How The Pandemic Sparked an Identity Crisis in My High-schooler (and the Counterintuitive Approach I Took To Handle It)
Before the pandemic arrived, I was managing my sixteen-year-old just fine, thank you very much. He is Son №2 (and Kid №4), and, when the Coronavirus started its sweep of the planet, I had what I thought was some pretty healthy and solid infrastructure around him. For starters, we’d always limited his access to screens. The main computer lived out in the kitchen. His phone charged in the laundry room at night. And his tech wasn’t allowed in his bedroom, ever. The plan seemed to be working. At the time, he was maintaining a solid 3.6 GPA. He also was climbing the ranks of his high school and club lacrosse teams. He had a curfew which he honored more often than not. And he even read books — for pleasure?! — on the regular.
You get the picture. Everything unfolding according to plan. Everything fairly tidy and predictable. In short, I could sleep at night.
Then the pandemic happened.
Suddenly, we all were thrust into a murky place called stay-at-home-land, and the carefully constructed parental scaffolding I had built up over the years came crashing down with breathtaking immediacy. If you’ve ever seen those videos where the camera chronicles the demolition of an old building and it explodes, falling level by level into a spectacular effusion of dust and rubble, then you can picture what happened over at our house.
Done with the quarantine almost before it started, my son was desperate to reclaim a sense of agency he felt had been ripped away from him. Confined in an environment he already viewed as restrictive, dubious about claims of what the virus would do to him, he pushed back. I knew I was in for a bumpy ride when I got this text one Saturday morning back in early April of 2020: “Um, currently making a terrible slash solid decision to take a road trip to Moab with [name of friend].”
A road trip to Moab?
Four hours south of our house?
I’d been standing in the kitchen when I opened the text. When I flew up to his bedroom a moment later to confirm with my own eyes that he’d absconded sometime between midnight and 7 AM, sure enough, there was the pretend version of him, an effigy of a sleeping boy molded from a mound of laundry and stuffed under his comforter, with a basketball for the head. In that moment, I knew all bets were off. Somehow, the pandemic had accomplished something remarkable. In tethering my son to a house-under-quarantine, it had made him feel claustrophobic enough to stage an escape.
If you’re a parent of teens, you’ve probably had your own painful moments of reckoning during the last year. Make no mistake: whatever damage the virus has done, strained parent-kid relationships also are part of the fallout.
Here are a few things I’ve done to reconstitute my role as a Mother-during-the-pandemic, reimagining my relationship with a son who jumped the rails for a while.
The Mask Was Just a Scapegoat
As spring became summer became fall, I found it was easy to blame the pandemic for what I considered my son’s shenanigans. However, the pandemic merely served to highlight problems which I was already looking at but didn’t clearly see. One of them was his perception that he’d always had fewer freedoms than his friends. Prior to the lockdown, he was the last one to get a smart phone. He also was the only one who didn’t have the tech or the bandwidth to run the video games he typically played at his best friend’s house. And he was likewise (I’m suspecting) one of the few kids his age who had a parent checking text conversations and DMs periodically, just to see what was up. (And, yes, some of those threads left my eyeballs spinning.)
In fact, the problem at our house is one which Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate unpack brilliantly in their book Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. According to the authors, a rise in post-WWII “peer culture” accounts for why more and more kids have transferred their attachment away from their parents and onto their friends. And, sure, you could argue that kids are social creatures who are wired to want to practice the art of friendship. But, as Neufeld and Mate point out, friends also can be notoriously fickle in their attachments, tastes, and values, making peer culture a potentially tricky ocean in which to swim. In short, because he’d already become heavily peer-identified, my task as a mother wasn’t to focus on compliance at home but rather to invite him to reattach — to me. Which meant making a private pact with myself that whatever happened with his grades or with anything else, I would nevertheless remain a steady, safe, and engaged presence.
Collect Your Kid. That’s All.
Thus began my journey to “collect” my son, another term that comes up in the Neufeld/Mate book. And believe me, collecting him was no small task given the fact that, at the time, I was trying to start a business and build out a meditation app. You ever try that? — endeavor to do something of galactic proportions while in the wings your kid is up the canyon with friends or out in the west desert with “the boys” or just up way past curfew playing shooter games on someone’s Playstation or Xbox?
Yes, I know many kids throughout the country probably sat dutifully at the kitchen table last year, driving themselves through thorny math problems with persistence and good will for the teachers trying to suss out yet one more (fruitless) way to turn Zoom into an effective teaching platform. And I know that some students probably sat cooperatively in front of their laptops, listening to lectures, delving into assigned readings, assiduously completing assignments. Some high schoolers pivoted seamlessly, I’m sure. But I don’t personally know a single teenage human who fits that description. What I saw all around me were kids suffering from lethargy and restlessness by turns, limping through school under the constant shadow of overwhelm, while services and infrastructure faltered. My parents sent my son an almost new Macbook Pro last April, so he could keep up with his school work more successfully than on the ancient, always-stalling Chromebook his school had issued him. As soon as he unwrapped the device, he immediately sat down and banged out a deeply heartfelt letter of apology to his teachers for surrendering to depression (his term, not mine) and therefore failing to complete his school work. Believe it or not, only a handful of them replied! (I doubt it’s because they didn’t care. More likely it was because they were themselves suffering from total overwhelm.) Where I live, my son wasn’t the only one who took a break from school, only to discover that it’s tough to try to get your mojo back when school looks like it might never be the same again.
So, I let go of worries about attendance and grades (though I still bristle sometimes when he skips). I let go of the fear that his college options might dry up now that his GPA has flatlined. Trickiest of all for me personally, I let go of the fear that what seemed like laziness might turn out to be a permanent personality trait.
Basically, I just let go.
And it hasn’t all been terrible.
Reclaiming Joy in a Pandemic
One morning around 5 AM, I wandered upstairs to his room and found him sitting on his bed in the pre-dawn stillness, writing poetry. Yes, you heard that right. He was composing poems, odes to a girl he’d fallen for who’d broken his heart. A former lit major and former Assistant Professor of English, I was both delighted and bewildered— not just that he wanted to read his poetry aloud, but that he wanted to read it aloud to me. I sat down on his bed, and here came these unexpected lines, delivered in a voice of sincerity and earnestness that stunned me. As his words reflected on the pair of green eyes that had stolen his heart, and as he unfolded this vision of the girl who seemed to him like the embodiment of perfection, I silently wondered, How is this boy living right under my roof, and I don’t see him?
I will treasure that morning forever. My son, offering up the tender sentiments meant to express his teenage yearnings. Even by the high (and often arbitrary) standards we use to evaluate the worth of a poem, his pieces showed promise. Somehow his years of avid reading had shaped his voice, and out came phrases which felt truly original. From his poems, we segued to Shakespeare, then to Yeats. I even pulled up “When You Are Old” on my phone, knowing he would resonate to the famous “pilgrim soul” metaphor because it captures the idea of admiring a person for qualities which go deeper than skin and which others discount because their perceptions are too shallow. In the midst of pandemic-sparked chaos in our home, here came this little gift of a morning, which I was privileged to enjoy because I had set an intention both to collect him and to forget for the time being about my fears for his future.
Real Night Up At Sundance
On another occasion, it was late. Like, 1 AM-late. My son, my college-age daughter, and I were in the kitchen, talking about who-knows-what, and when they decided to go for a drive together, my son said, “Mom, you’re coming, right?” In spite of the often bone-crushing fatigue I felt all through 2020, I still was alert enough to recognize a sweet opportunity when I saw it. “Yeah, of course I’m coming!” I said.
Thirty minutes later, we found ourselves up Sundance Canyon, where we parked the car so we could get out, sit on the hood, and star-watch. We’ve had a long fascination in our family with something researchers call “real night” — the night sky unencumbered by light pollution. Tucked on the shoulder of the narrow road that snakes up past the Sundance ski resort, surrounded by mountains, we were lone witnesses to the show going on in the night sky. When a cop car eventually rolled up the road and stopped, we got nervous. But the guy was just patrolling the area, and we were just staging a harmless little campout of sorts, pointing out constellations to each other and vibing to the chill hop tunes wafting up through the sun roof of the car. The officer saluted us with a friendly smile, and we went back to our quiet revels.
Sometimes the very early hours are unspoiled enough that you can be fully present, with nothing else mediating the beauty of the moment. That outing was a too-brief but joyful sidebar during a year when the main story was Get Through The Day Without a Migraine.
When Things Get Crazy, Find the Poetry & The Road to Sundance
Yes, the pandemic blew the lid off my tidily crafted Mom life. It’s still doing exactly that. The college-age daughter? She moved home for a semester, to take a mental health break. Distance learning at the regular tuition price wasn’t, it turns out, a big win.
The son in question? He’s now seventeen, still just treading water schoolwise, but still reading late into the night on occasion, still willing to head out for a drive with me, still saying, “Hey Mom, check this out!” when he wants to show me a photo or video of some Tokyo drift car that caught his fancy. When he says, “Hey, Mom,” I lean in. I go. I look.
And here I still am, plodding along, trying to keep my family afloat. Truthfully, the best value proposition I’ve found for doing life when life undoes you is to let go and relearn how to drop into the Now, again and again. Sounds like a total platitude, I know. A forgettable meme you’d see in your Instagram feed. But here’s the thing: it works more often than not, and it helps me continually reconstitute myself in the face of the ego trips my mind sends me on. So what if my son gets his GED, puts off college, and keeps working construction for a while? Will that kill me? No, really. Will it actually cause me to lie down in the box and die? The answer is a fat nope.
I take comfort and wisdom from the words of one of my favorite poets, the divine Mary Oliver. In her oft-quoted (and oft-meme-ified) poem “The Summer Day,” she asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Given the fact that pandemics are now sure to become a regular feature of life on the planet, I have no choice but to let go of the expectations that too often constrain my relationships with my kids. I want to be able to say, along with Jen Pastiloff, “I have done love.” When I get out of my head long enough to realize what that looks like, I am reminded that collecting my kids and doing love is the only thing which is one hundred percent virus proof, ego proof, and real.