Oh my … how a heart can stretch when it gets to love something. When it really, excruciatingly loves, in a nonsensical, absolutely unreasonable kind of way. There are other ways to find it of course, but our children are especially magical at evoking this particular breed of love. It’s the kind that is needed to survive the previously unimaginable, unendurable combination of a screaming babe and endless sleepless nights, and the wild contrary toddler stage, and the first time that you look at your little kid (now not quite so small) and realize that you can’t solve all of his problems anymore.
And when he starts nearing adolescence, and you’ve made it through all of the skinned knees and the heartbreaks of losing a pet, or a friend, and he starts to talk with you about his ideas, or the way he saw this situation or that flower, and you take a deep breath and sigh and think, we have arrived. And you think, foolishly, because he’s your first child, that this explosion of consciousness will make life so much simpler. Because his dependence is blossoming into independence before your eyes, and that must make things easier, right? It must.
As he gets older, you get older too, and with any luck, by the time he’s getting into his teenage years, you realize the truth: there is no arriving. And if you weren’t already getting to this idea on your own, he’ll help you. There is only, as they say in these videogames that he likes to play, levelling up. So far, you’ve risen to every occasion that he’s thrown you with varying degrees of elegance; but you’re in the big leagues now.
Some days, it seems that all he wants to do is complain about things that he finds annoying (almost everything). All he wants to talk about are cars and videogames (or insert a couple of things that you know, and care, almost nothing about), or more challenging still, things that you find provocative or taboo. He says things that make you question whether you were successful at passing on any of what you value most dearly. And just to further provoke, you can’t look away from how all these things come along with the rest of what it must mean: how can you allow him out in a world where the prevailing belief system is so off-kilter? How can you allow him to participate in popular culture where all that you have is the relationship that you’ve built with him, but no genuine control? You consider yourself progressive, forward-thinking – but you find your traditional upbringing rearing its hard head as he pushes on you and so much of you just wants to push back, or pack up and run for the hills to find a place without cell service or wifi.
How do you ask your heart to expand to encompass all of this? How do you hold on to him in the face of it all, with every button pushed, every reaction coiled and ready to spring?
Perhaps you’re not surprised that this is a personal story for me. I have found myself wrestling with these things over and over again in the past year as my son stepped into his adolescence. And I spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of coming alongside; because how could I possibly come alongside this? When the this that my son was bringing to the table was provocative, personal, unapologetically digging right into the heart of some of my dearest values. Surely, when Dr. Neufeld spoke about coming alongside, he didn’t mean this.
But he did. And I needed to allow this human who I love beyond reason to stretch my heart past the point of comfort, allow it to be changed, reshaped by the magic that coming alongside holds for both people. My beautiful son was floundering after going to sleep in his childhood bed and waking up abruptly in the ocean of adult consciousness. Of course he was grabbing onto anything that seemed like it might be a lifeline so that he wouldn’t drown in all the new ways that he himself was expanding. I needed to get truly solid, to become – and remain as much as possible – the unwavering, rooted tree to which was tied the one lifeline that would remain when the others proved false, or couldn’t bear the weight. I needed to not let the details distract me and hold resolutely to my trust that there is a way through even when I feel blind or furious or, worst of all, helpless; that he is finding, and will find, his way. I needed to expect the mess and the mud and the mayhem; expect it all, and start dancing.
For me, this was a radical idea. My Mennonite roots taught me much more about repressing or punishing the hard things than about coming alongside them (never mind that dancing itself was scandalous and forbidden). But I could feel the intuition in it despite my training, and I could feel something taking shape.
So enter, radical coming alongside: the day we climbed a mountain and I devoted myself to not shying away from any subject, promised to meet him exactly, exactly, where he was at. I would stake my heart wide open and let myself breathe in the scent of fir trees and the beautiful, prickly, irreverent soul of my beloved adolescent.
And what did he want to talk about for most of that hike? Naturally, as though he knew the task I’d set myself, he wanted to talk about a first person shooter videogame that he had started playing.
What a test of my devotion, driving a nail straight into my pacifist roots. But I held on tight to my connection to him, this person who I love most; I pushed into the discomfort and gradually, miraculously felt the content of our conversation depersonalize as my belief in the solidity of our relationship revealed itself. Instead of feeling triggered by the subject, I felt a boundless compassion for him. This conversation, the one that I didn’t want to have, turned into such a gift; I listened deeply enough to ask real questions, felt into the nuances, and he gradually opened up, responding to my genuine curiousity and softness with his own. As we descended the other side of the mountain, almost at our destination, he talked around his mixed feelings about the game; the things he found appealing, the things he found uncomfortable, the places he felt pushed, his desire to fit in, his yearning to be different.
I was humbled by what he shared with me. I hadn’t realized how much I wasn’t allowing by not being willing to engage with these subjects that pushed on me; I hadn’t realized that the pushing was actually an opportunity for my heart to grow. I could have missed out on this whole exquisite exchange, and all the ones that would follow.
That day, I could feel the hunger in him for this very conversation, and for the others that I hadn’t been willing to have; my discomfort with the subject matter had caused a kind of insatiability in him, and though I struggled with the regret of that, I knew with certainty that it was not the dreaded “too late”. All I had to do was keep being willing to jump into the mud with him. No matter what, our kids will meet us in the mud every time – their generousity here is endless. And it may be the finest place for a tea party.
And what happened when we got to our destination, on the other side of that mountain, to the place we love next to the ocean where we can watch the ferry go by? We lay on our stomachs for hours, my almost-fourteen-year-old and I, and watched the tiny worlds that exist in tide pools. We played games with found treasures. We laughed. Not another word about videogames was uttered.
He was at rest – we were both at rest – on the other side of a small big thing. Maybe a big small thing. I could see from the quiet joy in his eyes that he felt that lifeline that was connecting us, that it felt sure and tangible, shining and true.
This is not the end of the story. We will never arrive. There will always be more mud. Some days, the best that I can do as a mother is to come alongside the fact that I don’t want to come alongside right now. That happens. It evolves as it does. And there’s grieving to do; all the things that I can’t make ideal for him, can’t fix; that I can’t directly protect him from mainstream society, from the influence of the culture of people without a culture. Like the mud, I no longer expect this grief to end. My job is to make sure that the lifeline between him, out splashing around in the water, and me, increasingly rooted, is stronger than the other lines reaching out to him. Holding onto the thread of our relationship: that is the through-line. That commitment to hold onto him even – especially – when he lets go of me, that will see us through all of the storms and mud puddles.
May our hearts be like our noses – may they never stop growing. May they boldly wear the pits and scars of the tough times, and be stretched beyond recognition of the unobtrusive, polite things that they used to be.
Editor’s note: Are you looking for ways to come alongside your adolescent? We’re offering Dr. Neufeld’s course, Making Sense of Adolescence Part I: The Seven Rites of Passage, as a Scheduled Online Class in January 2023. Click HERE for more details.