I’m in the car, utterly exhausted, back aching. My 17-year-old son is in the passenger seat, his attention glued, as always, to his phone. It vibrates with an incoming message from Snapchat. He turns to me. “(Girlfriend) wants to know if I can come over when we get back.”
“Of course,” I say. Then I chuckle wearily. “Actually, tell her I said no. Tell her I only have you for one more night, and I need more mother-son bonding time.”
He laughs too. We are on Highway 101, making our way home after a Southern California college tour, during which we visited eight schools over the course of five days. For five days, we have either been in the car, in a hotel room, or walking around a college campus. We have not been apart except for the times one of us went to the hotel gym and left the other in the room.
Suffice it to say, we’ve had plenty of time together to bond. And yet . . .
“It’s kind of amazing that after spending nearly every minute of the last five days together, we haven’t gotten on each others’ nerves.” I’m quick to correct myself in case I’m projecting, “At least, you haven’t gotten on my nerves.”
He smiles, “Same.”
When his father calls to ask about his trip, I feel another surge of joy and contentment when he repeatedly tells his dad what a good time he’s had. When he leaves for his girlfriend’s later that evening, he pauses to give me a hug, a kiss, and a “love you, mama.”
Later that summer, my 15-year-old son and I are curled next to one another on the couch, watching the eagerly awaited latest season of Stranger Things. We’ve been counting down the days until the premiere and have forced ourselves to wait until he’s back at my house so we can watch it together. During one particularly scary sequence, I reach out and put my hand on his leg, thinking, “He must be freaked out. I need to comfort him.” He covers my hand with his and wraps his arm around my shoulders.
He realizes, as I do then, that I’m the one who needs comforting.
We watch five episodes that Saturday night, and for the first time in a long time, I don’t get to bed until after 1 a.m. We finish the series on Sunday, and then we spend a good hour discussing what we’ve just seen. As always, I’m impressed with his analysis and unique take on the characters and plot points.
When I hear my friends complain that their teenage boys are turning into sullen jerks who don’t tell them anything about what’s happening in their lives it’s hard for me to relate. While my sons, like most teenagers, spend a lot of time in their rooms or doing things other than hanging out with their mom, they are and always have been very open—sometimes too open—about what’s going on in their and their friends’ lives. And as far as I can tell, they genuinely enjoy spending time with me.
I’ve always had a close relationship with my boys, but as they grew older, I braced myself for them to pull away from me, to greet me with exasperated eye rolls when I walked into their bedrooms. They are 15 and 17, and that day has yet to come.
I’m convinced that this is, in part, because I only have them half of the time.
When my ex-husband and I split, the idea of having my boys only 50 percent of the time was gut-wrenching. I spent the first full weekend they were with their dad on the couch, crying off and on as I buried my face in my dog’s fur. Watching my ex drive away with them on the first Christmas Eve I spent without them was like a dagger to my heart.
But as with everything, eventually, my brain and body adjusted to the new normal. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate that they aren’t with me all of the time. Particularly now, as the high school years seem to go by at warp speed. However, I’ve come to appreciate that I can make plans to go out with friends, or go out of town, or work uninterrupted by the school run or requests for food. And when the boys are with me, I make more of a point of spending time with them than I think I would if they were with me all of the time.
It’s also made me a bit more adventurous, as I strive to prove that mom could be just as fun as their more risk-tolerant father. (And yes, the fact that he listed “not adventurous enough” when listing my supposed weaknesses as a parent still rankles.)
Now that I don’t have to negotiate or compromise, I have been able to take the boys on amazing trips to destinations of my choosing.
In the seven years since our split, in addition to our annual trips to Wyoming, we’ve been to Europe twice, backpacking in the Sierra, hiking in the Grand Canyon, and camping in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth, making incredible memories in the process. My older son has navigated us through the streets of Rome; my younger son has encouraged us to go just one more mile deeper into the Grand Canyon. At the end of the day, piled into a hotel room (or a tent) we alternate between big, meaning-of-life conversations and companionable silence.
At the risk of sounding smug, I can say with high confidence that my kids genuinely enjoy spending time with me. Some of this is probably because when they’re with me, I try to show them how much I appreciate having them around. This mostly revolves around making and serving them food (what better way to a teenage boy’s heart?)—often in their rooms or even in bed. In return, my appreciation is reflected back with enthusiastic thank yous and frequent hugs.
As I said, I’ve always been close with my boys, so we started out with a solid foundation. But I think a big reason we genuinely like each other so much is because they’re not in my house all of the time. By the time I start getting on their nerves with my nagging, it’s time to go back to the other house. And by the time I’ve picked another pair of dirty socks off of the coffee table or I’m dreading doing yet another mountain of dishes, they’re gone.
When they return after a week, it still feels a little special, even after all of this time.
Obviously, I’m not advocating divorcing your spouse and sharing custody to improve your relationship with your children. Even in a situation such as mine, when we kept things as amicable as possible, our split, and some of the circumstances around it, took a massive toll on their emotional well-being. But with love, time, and lots of therapy for all of us, we’ve managed to muddle our way through it. And now that we’re (mostly) on the other side, I can appreciate that with my kids, sometimes a little distance is needed in order to stay close.