"Deep down, I understand that the next part of his journey requires me to take a back seat." Photo: Stocksy
My son is soon to turn 14. He sits on the cusp of manhood and puberty is in full swing. He has hair growing everywhere, his voice is deep, his shoulders are broadening and he's at least a foot taller than me. When I receive a hug (a rarity nowadays), it is me that tucks my head under his shoulders. He has become fiercely independent and private.
He is my first-born and my love for him is visceral and abiding. But suddenly I find I embarrass him by simply being.
Every other day he wounds my heart with his seeming disinterest and hurtful words. It is a physical pain. I feel nauseous knowing that he appears not to like me very much. Tears spring to my eyes when he gives me yet another withering look for simply offering an opinion or asking about his day. I do my best to hold the tears at bay, knowing that weeping will only amplify his embarrassment of me.
There are occasional snippets of my loving and tactile little boy, but when I see them, it's like I'm looking at him through a foggy mirror. My head knows that he still loves me deeply, but my heart aches for our lost relationship.
Yet, while this leaves me bewildered, it is okay because I understand that he's reached a point where being primarily guided by a female hand is not what's required to help him in his journey to becoming a fulfilled, balanced, loving man. It is okay, because deep down I understand that the next part of his journey requires me to take a back seat.
The late Celia Lashlie, author of He Will Be OK: Growing Good Boys into Gorgeous Men, believed that there is innate goodness in boys. And of course she is right. She provided a useful analogy. Imagine a boy's journey to adulthood is a road that goes over a bridge. The water beneath this bridge is murky, fast flowing and unpredictable.
It is generally the role of a mother to teach him, firstly, how to get on to the road and head to the bridge. She must teach him how to walk, talk, eat, how to communicate effectively. She must instil in him a healthy dose of emotional intelligence, showing him how every action has a consequence. Then, at the midpoint of that bridge, just when she could not love him more, she must let go of his hand and watch him disappear over the other side. Without her.
Now it's the turn of his father (or another significant role model) to guide him off the crest of the bridge, prevent him from falling or willingly jumping into the water, continue the discussion on the "why" of the water, travel down the other side and finally, give him a friendly shove into the adult world.
The far side of that bridge is a place of deep mystery for many mothers. It's a land rich in male tribalism and behaviours that confound and perplex us. There, they may well speak a language we fail to understand.
I will still set some boundaries for my son and help him when he asks for me. That is, I will now walk beside the bridge, so that at any time he calls out for me, I will be there.
I refuse to become invisible, though, and nor should I. At home, certain rules will remain. He will not be able to eat with his fingers. He will treat his sister, indeed all females, with respect. He will clean his teeth every night and I will not allow him to go without washing to the point that he begins to smell like the back of my grandfather's old Corolla.
I will continue to steal into his room late at night, kiss his forehead and fluff his pillows. I will continue to cheer on the sidelines at Saturday sport even if he'd prefer I didn't. And I will continue to put his first, precious stuffed toy on display at the top of his bookcase despite his best efforts to hide it.
A good friend has a son who is now an adult. He successfully made it down the other side of the bridge despite some serious obstacles – and, for a long time, no male role model. "It's important that you get off that bridge now," she says. "It is what your son needs.
"When he returns to you, and he surely will, the love and appreciation he will have for you will wash away the longing you are experiencing. You will once again see the loving boy you raised and then know the heartache, tears and doubt were worth it."
And so, I will turn down the volume of my mothering. For now I will alter the way I express my love because it's what he needs. And maybe, just maybe, it's what I need too.