Can I Take Out the Trash?
(I wrote the piece below for an outside publication a few months ago. It didn’t end up running, so I’m publishing it here. Obviously, some of the details are from a time when we could interact with people outside our household.)
I’ve been worrying about my boys lately.
Not for any specific reason. I mean, they seem fine. They like to play outside and ride their bikes and jump on the neighbor’s trampoline. Tommy is learning to read. Austin is a whiz at math. Neither of my sons cause trouble at school and both boys have solid friendships.
But there’s so much that worries me in the years ahead, especially because I’m a single mom. Shawn’s death blew my world apart in many ways and shattered the confidence I had in my parenting skills. But it’s not usually my daughter who worries me in this very specific way – it is my sons. Even with reassurances from my friends, I continue to stress about their futures and about what sort of men they will become. And recently, I’ve heard a number of negative comments from friends about boys. Not about my boys, specifically, but about the problems with boys overall.
It’s all said casually. “Boys these days watch too many video games that warp their brains, and furthermore, boys are too rough and don’t know how to play nicely anymore. Really, even in this day and age, boys are not emotionally secure,” I hear. The people who say these things aren’t talking about my boys, of course. That would be rude. But in general, people who say things like this imply that the problems that boys have are much worse than the ones girls have. In the last few weeks, I’ve probably heard a half-dozen of these types of comments. Sometimes it makes sense – the news and my own life show me that there are some men who do terrible things. But that only makes me worry more.
So I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. It’s harder for me to raise good boys, that I know. I understand my daughter’s life and the things she’ll face a lot better than I understand almost anything about my two boys. And I know it’s only going to get worse. For example, Austin is really into cars. He loves them, and knows all about every kind of car on the planet, including how much they cost, where they are made, and what they look like when he sees them on the street. I identify cars as “a blue car” or “a minivan.” All I need my car to do is to drive me from one place to another.
I try and listen to what he finds interesting. I want to make sure to cultivate his healthy obsessions. I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of this, and many of the men in my family and my community are helping me too. But what about the other stuff? The stuff that’s more difficult to do correctly?
Am I doing a good enough job showing Austin and Tommy how to respect other people, especially the girls around them? Am I teaching them to regulate their emotions? If I let them wrestle to the point of roughness or I somehow miss one of their misbehaviors, am I a terrible parent?
As a rational person, I know the answers to all of these questions. I am doing the best I possibly can. But these comments about how awful boys can be – whether they are 5 or 15 – get under my skin in a way that they didn’t when my husband was alive. Because back then, I knew he’d be teaching them the things I forgot to do or just didn’t know how to navigate.
As a high school teacher, I often think about what I need to do in the classroom to help students become good citizens and human beings. One of the things I’ve settled on is that I need to help them cultivate good relationships. As part of this goal, I had some students over for dinner a few weeks ago. I don’t do this often, but since they are almost all seniors, I wanted to do something special before they graduated. My children were thrilled to have teenagers in the house, and Tommy did a little dance for us as we ate dinner.
But then he started acting up. First he ran all around the house, yelling. Then he crawled under the table as we finished up the meal, which made me start yelling at him. Finally, he started jumping up and down and playfully hit one of my students.
“Tommy!” I said forcefully, and he looked at me with horror. Quickly, he darted out of the room.
I went and got him. “It is never okay to hit, even if you are playing, and even if it’s with a teenager. You know you have to go and say that you are sorry now, and then you are going to bed!”
He refused. We were in a standoff. All I could hear was the sound of my internal voice saying, “you are failing, Marjorie. You are a terrible mother. Your son was acting up and hit someone and didn’t express remorse. What’s next? Probably prison.”
Of course, this is not what anyone else says to me. It is what I say to myself. But it’s rooted in what other people around me say about parenting boys. It’s easy to screw them up. Especially if you’re a single mom.
“You have two choices,” I said to Tommy. “You can go and apologize, and then go up to bed. Or you can go to bed right now, and I will come up and give you consequences.”
He put his head down, went up to the student he had hit and whispered something to him. “I did it!” Tommy said.
I turned to my student, who told me that Tommy had apologized. He smiled at me, I think because he understood that it was a bit embarrassing for me.
The night continued, and at the end, everyone helped clean up. I watched my male students a bit more than usual. There was one, wiping my counter, another one drying dishes, and a third one packing up the leftovers. The girls were doing this too, of course. But I wasn’t worried about the girls in that moment.
One young man turned to me. “Can I take out the trash?” he asked.
I smiled. I don’t know everything about this student’s life, but I know he’s had his own obstacles, as many kids do. But there he was, asking to take out the trash.
“That would be great,” I said. “It’s behind the house.”
When he came back, I thanked him for taking out the trash, without me asking. He smiled, and said he was thankful that I had him over for dinner.
And then they all left, and I went upstairs. Tommy had crawled into my bed and was fast asleep.
I whispered in his ear. “Your mama loves you,” and he didn’t move. He was exhausted from a night of fun.
I looked at my baby boy, the one who can barely remember his father. I thought about how he’ll face this world and how he will screw up more than once. I felt a bit of defeat, thinking about how he had acted that night.
But then I thought about the teenage boys I’d just had in my kitchen, and I tried to reframe my night. Since I don’t have my husband around to reassure me that I’m doing okay, I started talking to myself. Eventually, I settled on two ideas: I want my sons to be loving and I want them to be able to admit their mistakes.
I have so much anxiety about my role as a single mom to two boys. I know that I’m screwing up a lot, and I’m anxious about whether having me as their sole parent will be enough to make them into good men. But my boys and I, we’re in this together, and we’re going to have to figure it out together. I don’t know what a Bugatti looks like and I don’t always know when I should be punishing my boys and when I should be hugging them.
All I know is that they need to say “I’m sorry” when they mess up.
And I hope – God, I pray – that they always offer to take out the trash.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.
I am not a single mother and I have two boys. Everything you said resonates with me . You’re a great mother and your boys will be fine .
Thanks so much for your sweet note. I think we’re all just doing the best we can, with as much love as we can.
No, you don’t have Sean around to reassure you that you’re doing okay. My guess is that this is even harder for you than not having Sean there to be a father to Austin and Tommy. Having regularly read your blog, I would say you are doing more than just okay – and I expect your other readers would agree.
Yes, that’s probably true. And thank you for your sweet reply!