Picture of columnist Nicki Gilbert

Parenting a teen is tricky, and often a little bit messy

I hear him before I see him. Rummaging in the top drawer. Muttering loudly under his breath. Pulling out creased papers, stamps, the school directory. He is agitated.

I look up from the vegetables I’m slicing. “Can I help you, love? What are you looking for?”

“The pencil sharpener,” he says, his voice muffled as almost puts his whole head into the drawer.

It’s a messy drawer, the one he’s digging through. It sits at the top of a bank of drawers at the entrance to the kitchen, in that No Man’s land that is not quite kitchen, not quite hallway. A conduit from the usually loud, chaotic kitchen to whatever is beyond it. These drawers contain tools, batteries, flashlights, duct tape. One entire drawer holds our collection of kippot, another is full of candles for Shabbat, birthdays and just because.

In the top two drawers, the ones my 15-year-old son is now urgently emptying in his quest for a pencil sharpener, there are extra notepads, a book of paint chips, loose rubber bands wedged into the corners, random notices and reminders (I spy the field trip permission form I thought I had lost) and a box of pens in a rainbow of colors. He pulls out a lone kippah from the back of the drawer. I grab it and put it in the kippah drawer before it goes missing. Someone is always looking for that Spongebob kippah!

“Isn’t there a pencil sharpener in here?” He looks exasperated. And exhausted from all that searching.

“It’s there.” I know it is. The drawers might appear messy and chaotic, but the chaos is organized. That mess is mine.

“Mom.” He is getting impatient. I don’t blame him. I’d be frustrated too if I spent a lot of time looking for something I really needed. “It’s not here. I’ve pulled everything out and I can’t find it any…” The words die on his lips as I reach around his broad back and hand him the sharpener. “Right in front of you,” I say with a wink.

“I swear it wasn’t there before.” His blue eyes are wide and he smiles.

It happens a lot. The orange juice that disappears from the fridge. The notes he insists he shoved into his backpack. The rugby socks that must have walked right out of his closet between practices. A mixture of distraction, forgetfulness and impatience. I call it teenage brain: the socks are usually buried under a pile of T-shirts; the orange juice is right where it always is, next to the milk; the notes are on his desk where he left them. All it takes is a deep breath and a few extra minutes, neither of which come easy to a teenager.

I go back to slicing the leeks and carrots and look over at my boy, sharpening his pencils. It’s easy to forget he’s not yet an adult. He is tall, almost half a foot taller than me, and broad across his back and shoulders. His voice is deep and loud, and even though we tease him, he likes to keep a little stubble on his chin. He has ideas and opinions and when his brothers and sister ask questions about the world, he answers before I do, with a gentle confidence and wisdom beyond his 15 years. How quickly these years have passed.

It’s tricky, parenting a teenager. It’s not always clear what and how much he needs from me, this person who is no longer a little kid and definitely not a grown-up. I encourage his independence (mostly), try to respect his privacy, and sometimes I tilt my head back and look up at him as I reprimand him for talking back or inciting an argument with his siblings.

I like to think that in between all of this, I’m helping him make some kind of order in those messy drawers, showing him how to find what he’s looking for even when things are chaotic and confusing.

“Everyone knows moms have a special gift for seeing things their kids can’t see,” he tells me on his way out the kitchen, three freshly sharpened pencils gripped tight in his hand.

I leave my soup on the stove, and open the messy drawer to make sure the pencil sharpener is back in its place. He’ll know where to find it next time.

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Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.