Why 13 is Better Than 3

Among my friends, it’s become something of a sport to gripe about our young teens. The sullen faces. The eye-rolls. The sinus-searing scent of their shoes. One dad I know, in the middle of a tirade about epic homework battles, exhaled deeply, “Remember when they were in preschool? Those were great days.” His eyes glazed over with fondness.

Yes, I vividly remember the preschool days. And it was lovely when they smelled like baby shampoo and curled up in my lap without the bony knees and sharp elbows and shoulder-to-knee no-touch zone that makes it impossible to hug them at 13. But there were downsides too, that have faded into a haze of nostalgia. In an effort to keep us all grounded in reality—and able to soldier on through this early-teen phase—here are eight reasons why 13 is better than 3.

1. No more babysitters.

Our dates were pathetic when the kids were young, when the neighbor girl was bilking us for $10 an hour to play Fruit Ninja while our children slept. Dinner was a paper plate of rolled tacos gulped outside a food truck, or the kids’ leftover cold mac-n-cheese shoveled into our mouths so we could justify “just getting drinks.” Now we have full meals with actual forks and glasses of wine. And my daughter is paying it forward by bilking $10 an hour out of our neighbors for watching their eight-month-old sleep.

2. Blessed silence.

When my kids were young, our house was an experimental performance art studio, full of half-naked people smearing condiments on themselves while telling pointless stories at full volume. Someone was always—always—talking. Always. And none of it made sense, just a stream of consciousness narrative of every fleeting thought that passed through their precious little heads. I spent years not-listening on autopilot: “Uh-huh…. Really…. Hmmmm.” Now there are constant earbuds and sometimes monosyllabic answers to even the most thought-provoking questions, but at least it is quiet.

3. Some of their interests are actually interesting.

Playing with my kids in preschool sounded like this: child says, “You be the baby hippo and I’ll be the mommy hippo and we’ll hunt monsters so you need this tiara and this sword but first let’s pile all the blocks up and try to balance the couch cushions on top of them except now I want a snack and then let’s watch the made-for-DVD derivative of Aladdin for the seven-thousandth time…” It was adorable and precious and lovely. For about 30 minutes. And then I wanted to poke my eyeballs out with a Dora the Explorer spork.

Now my daughter is studying World War II, so we watch Casablanca and discuss The Book Thief. My son is teaching me to code Arduino. We listen to Coldplay and U2 instead of Weird Al and Disney soundtracks, and watch re-runs of The Office instead of the brain-numbing Caillou. Their questions are provocative: “Why did the Germans follow the Nazis?” “Why would that character stay with a boyfriend who hit her?” “If the apocalypse comes, would you want to be a survivor or an early victim?” The one exception to these interesting hobbies is, of course, Minecraft; Minecraft conversations makes me miss Caillou.

4. Generally speaking, the toilets get flushed.

I rarely find a poop-and-toilet-paper lasagne lurking in the toilet anymore.

5. They can (occasionally) filter their thoughts.

My son, in preschool, sounded like Elmo on crack: high-pitched, ear-piercing with a vocal range of about two miles. He was also incredibly curious, which was a volatile combination. In line at In-N-Out, he pointed out a soldier in fatigues: “Mommy, he doesn’t have a leg. Why doesn’t he have a leg? Where did his leg go?” At the grocery store, about the woman ahead of us, he asked, “Mommy, why is she so fat? She looks like a Teletubby! She probably eats too many cookies.” Glaring at a menacing gang of meth heads, he informed me, “They’re smoking. Don’t they know that’s bad for them? Go tell them they shouldn’t smoke.”

Now, we can listen to the explicit versions of songs and they know not to sing those lyrics in front of my parents. We can discuss real issues — a concern about a family member, our financial plans — without it coming up at the park or over Thanksgiving dinner. And I can finally swear without feeling guilty because they cuss better and more inventively than I can.

6. Less gear.

Car seats, strollers, backpacks, boosters, toys, blankets, diapers, wipes, back-up changes of clothes: all for a single trip to the park. A weekend away required more gear than my ancestors brought when they immigrated to the US. Now my son is happy for a week with one 3×5-inch electronic device and maybe a change of underwear, both of which he can carry himself. My sherpa days are over.

7. Indentured servitude. Ahem, I mean, “self-sufficiency.”

I remember the early years as an endless carousel of laundry and dishes. Now, my children do their own laundry. This has, of course, required me to redefine “doing laundry” to mean “cramming it all in willy-nilly, possibly adding soap, shoveling it into a laundry bin where it sits wadded in a ball until it gets worn in all its rumpled, grey-white glory.” But the payoff is that I don’t do laundry. Ditto with dishes. Our broken-dish-replacement bill has skyrocketed, and sometimes I have to scrape dried parsley off with my fingernail before I plate dinner, but I don’t do dishes. I had to withstand months of fake incompetence—“Mommy, can you just show me which buttons to push again?”—but it was worth it as I lie on the couch reading a novel to the sounds of the dishwasher being emptied.

8. There is a glimmer of freedom on the horizon.

I spent a significant amount of time, when my kids were young, craving a tiny pocket of freedom: freedom to sleep in, freedom to design a day around my interests, freedom to take an entire shower —shampoo and shave!—without someone barging in. Endless days of freedom are close now, which helps me savor these last few moments of full-time mommyhood in a way that I couldn’t when freedom felt eight and half centuries away.

Life may be full of the huffing exhales in response to “How was your day?” and the curtain of hair over the eyes and the I-hate-my-friends-I-love-my-friends tango and the braces and the acne and the stink and the goofy dancing and the crushes and the sad music and the door-slamming and the you-don’t-understand and all the glory of being 13 and figuring it all out. But that is beautiful in its own way. They are growing their wings after all those lovely years of growing roots with you, but they still need your help and guidance. They’re still little on the inside in many ways, and even if they can’t run to you, arms open, with, “I love you, Mommy!” on their lips, they still want you — and your gooey, ‘embarrassing’ love— available at all times.

Besides, these days are fleeting. And my friends whose homes are now empty of the stink of shinguards sometimes get a little misty thinking about these days that I am struggling with. So let’s embrace it before it’s gone.

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