people (although one is taller than me, with feet larger than mine) who are full of hormonal chaos and struggling to find their place in the world and assert their independence. We, as their parents, are tasked with the delicate balancing act of keeping our role as their parent clear while also connecting with them in a whole new way.

They are no longer that toddler who would accept a simple “No” or “Because I said so!” as an acceptable explanation for anything. They’re old enough now to view and question things (everything) logically and expect an explanation from us. It’s a lot of work! Our parenting hadn’t necessarily gotten lazy in the few years before this stage but we were comfortable. We had settled into a routine of everyday life and now everything had been shaken up, requiring much more “active parenting” from us.

My (painfully-awkward) thirteen year old self with my pop star idol - and my younger brother, who was little and cute and still in my parents' good graces.

My (painfully-awkward) thirteen year old self with my pop star idol – and my younger brother, who was little and cute and still in my parents’ good graces.

My biggest fear is losing the influence and respect that we’ve built with them by doing something to screw it all up. There are moments when their overly-dramatic response to something simple takes me by surprise and my first instinct is to revert back to my thirteen-year-old self with an equally overly-dramatic response. It only took a few of those “episodes” to realize that fighting fire with fire was a guaranteed road to slammed doors and tears from one or both parties involved.

I’m learning that my place in-between is made up of trust, respect, and empathy. It sounds cliché but these basic truths are so vital in surviving this stage. I want our kids to trust us. To know that we’re on their side and will be fair and objective, even when they’re in trouble. Respect has to be mutual. I want them to know that I’m still in charge but I do respect them as the people they are (and are becoming) and will treat them with the same respect that I expect from them. And empathy is huge, you guys…when they’re being completely irrational or over-reacting to something that makes us want to roll our eyes, I try to take myself back to that awkward place and remember that what seems small to us is all that matters to them in that moment. Seeing that we’re not going to downplay these moments of hysterics but listen and empathize instead helps build a solid ground between us (or tear down a wall that may have been built in one of our lesser moments).

If you haven’t reached these tender years yet and are still in the monotonous days of infancy or chaos of toddlerhood, I want you to know that yes, you will one day mourn that little person who twirls your hair around his tiny finger before he drifts off to sleep, but this in-between place is not something to fear.

It is a lot like starting over but there’s a whole new person to get to know…someone who will start to figure out who they really are and who, if we stick with it even in the hardest times, will some day be one of your best friends. So hold tightly to your mama friends. Don’t let the weirdness of this stage break down the foundation you’ve built, and don’t let it stop you from talking about all the hard things with those who have been there before or who are in there with you. Like life, it’s never easy. But there is a place for you in-between all the crazy.

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