When my grandfather was thirteen, he came home from school and found his mother was gone. No note. No food. Just an absence in the house. He did what any normal thirteen-year-old boy would do which was continue life as usual. He went to school. He stole food from convenience stores. He kept quiet that he was home alone and had no idea where his mom was or if she’d come back. After a few weeks she did, offering “I was visiting our relatives back east” as her excuse. Month’s passed. My grandfather would come home to his mother each day . . . until the next time she left. According to my grandfather, this patterned continued for the rest of his childhood.
When he tells it, my grandfather is a bit shaken by how terrible it was for him, but we also both shrug and say “It was a different time” when thirteen year old kids could live on their own and no one batted an eye.
I think about my son, just thirteen now and how he would survive on his own. I don’t know how he would. And I can’t conceive of being able to do the mental and moral gymnastics that would let me abandon him for weeks without a word or another person to care for him.
But it is undeniable that he is growing up and I need to start passing on adult responsibilities that will prepare him not for the days when I randomly leave but for when he is an actual adult and has to figure this stuff out on his own. We don’t suddenly become competent at life the moment we become 18. we have to be trained, allowed to have small doses of responsibility that then give us the skills us to the full things.
To this end, I’ve added more complex chores like clean the the bathroom and do your laundry (his future partners will rise up and call me blessed), and I’ve started teaching him how to cook. He has a recipe book that we add to each month with things he’s interested in learning to prepare. I’ll be honest, he’s surprised me a bit with what he wants to cook from scratch: shepherd’s pie, clam chowder. And then there are the normal little kid menus in his repertoire: quesadillas, boxed mac n cheese, scrambled eggs. But each item gets a page in his book (even if it’s the side of the Annie’s cardboard box), and periodically, he revisits recipes to make on his own, demonstrating that he’s “mastered” the meal.
These are all well and good in teaching him domestic responsibility; however, there’s a whole big global world out there too in which he will have to learn to navigate with confidence and grace. One of the challenges I have with our being urban is that I don’t like to let him have a lot of wandering freedom to experience adventures without me. The city is a bit dangerous and big and while I am not so much afraid he’ll be kidnapped, I do fear he’ll get hit by a car. Thus his experience of his world outside of home is very much mediated by my paradigm: we do what I want, we engage with what I think is valuable.
I want him to grow and try scary new things in a safe way. And I need to learn to let go a bit of my need for control over what he encounters and how he engages. So when one of his friends invited him to travel with her and her family through New England and Canada, I sucked in my breath and said yes.
It’s weird to let your kid off on his own adventures. Part of me is all FOMO because I want to see the things he’s seeing. (I want to go to Eastern Canada and see polar bears and beluga whales and where Anne of Green Gables lived.) Then there’s this other part that is naggingly wondering if he’s feeling safe and happy, if people are being kind to him. If he’s being annoying (as teenage kids can be). A continent away, he is so far out of my control.
Which is good … I guess. This whole trip is also a growing experience for me. In five years, my son will eventually be fully out of my responsibility and not under the watchful eyes of other parents. He’ll be living his own life, and I won’t know anything about it. That feels so weird; especially because our entire relationship has been based on his relentless need of me.
I think perhaps it’s me more than him who has to be eased into the reality of his being his own and separate person. I think the letting your kid grow up is a good thing to tackle intentionally both with care for his well-being as well as for your own heart. It’s a hard thing I have to learn in this situation: trust him. Trust that what he’s learned from me will be sufficient. And to trust that no matter what life throws his way, he will be okay.
I’m not ready to leave him home alone for weeks, yet. But am excited at how these baby steps of independence on both our parts will lead to a fruitful, independent, and kind life.