We just went on a highly-anticipated beach vacation — and my sweet, tender 8 year-old little boy turned into a TWEEN. Literally overnight. And not the cute, funny, iCarly kind. It was a turn of events I had not anticipated, and yet here we were, my first-born and I, staring at each other in a hotel hallway standoff. “I will not let you into the room until you apologize and say you love me,” I instructed. “I’m not ready to say either one,” Sam grunted. Two days later, stunned at the silence between us, still on vacation, I teared up, wondering what just happened, and if it would stay this way. Where did my Sammy Sam, the one who, in the airport on the way here, shouted “Mom, you are the best person in the universe!” go?? The void felt huge and tragically sad.
It all started when we got to our hotel, and situated ourselves around the pool. Immediately Sam gravitated towards a small group of boys around his age. The four of them were instant pals, diving into the pool, sharing favorite Wii game strategies, rating Star Wars characters. Then, as I did the ‘casual but inside panicky’ glance around the pool area, I couldn’t see him or them.
Now, to give a bit of context, I’ve never been one of those “can’t see ‘em, I’m sure they’re fine” kind of moms. I wouldn’t say I’m an anxiety-ridden “shelter your kids at all costs” mom, either. I’m sure I’ll get there in time, but I’m just not ready to let my kids ride their bikes around the corner without me, or wander through the other side of Target. Or stay home for 20 minutes alone. The list of ‘what ifs’ just rolls through my head. What if they get lost? They don’t have cell phones. What if a pipe bursts in the basement, or they cut themselves with a knife they’re not supposed to be using? What if they choke on a carrot? Ok, maybe I need to chill a little. I just can’t help it. These are my babies, and they’re young (right?). Eight and six — that feels so little still.
I swat Paul’s arm, pluck the headphones out of his ears and announce that our son is lost. Can’t see him. It’s been 10 minutes now. He looks at me wide-eyed. I try my best to casually walk over to the other kids’ parents, who I see across the pool. “Hi, uh, I’m Sam’s mom….do you know where the boys went?” These parents look really cool, and nice, and have an older daughter, and clearly have it all together. “Oh! Huh…no, are they not here?” They don’t seem too concerned, and aren’t getting up. So I begin the hunt, walking towards the beach, over to the snack bar, still nothing. I finally, after a sizable increase in heart rate, find them huddled around the corner, behind the bathrooms, playing with an electric car one of the boys had gotten from his room. “SAM! What are you doing? You need to tell me if you’re going off somewhere! I was freaking out!” The other boys looked up at me, unfazed. Here’s where the crack in my mommy system — the one I thought was working really well — happened, before my very eyes. “Well I’m fine, and I want to keep playing. And can I have the key card, because I want to go up to the room MYSELF and get a Star Wars book to show these guys. And they built a really cool fort on the beach, and I want to go over there with them.”
What? It’s times like these that you just want the answer. You just want to KNOW what’s right. This is a family vacation. He had never wanted anything more than to hang out with us and his sister. Wasn’t this OUR time? Why NOW does he suddenly need his own space, without us? And aren’t I supposed to decide when and where that happens? But I just stood there. “Just come over to where we’re sitting and we can talk about it.” Sam rolled his eyes, slinked back to our chairs, and sat there, looking like someone had just stolen the 100 finished Lego sets from his room. That’s where our first memorable fight began, and we barely spoke that day.
Bam. Things were suddenly different. He craved, even needed, some sort of independence. He felt a glimpse of it — and he liked it. Is he ready for it? It’s such a tough struggle as a parent. Ultimately, we let him take the card key, go up through the building and elevator, up to the room, all by himself, and told him he had 5 minutes to come back. My stomach dropped as I watched him skip away. But then, Paul told me to really look at him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a blissful expression on his sweet freckled face. He probably ‘needed something’ from our room 15 times over the next few days. And each time, he proved to us and himself that he was ready to be alone, even for just five minutes.
Fast forward to last night — I was putting Sam to bed, and he said: “You know Mom, in the bathroom, I was just thinking. I don’t know what I’ll look like when I’m a teenager. I don’t know who my friends will be. I don’t know where I’ll go to college. I don’t know a lot of things. There are so many changes that will happen. But there’s something I know. There’s an invisible core, between you and me. It’s about love. And I know THAT will never change.”
My boy is back. At least for a little while.