I look at my 11-year-old son and sometimes my heart aches.
He is tall and gangly, his limbs long and thin. He is in middle school now, the most unkind years of any child’s life. Part of me wants to pick him up and carry him through the next three years of his life, shielding and protecting him from this traumatic period of time.
Watching him get off the bus with his ripped sweatpants and backwards hat, he smiles when he sees me. My heart balloons. He still has pizza sauce on his chin from lunch three hours before. How can he not feel that crusty stuff on his face?
He hugs me and greets me as he always does, just as happy to see me as any other afternoon. And I melt into him, chastising myself for judging his appearance. He doesn’t care how he looks, so why should I?
I beg this child to maintain this kind of confidence in all aspects of his life for years to come. I also kind of beg for him to stop getting older, and I wish for time to slow down just a tiny bit. Because, at times, I recognize the cracks of insecurities that he exudes in the shuffle of his feet and the biting of his fingernails. The feelings inevitably took over for me.
At his age, I remember how it felt to want to be a part of something, but not knowing how to express or assert myself.
He is a confident boy, but I have seen tiny bits of preteen awkwardness. Despite his silly arrogance, I have noticed his desire to fit in. I recognize that urge to want to be included. I have even felt it as an adult. I watch his eagerness and anticipation to be accepted into groups or invited to places with friends, and I have witnessed his disappointment and sadness when he has been excluded from activities and parties. I have experienced that as well, as an adult.
“I know how you feel, buddy,” I tell him. We’ve all been there.
He is curious and wants me to explain to him what I mean.
“When I stopped drinking, some people just didn’t want to be around me anymore. It’s hard for some people to have fun around a person who isn’t drinking. It makes them question their own behavior,” I say.
He nods. He gets it and always appreciates my personal stories. I’m glad I can empathize with him.
He is straddling that deep canyon—one foot in the world of immaturity and naivety, the other foot attempting to pull him fully toward puberty and growing up into a teenager. Perhaps part of him wants to stay little and in the safety of boyhood, while the other wants to explore the curiosity and excitement he feels when talking to the pretty girl down the street.
I fear for him as he embarks on this journey that is middle school, as these years of insecurity were where my need to escape and hide at the bottom of a bottle ultimately began. The urge to repair the discomfort of being unhappy with myself and how others perceived me were born during this time in my life.
I can only hope that as a sober, present mother, I can be a strong and vulnerable role model for him. I can show him what it means to make mistakes and grow from them. I want him to see that we cannot hide from ourselves, but that the truth will find us.
We must be kind, honest, and authentic every day.
We don’t always have to follow along with the crowd, but we can be our own person. That will bring us greater joy than anything else. And above all else, we cannot let the judgment of others rule how we live our lives.