By Heather Hewett
You wake up each morning never knowing which way it’s going to go.
Some mornings you go into his bedroom and he starts to stir. You raise the blinds and the sun streams in. He smiles. Or, he doesn’t smile, but he doesn’t cry out, either. You smooth his hair back from his wide forehead. He can hide behind his hair, it’s getting so long. His chubby cheeks are just as smooth as when he was a little boy, before he entered this gangly phase. “String bean,” his friends call him. Your newly minted teen. If you’re lucky, he is amenable to cheery good mornings, to eating his breakfast, to taking his medication, to another day of distance learning.
Some mornings you aren’t so lucky. He rolls over, pulling the sheet up. It’s when his legs stick out, rigid with rage, that you know. You cannot touch him, for fear of being caught when he lashes out. He will not smile. He rejects life under quarantine, this facsimile of life. The anger will not be contained. He will fight every step of the way.
On these days, it is a careful pas de deux. You have learned to pull back, to disengage. You let him know what kind of food is waiting for him on the kitchen table. You go downstairs. You nudge the dog away while you put up the dishes. You check your email and plan out your day: what meetings you have, what time you will work out, what you will make for dinner. As you create checklists in your mind, you listen for the stomp stomp stomp down the stairs.
If he enters with his headphones on, watching a video on his phone, you do not ask him to put it away because you do not want to anger him. If he enters without his headphones and throws himself onto the floor, you feel grateful for the dog. If he screams at you, you slowly breathe in and count as you breathe out, as your therapist taught you. Either way, the goal is food, followed by medication. His pills are organized neatly in a container: morning, afternoon, evening. Despite this, you must remind him constantly.
On Wednesdays mornings, you open your laptop and sign onto virtual yoga. You sit down on your mat and feel your breath rising and falling within your body. The point, you seem to remember, is unity: yoking body and mind, balancing effort and letting go. But your mind wanders. You hear every board creak as he stirs, walks downstairs, and enters the kitchen. You notice that he goes into the family room and turns on his Xbox. You wonder about his homework as you move through Warrior and then Triangle Pose. Today is not a regular school day. Or is it? You are not sure. They are all blending together.
You realize you are balancing on your left leg, but the instructor is talking about the right leg. You stop and look at the computer screen to reorient your body. Upstairs, you hear your husband on a conference call. Conversation floats down the stairs and in from the family room. They are all talking to one another, these adolescents quarantined at home, via the magic of a live chatting technology you wish had never been invented. You wonder why other kids are playing video games. What parent lets their child play games first thing in the morning? The anger bubbles inside your chest, and you imagine walking into the room and screaming at him. Instead, you fold into child’s pose. You breathe.
You remember why you used to do yoga in a studio, before the pandemic.
The weeks of Xbox come to a halt one Wednesday morning as you listen to the muted tones of the boy and your husband, the conversation rising and falling. There are tears and promises. You feel helpless, trapped on your mat. But you resist the urge to join them; they can handle this without you. You hear the stomp stomp stomp as he goes back upstairs. You ease down through chaturanga and straighten your elbows into upward facing dog. Your arms are shaking. You want to collapse. It takes effort to keep on going.
Versions of this scenario repeat over the next year. When he is not playing video games, he is on his phone. He does school and homework on his computer. You wave at him to get his attention. Sometimes you jump up and down. During dinner you can feel his nervous energy and his desire not to be there. The food on his plate lies untouched.
You realize he wants to escape—the obligation of having to talk about his day at school, and the pain of having to think about what’s happening. That he used to be on Honor Roll, and now he is failing four classes. That he is sick to death of the pandemic, of online school, of not seeing his friends. That right now, the only thing he likes is video games.
At other moments, he is enraged. He yells. I DO NOT WANT TO DO SCHOOL. He shivers with anger. You tell him that we all have to do things we don’t want to do. He stomps into his room and slams his door.
You are the target. He has nowhere else to vent his anger. Your husband is recovering from a serious accident, which means that you’re the only adult. You understand this. Somehow you have to hold his anger without lashing back. Somehow you have to witness his pain without being crushed yourself.
This is where it can be helpful to have a yoga mat. A place for retreat, for pulling in; an imaginary oasis in the middle of the maelstrom.
You talk with the psychiatrist, the principal, the teachers. They give you words to analyze the situation and to provide perspective. Even so, sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, enraged at everyone. There are no words in these moments. You feel absolutely and utterly alone.
The other adults have receded into pixilated Zoom screens. What used to be a village has shrunk to a mother and a child. It is just you and he, no one else.
And then there are moments of connection. You begin to watch TV series with him—Star Wars, Marvel, the Umbrella Academy. Much to your surprise, you discover that you like them. Sitting side by side on the couch in the same room with the Xbox, the two of you hold hands during the gruesome scenes. You both think that you are comforting the other one.
At bedtime, he sometimes lets you tuck him in and stroke his hair, like you did when he was a little boy. At other times, he simply says good night, a mature teenager who no longer needs his mother.
At these moments, you linger at the door, overwhelmed by sadness tinged with wonder. He looks so calm. The daily struggle recedes, and you feel the tension leave your body. You exhale.
You see now that nothing really has changed. The push and pull of his needs and yours, the struggle required to maintain balance and breathe. The loneliness of parenting. It has always been there.
Heather Hewett is a writer, a professor, and a mother of two teenagers in the lower Hudson Valley. She tries to keep it all together by practicing yoga, spending time outside, and drinking lots of coffee. You can read more of her work at heatherhewett.com.
Painting: Childs Pose Yoga, by Robert P Hedden
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