Sitting in the waiting room of the pediatrician with my teens

By Deborah Lindsay Williams

The waiting room at the pediatrician’s office was the usual clutter of toddler-sized furniture and uncomfortable adult chairs. In the center was a wooden table topped with a bead maze: a toy that involved sliding big wooden beads along a tangle of colorful wires. Two wobbly toddlers stood next to each other at the table, more interested in one another than in the beads, despite one parent’s attempt at engagement: “look, Ben, see how you slide the bead?” Ben was having none of it. Instead of sliding a bead, he poked the other kid, not maliciously but curiously, as if trying to figure out what was standing next to him. The other kid, equally curious, poked back. Neither child seemed to mind the poking, but the parents were horrified and rushed to separate their children, with a flurry of apologies.

I watched the toddlers with the eyes of a “been there” expert. I was in the waiting room with my two sons, thirteen and seventeen, who were due for their annual physicals. Bead tables and diaper-heavy staggering hadn’t been a part of my life for a long time. My kids smiled at the toddlers but were much more interested in their phones, which are pretty much surgically attached to their palms. Thirteen hadn’t spoken to me since we arrived for the appointment; Seventeen leaned over at one point, when some small child started wailing in the exam room down the hall, and whispered, “no more pediatricians for me, thanks.”

It’s true, Seventeen is old enough to transition out of pediatrics, but somehow, between last year’s physical and this one, I’d never gotten around to finding him a new doctor. I told my son that switching had proved more complicated than I thought, but in actual fact, I think I’m in a state of denial about the fact that my babies are staggering into adulthood.

And thus there we all were at the pediatrician’s office, first thing in the morning, which is apparently the preferred time slot for the under-three set.

When his name was called, Thirteen stood up, and the toddlers, who barely reached his knees, gazed up at him in awe. Thirteen had a growth spurt this fall (more than three inches, his checkup would reveal) and he delights in already being an inch taller than I am. With gangling grace, all legs and floppy feet, he moved towards the exam room, scowling at me to sit down when I stood to follow him. Then Seventeen went with the nurse into another exam room, and there I was, alone in the waiting room.

The toddlers settled amiably next to each other on the floor, and the newborns mewled from their expensive strollers, while their parents inexpertly tried to soothe them. It was all so familiar: the hollow-eyed newborn parents, wondering how they could possibly survive without sleep for even one more second; and the toddler parents, who just want to catch up on the back issues of People instead of pushing the damn beads along the wires.

And then I realized that these other parents were sliding their eyes over to me, as if they couldn’t believe that their children would ever be old enough to go alone into the exam room. How could their tiny babies, their feet curled under the blanket like little unbaked croissants, ever become slouching teenagers in skinny black jeans?

Or perhaps I’m projecting my own disbelief onto these strangers in the waiting room, because I too can’t quite believe that those slouching teenagers belong to me. How can they be so close to the precipice of adulthood, so close to manhood? Sometimes, looking at my sons, I feel as if I’m a tomato plant that sprouted cucumbers: the boys are becoming men, entering a land I’ve never traveled. I imagine that if one is the mother of a teenage daughter, there is at least a sense of adolescence as physically familiar territory. But with boys? With their deepening voices, ropy muscles, and ridges of hair tracking down their flat tummies? That’s not my experience, and the boys have no interest in trying to help me understand what they’re going through.

Looking around the waiting room, I remember the utter absorption of parenting during babyhood. The soft weight of a sleeping body on my own, the warmth of sticky starfish hands, the adoration in their eyes. Yes, it drove me crazy, and yet it was glorious to be their universe and to have them be mine. Because that’s a truth, isn’t it? That no matter how we might try to deny it to our friends, our therapists, or ourselves, those little bodies were our universe; we knew those bodies more intimately than we knew our own.

My friends with children older than mine talk about the pleasure of watching their kids become adults, and I can find those moments occasionally, when the boys and I share a laugh or daydream about a trip we’d like to take. But at that moment, sitting alone in the waiting room and watching the toddlers banging on the colorful wooden beads, the past seemed more tangible than the future.

Deborah Lindsay Williams lives in Abu Dhabi (which is not Dubai), in the UAE, and is a literature professor at NYU Abu Dhabi as well as a columnist for The National. She is writing a book about being a feminist professor in “Arabia” while she tries not to have a nervous breakdown about having two teenage boys who are taller than she is.  

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