On Making a Man
This is a year of milestones for my family. My husband and I celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary, the Velvet Revolution just marked its 25th anniversary, and our oldest child, a son, will be turning thirteen.
For those of you who may be a bit fuzzy about the Velvet Revolution, I’ll give you a refresher course: The Velvet Revolution was a non-violent series of demonstrations in Czechoslovakia that culminated in an end to 41 years of communist rule, followed by a peaceful conversion to a parliamentary republic. It was truly one of democracy’s great days and one I can’t look back upon without getting all verklempt. Not a single shot was fired.
As for the other two milestones, I think a fifteen-year wedding anniversary is pretty self-explanatory. But for those of you who don’t have kids, I’ll enlighten you a little bit about what it’s like when the first one turns thirteen.
I’m sure you’ve heard, but thirteen is when all the fun begins.
Given all that is at stake, it’s crucial to me that we start the teen years off on the right track, and I decided that a mother-son trip back to the old country was in order. The country that I only narrowly escaped being born in – which I like to remind my children would have disqualified me from ever being President here in the US of A. That little civics lesson is an added bonus.
I was a bit apprehensive about spending a week alone with my son on a tour that didn’t involve any of the usual activities that he values in a vacation. You know – beaches, fishing, and a lot of lounging around.
A trip to the Czech Republic is a very adult vacation. One filled with history and family. And in this case, one even infused with work. My son not only got to watch me perform a reading of my novel, The Bone Church, at a Prague bookstore, but listen in as I furnished a lengthy interview to Prague Radio that included a good deal of rather delicate family information he’d never heard before.
I knew our week would be jam-packed, exhausting and utterly alien to him. My hope was that my son could walk away from our week in Prague with something of his mother to take with him through his more challenging years. During a time when he’ll be breaking away from my loving embrace – as he should, taking his own council or the advice of his friends over mine – as he also should from time to time, and springing, swelling, sometimes snowballing into the man he will become.
I’ve given a lot of consideration to what kind of mother I want to be to my son. To the kind of man I want to raise and unleash on this world. I’ve thought about everything from discipline – I’m a fan, to independence – a necessity in my point of view, and character – absolutely essential. My husband and I once disqualified an excellent private school for our children when we learned about an incident where a bus driver had refused to drive an inch until an overly exuberant teen was able to control himself and sit down.
We would’ve shaken the man’s hand, but the school gave the driver a pink slip after the disruptive and disrespectful student’s parents complained.
I just want so much more for my children than a culture of entitlement and a single-minded obsession with self-esteem. Especially when I’ve seen how in my own life, my sense of worth has come far more from opportunities to exercise morals and principals, and an ability to acquire skills and sharpen talents, than even a thousand you go, girls. The fact that my husband and I love our kids beyond reason is table stakes. It’s the other stuff that can be more challenging in an age when parents are terrified of not providing the perfect environment for their children’s future success.
I suppose we’re no different in that regard. We just go about things a little bit differently.
Believe me, we are not the kind of parents who fetishize the “good ole days” of child-rearing. We don’t want to bring back the wooden spoon and tell our kids they’ll go blind if they masturbate. But we also don’t want them to grow into adults who believe the world will accommodate their every grievance. Or conversely, for obedience to be their defining characteristic because they’ve never been allowed to fail. We strive to create an environment where our children are allowed the critical landmarks of growth that come from making mistakes and getting into danger every once in a while. The kind of danger that comes from being permitted to ride their bikes unsupervised or watch a horror movie or settle a dispute without adult intervention. We don’t always succeed.
In my own, crazy Cold War family, I saw how vital it was to address important, scary, complex and adult issues. To not shield children from the existence of death, evil and all manner of barbarity. These were talked about in great detail at my dinner table when I was coming of age, and those tales – far from scarring me – did nothing but deepen my empathy and enrich my understanding of humanity. Even if they did disturb me. Keep me up at night sometimes. Make me cry.
The world is a beautiful mess and my parents never tried to clean it up too much for me. Nor did they ever clean my room for me. That’s been a positive force in my life.
So, back to our trip to Prague. I viewed it as a launching pad for my son’s young manhood and a vehicle for our relationship to make the adjustment from “mommy and me” (ok, he hasn’t called me mommy for a pretty long time now), to just “me and mom.”
Our relentless, almost psychedelic trip to Prague came on with gale force wind – beginning with catching a Czech film about the Prague Spring as it was being shot. A lucky break, we ran into a film crew as we strolled around Vinohrady, where we were staying, and got to pose for pictures in front of vintage cars, tanks, actors costumed in late 1960s groovery and fog machines.
We walked until our feet ached, trolled the castle dungeon and its accompanying torture museum, and shopped for souvenirs on the Charles Bridge. I let my son ask me anything he wished about marriage and sex; about our friends who had gotten divorced and why. He even got the opportunity to hear his grandfather tell the story of his and my mother’s defection. How, like in the movies, my father found himself crawling in the grass only to come nose to toe with a pair of boots, then look up into the eyes of a border guard and the barrel of a gun. It was a first for me, too, as I’d only heard the story from my mother’s point of view.
I took him to my mother’s village to stay with family friends – warm, kind people who treated us like one of their own, and strolled with him around our family farm, which had recently been sold to a brewer. Sprawling and once stately, it had been in our care since before the American Revolution. And now, it was gone.
At home, my son dresses like his friends – terribly. I mean truly – with unkempt, unwashed hair, pants that are either too big or too small, t-shirts and dirty underwear. He’s a sartorial disgrace and he knows it.
“Part of the herd, mom,” he says.
But in Prague, he allowed himself to look great. His hair was washed and finger-styled. His clothes were neat and masculine. He even let my friend Beth dress him in a vintage coat and tails with a tie pin for a night on the town. He stared at himself in the mirror and saw the man he will one day be.
“Wow,” he said. “I look good.”
And on our last night, I took him to an authentic, French burlesque show.
Along with my two equally middle-aged girlfriends, Nancy and Beth, we dressed him up, teased him, let him take a ceremonial sip of beer, and educated him about the style of theater he was viewing. And don’t worry moms and dads, it was all tastefully done. He’s seen more skin on his friend’s moms at our local pool than he did at this very chic and sophisticated burlesque show. He just loved that while he was the youngest one there, he still wasn’t treated like a kid.
The next morning, as our plane began its taxi down the runway, my son looked out the window and said, “Come on, mom. On the count of three – goodbye, Prague! We’ll miss you.”
I swear, my heart skipped a beat.
I’m hoping that our son’s passage from boyhood to manhood will be as peaceful as the Velvet Revolution. I would like the inevitable transition of power to go without bloodshed, police intervention, or too many tears. But I don’t want it to be easy for him either. Or easy for us. We don’t grow that way. Or at least don’t grow enough. Sometimes we need the trouble of a rough and tumble journey in order to become anyone worthwhile. A guy a girl can depend on, a friend can respect, and a child look up to. You don’t become that man without having to defend yourself or others, breaking a heart, or having a heart broken for that matter. And it’s a journey that for the most part, a boy has to make on his own terms.