99 Problems

Published on March 13th, 2014 | by Jessica Dewberry


JESSICA DEWBERRY: My Teenage Boy and Puberty, Our Lives Together

He mumbles a lot, this kid of mine, folding words in on themselves and burrowing his thoughts beneath what sounds like a low roll of chaos, gibberish. “Practice speaking clearly,” I tell him, “or people won’t bother to listen.” He looks up from the hallway floor, his head still tilted downward due to towering height, and his eyes agree as if to say, I know, and you are one of them.

When he was about 4, he went by an alias, calling himself Mark for the better part of a year. I asked around, apparently it was typical behavior, but there was a secret wonder to it all. Like him, I was still a minor during those beginning years of his life and we moved a lot at the whim of my parents’ rerouting. And more times than not, I chose to keep that rhythm once capable of choosing on my own. When he got older I would tell him, “It’s just time to leave.” I would run off the readymade list, which on one side of the looking glass was always true: “life is expensive, and we’re moving closer to, fill in the blank—a job, a campus. We shouldn’t pass this up. You’ll make new friends.”

By the time his alias sprouted we had already lived in 5 different cities. His life had quickly become mine, and I had a fear that his little soul was vying to become someone else.

(c) Walt Stoneburner

(c) Walt Stoneburner

Leaving one place for another has always been my one grand gesture towards curbing an inextinguishable need for a “freedom” that has frequently changing factors and is therefore hard to define. Like many naïve and underprepared teens, at one point, I thought the right course for satiating this need was to move towards someone else.

My son’s father and I met in high school. We hung out with the same group of disheveled teens, had classes together, hopped the back wall when no one was looking, and persuaded strangers at the nearby liquor mart to purchase our cigarettes and alcohol. We occupied friend’s houses during the day whose parents were at work, and the occasional abandoned one, trying out adolescence by the usual testing of all things formidable. Through our sporadic on again off again relationship, we birthed a total of three children. I was 15 when my oldest son was conceived.

No one spoke about sex or motherhood in my household. Everything on these topics was learned through observation and recklessly experiencing both on my own. Since the absence of conversation created a reservoir of assumption, error and consequence, I attempt more communication with my children, especially the 15 year old, knowing hormone-charged teenagers can be trouble and the sexual experiences had during this time are formative and difficult to shake.

Although I do my best, our conversations are awkward. They usually result in me blurting out everything that comes to mind in the moment, in hopes that it sticks. But rightfully so, he accepts nothing without asking questions—endless, demanding ones, as if he is also training to become a prosecutor. “Didn’t you have sex at my age?” he asks, “Yes or no?” I suddenly feel like I’m on trial and the next thing said could make or break the judge’s decision.


It is hard trying to address the double standards that arise between what I have obviously done versus what I am trying to tell him he should do as well as the complaints he has had about his body over the years. What am I to say for the habits of a penis? Wet dreams, blue balls, and embarrassing erections?

“You may have a future in law,” I tell him. But really my words, however truthful, are doubling as a stalling tactic while I type as fast as possible into Google—my closest companion through his stages of puberty.

Most recently he came to me about an episode he had at school. He was experiencing symptoms of urethritis. Of course it was not as clearly stated as this—even for him, a 15 year old boy who mumbles, his words were a little odd. “I think I’m peeing on myself,” he said. It was nearly 10 pm on a school night, and my first thought was that he was trying to get out of going the next day. Then a surge of disappointment followed since I was sure he could come up with something better than this. But when he looked away shyly, I knew there was more to it.

So I finally asked, “How do you think you’re doing this? Either you are or you’re not.” And after going over and over how he thought he could have been, attempting to offer concrete evidence, and trying to convince me that even his friends were witnessing these accidents, I was allowed to ask another question: “Then why are you doing it?”

He looked at me with those same eyes that said I was not listening. “You were an English major,” he told me, “you should be able to figure this out.” In retrospect I guess it was a compliment of sorts, his way of saying my critical thinking skills were enough to read between these lines. So I dug up a series of questions that really could’ve been asked in one, “Any other symptoms?”

I still had no idea what was going on the following morning, until he finally spilled it, running down what sounded like a typical infection. Both of us relieved we were moving in the right direction, we headed to the doctor’s office. The visit became another opportunity to reiterate our ongoing discussion about sex, especially since his symptoms were similar to those of an STD. Using the self-absorbed fear of a teenager to hammer in a message of safety seemed like a good idea. “Did you see how the doctor looked at you when saying he sees symptoms like these all day long?” I asked. “Take notes,” I said, “brand this in your memory.”

But the whole situation backfired the following week. In the midst of him receiving treatment and me droning on like an afterschool special, I had forgotten how he carries grief that topples him over sometimes, causing excruciating meltdowns. They began when he was about 11 while acclimating to new situations right after a move. He exploded like a pressure cooker left on for too long, which is just what happened this time.

He came in from school amped, pulling at our lives through sobs and stories of how kids were making fun of him. I first tried consoling him with any parent’s typical reaction when kids are being unkind. “They don’t sound like real friends,” I said. Then, I offered strategies on how to smooth the situation over. But soon he was slicing down his list of criticisms, dragging up old memories, each an overwhelming thought connecting to another.

Sifting through his words, it became clear he was expressing angst about us not owning much, a house or a car, pointing out that all I ever managed to hold onto were books. When his concerns began to sound mostly like an objection to my nonexistent habits to endow him with gifts, I attempted to clarify the difference between wants and needs. By then he was sobbing about which family members lost what and how things are always changing. So I explained that stability is fleeting, sometimes more of an illusion than a real thing.


He then told me about a friend who has lived in the same house since he was born and has had all the same friends through school. “That still happens?” I asked him. But he was comparing our family to theirs and that friend’s mother to me. “Mother’s are supposed to–” he began. And I cut him off. What he was really asking is why I have never believed that staying in one place and owning stuff automatically equals happiness—some foggy rendition of a ’50s American dream, like there’s no other way to live.

“I’m not that person,” I told him and proceeded to the idea I have used to close out his meltdowns for the last few years. The one about how most of his days will be lived outside my care and that he should continue working towards envisioning his adult life. Unsatisfied with my answers, he wiped his face and headed to his room.

I often think about what he must expect. Knowing it would be easier for him if I just willingly agreed to buy him what he wants, to ensure his comfort through every turn life presents, and to fulfill what he thinks a mother should be. But it does not work that way. And even if it was in my power to make it happen, certainly I would wither during the process.

Once upon a time, I thought when my shit was together my family would settle down into a life routine that appeared more like an image we are susceptible to dream when feeling in love and having children, an image closer to what my son must see. But my journey is different, at least for now. And the circles turned are necessary. The plotting, planning, failing, and traversing of cities, states, and countries with no real end in sight, is a part of it because I spiritually need it—to restart sometimes, and create other times, and truly feel life in its highs and lows always.

Clinging to my internally branded motto of “try it and see” works for me and is fine for my younger two children—my 10 year old son who spent the last month practicing his flute and scheming on how to get a unicycle, and my 9 year old daughter who is more concerned with the color of her tights and visiting her friend at the corner. But for my oldest, it has proved unhelpful because it causes routines at home to change, and therefore his life, as well as how I interact with the world.

He keeps a tally of my changes and whether or not they were successful, not understanding that since my ways of seeing the world differ from his, so does my definition of success. How do I convince him that we are simply different people? Is it even important to do? Protesting, he tells me, “Don’t try something new if you’re not sure of how it’s going to turn out.”

Since his life is still affected by my decisions, one of his major fears is unprovoked exposure. So I reveal to him society’s ideas for a person such as me who had children very young in life and who has never married. According to a heavy handed powerful group of “Theys,” I am supposed to be content with living at the mercy of a distraught welfare system with subpar options and experiences for all involved. Accepting this prescribed life would never be a choice I made because it often comes with an inherent guarantee of unrealized dreams.

“You know they opt for your body too. You are the right color and the right age,” I tell him while remembering when he was 13 and was caught for shoplifting Gatorade and candy at a nearby grocery store. It is handcuffs, police and probation if he doesn’t choose otherwise.

Ultimately, it seems enough to ensure that his basic material needs are met, along with communication and a genuine concern for his life, despite whether or not he is always “comfortable.” I also sneak in a hug here or there when he least expects it.

A few days ago he told me he was no good for me, and I no good for him. It sounded like a break-up line, and I just laughed, thinking, who ever said good means easy. Somehow we’ve been commissioned to each other. Perhaps so he can learn more about flexibility while he helps me learn more about consistency and structure.

Selfishness and selflessness come to mind. Perceived as opposites, these two concepts operate simultaneously and often have more similarities than we realize. What we do selflessly for others always starts as what we hope someone would do for us. The push and pull, tug of war, my son and I experience is because we want to survive and live as the best versions of ourselves and want each other to do the same.

We are both still learning to navigate, and I am not sold on the idea that aging provides anymore promise for integrating changing aspects of ourselves, even if acquired wisdom can potentially ease the pangs. Yet through what looks on the surface like miscommunication, at the very root of it all, I would like to think we understand each other completely. “Do you get it yet?” I want to ask him. Essentially, like everyone else, everywhere, we orbit each in other in such close proximity because we have something the other needs that can help us both better learn how to nurture our own hearts.

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About the Author

Jessica Dewberry is a mother to three children and writes creative nonfiction and fiction. She has many interests and is therefore spreading herself thin over multiple projects – a short story collection, a prose poem/memoir collection, and a conceptual essay and photograph collection on landscapes. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the LA Post Examiner and other magazines and journals. Jessica is completing an MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is a nonfiction reader for Pithead Chapel, and an editor for an online literary magazine, which will be released later this year. Connect with her on Twitter @msjdew where literary quotes, retweets from brilliant people, and introspective thoughts (turned the occasional micro prose poem) run rampant.

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