Becoming One’s Self

My husband and I often repeat something my brother-in-law has probably forgotten uttering. “You can’t have a fragile ego and teenagers at the same time.”

When this phrase was born, I was attempting to balance a drink and devour a hamburger, while two boys climbed all over my body. Our oldest son was on his father’s shoulders, rubbing his ears up and down. “Ow,” I remember my husband muttering, “Get off of me.”

Back then, we would get up early and stay up late just to have a little time without them crawling on us.

That, as they say, was then. This is now.

We went away on a spontaneous family vacation not too long ago. Just two nights. My husband and I drove up early and the boys met us there later, because they had sports and work and stuff to do before joining us. It was a fun two days, some good laughs, some running around, a contest on who could move the greatest number of facial parts at the same time. Mostly, they humored us. They are polite, but we know, we are second best to their friends.

Then it was over. And now we are home and it is quiet. They have headed off, to see the people they left for far too long. To catch up on what they’ve missed. To get back to the lives they love.

When the boys were young, although not very young, a friend called to tell me her son was driving her crazy. “He wants money for everything and he is never home!,” she said. “Do you want a boy babysitter?” Absolutely I did. And I hired him right then. He was close enough in age to my oldest son to have a nice rapport with him. He kept the younger two busy creating basketball games and demonstrating wrestling moves. He babysat for us on and off that summer, but when I called him in the fall, he was not available. Not available in a way that I knew meant: it is over between us; I have moved on.

I saw him around town occasionally, that boy babysitter. The first few times, I waved, with a friendly, “Hey, how’s it going?” and “We miss our favorite boy babysitter!” It became evident, fairly quickly, that he had no desire to stay in touch. I called him once, when I was in a bind (a new babysitter had cancelled), to see if he could help out. “I play football now. I can’t.” And that was it. I knew. We were never, ever, ever getting back together.

Most of our contact from that point on was me reading about him in the paper. (He played lots of sports.) And him forgetting we existed. Which was fine, because in an instant, my boys went from babysat to babysitting. And I called friends with the “he wants money and is never home!” request to hire my sons. To get them out of my hair. And out of my pocketbook.

Life goes on.

A few weeks ago, I ran in a town race. Just about everyone we knew was there. This was nice because it meant my boys would come with me. They were guaranteed to see their friends, run with their friends, laugh with their friends. Be with their friends.

It is at this race that I happen to see our old boy babysitter once again. He is in college now. I notice him, running with his mom. I can’t tell who was faster. Who was slower. They are simply together. And they talk as they run. I like to see boys talking to their moms.

And I smile.

But not at him. I smile with eyes diverted. I will not humiliate the old boy babysitter. He does not need a memory of his less-masculine days. I am simply pleased to have witnessed him. He looks happy. He looks older. He looks like the him he was to become, if I could have known, back then, when he was a boy babysitter.

At the end of the race, I see him again. And look away. Again. And he walks over to me, smiling.  “Hi Mrs. Darwin,” he says. “How are the boys?” It is so genuine. And real. And I am thrilled. Thrilled to know that he is good with himself. And comfortable and confident.

I know that my boys will be there, too. And they will run races not to win but to chat. With me. And they will go on vacations, even the spontaneous kind, not because they must spend time with us but because they want to. And finally I will be able to set that fragile ego free. Once more.

And so I tell him. I do. “They are good,” I say. “The boys are just fine.”

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