As the father of a teenage boy, I have become a skilled eggshell walker.
By Joshua Braff
My son was born on Father’s Day, 2000. I’m one of those early pioneers of the stay-at-home dad movement you hear so much about now. Mom at work, save money on the nanny, baby better off with daddy.
My memory of these years dismisses the smelly parts and fast forwards straight to the ball game we played each morning after breakfast. I’d sit about ten feet away and roll a small red kickball to him, aiming between his outstretched legs, his diaper acting as the bumper. He’d grab the ball with both palms and mash his open mouth into it, laughing. I’d walk to him for retrieval, again and again, and kiss the top of his head. “Gotcha.”
I recognize myself easily when I watch the video of us playing — I look almost the same as I do now. My son, on the other hand, is 6 feet tall and almost 15. Those beautiful, large eyes are from his mother. His ability with math as well. I get credit for his height and shoe size. The pensiveness must be from me. The word is in my job description, even deemed a positive attribute by book people. But if you don’t live as an artist, pensiveness can be construed as moodiness
And teen moodiness is seen by neurologists as highly normal. So he’s normal. I look at him randomly and the scowl suggests words he cannot say.
What is it you cannot say? You despise your academic workload, you can’t sleep enough, can’t eat enough, can’t catch up to your own achy growth spurts? Perhaps there is consequence in saying what he wants to say. There is too much to lose.
I think I felt that way at his age. I didn’t like being forced to rely on my parents for food and money and ironing out my choices. I couldn’t stand the way they gave advice, as if they invented it all, so pedantic in their tone.
As I type on my computer he approaches with a sigh, his elbows splayed, nearly touching my arm.
“What’s up, man?” I say.
“Nothing,” he whispers.
“You look tired,” I say, and his face contorts to a cartoonishly wide-eyed and angry WWE wrestler face, bracing to monologue. I laugh on purpose at the folly of it. He lowers his forehead to the table and stays frozen.
As the father of a teenage boy, I am an eggshell walker, one who must remember to, “Wear beige and lay low” with my teen. Wear beige and lay low. I have to laugh, deep in my stomach at the notion of my own father adhering to this advice. No parent back then was built to read moods or exhibit timing in parenting. God, no.
“What’re you so mopey for?” was always the question, whether I was contemplating the fragility of existence, or cutting fish sticks in half with a fork.
So, a full life-cycle later I attempt to tell myself that my son is not reflecting on me at all. But instead grappling with the teen-brain circuitry system, a complexity not unlike an electric storm.
He’s a teenager in a critical and even cruel world. Opinions these days are stark and public and you don’t need credentials to offer them or be heard. My only role after loving my son wholly as an infant and toddler and teenage werewolf is to keep him free of unnecessary blame and assure him that that love is unconditional. In other words son — when you’re done despising me, I’ll be here, and hold no grudge.
Tuesday he’s exhausted, with two tests tomorrow. He hates the way his hair is standing up on its own, and the way there’s Maple syrup, not only on the corner of my mouth, but also on my jeans. I retrieve the dollop from my knee and eat it.
“You’re disgusting,” he says, a nauseous glare.
“That’s no way to talk to your Dad,” I read, straight off the cue card.
A large surge of air leaves his body, much like Napoleon Dynamite.
“Then don’t be disgusting,” he says.
My 11-year-old girl turns up The Voice on TV.
“Adam Levine’s sunglasses look like he borrowed them from Elton John’s closet,” I say.
“That’s homophobic,” my son barks.
“No it isn’t. I didn’t mean that closet.”
“Quit while you’re ahead, Dad,” my daughter says.
“Just don’t be a hypocrite,” my son mutters.
I stare at him. Mean. Even jerky. I decide to leave the bait alone, to swim away. He sighs, his eyelids lazy, feeling powerful. I glance at my daughter and am relieved she’s still a kid, nowhere near puberty, at least for tonight. The light pink of her unicorn T-shirt and her bouncy blond ponytail are still safe ground for me, the guy with syrup on his knee.
“Now that girl can sing,” my daughter says.
“I agree,” I announce.
My son stands slowly. He pours a bowl of cereal, eats it while standing and leaves the bowl ten feet from the sink. I ignore the obvious attempt to stir me, just to leave him with no ammunition. His arms stretch above his head and he bellows, “Aaauuuugh!” a gorilla pounding his chest. We, the meek and smaller jungle animals just cower, the way he likes it.
His phone rings, he smiles and hurries to say, “Hi,” with a ton of pure kindness and approachability. Whoever is on the phone elates him. “YES!” and he’s giddy, even spins on his heel to celebrate the kind of stirring dialogue that rousts the most critical of teens. My daughter and I are forced to hear the way it could be for us, if we were only part of his world. He says, “Yup, yup, hilarious, talk to you tomorrow,” and the joy is physically ripped from his face as he returns to the reality of us, this girl and her beige dad.
“Dance at the school tomorrow,” he offers.
“Cool,” I say.
“You need a ride?”
The radio bonds us as I drive the next night, a song we both like. I glance at my son and his headphones are in. I can’t tell if he hears what I hear.
“You can leave me here,” he says, an entire parking lot away from the entrance of the school.
I remember this part. Telling my mom to drop me off so it appeared I was raised by the wind. No problem.
We hear three kids approaching, all in wool hats and slumped shoulders. Here they come.
“Shhhhhh,” my son says to me. “Just…sit…tight.”
For the sake of contemporary parenting I begin to fade into the faux leather seat of my Jetta. The kids pass us, only noticing my son and a running car. His car.
“Tsup,” my son says.
“See you in there,” one of them says, and they walk on by.
My son faces me, and tells me to pick him up at 10.
“See you then,” I say. “Oh, wait.”
“What?” he says, and I lean in and kiss him, really fast on the head, the way I used to do when we played ball.
“Gotcha,” I say, and don’t see a scowl.
I call that progress.
This article originally appeared on Babble.com. For more like this from Babble, try:
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