We were sitting at the dining room table talking about school and friends. Miguel had just admitted that he had been behaving differently at school, acting like a badass so that others would think he was cool. Luisa and I shook our heads in disappointment and gave one of our stock lectures about being true to yourself and real friends accepting you as you are.
Pre-teen boys love those lectures.
He flattened his hands on the table and raised his voice - "You don't know what it's like to want to fit in!"
I had grit my teeth to keep from laughing, had to swallow the sarcastic responses crowding the tip of my tongue. How could he say that? To us of all people? We don't fit in at school. I still take deep breaths before walking into every single school event because I am always aware of my difference. The way I dress, the person I love - these are things that forever make me aware that I am not like everyone else in the room.
But, he is 11 and we are simply his parents.
He sees us as confident and secure and strong.
He can't know that beneath the surface I am all the versions of my self that have come before this moment in time. I am the shy, bookish kindergartner who had few friends and related more to her teacher. I am the awkward pre-teen girl who cared only about music and words. I am the nerdy high school kid who hid her ambivalence about boys behind Teen Beat posters and fabricated crushes. I am the college girl who finally figured herself out. I am the young queer radical eating fire on the steps of the Basilica. Within this middle-aged mother of two are all the versions of my self that came before. They fit together like nesting dolls and without them I would be empty.
But he can't understand that because he is just beginning. He can't know that we all want to fit in, to find our place in the world.
I looked at him sitting across the table from me - his face serious, his body tense. In a quieter moment, he would understand that he is not the first to feel this way, that even his parents were once kids. But this was not a quiet moment, this was a moment filled with the pain of being 11 and feeling misunderstood, torn between what is right and what is easy.
I took a deep breath and said, "I know you want to fit in but you have to find ways to do that without betraying what's most important to you." He stared at me and his body visibly softened. He said, "It's hard." I nodded. It is hard.
I wanted to tell him that it gets easier but I'm not sure that it does. Maybe we just get better at sitting with the discomfort. Telling him that, however, would rank as one of the worst pep talks ever. So, I told him a different truth - I believe in him, believe that he is a good person, believe that he will find his way.
I've known him as the toddler who was quick to smile and eager to share. I've known him as the compassionate kindergartner, loyal to all his friends. I've known him as the elementary school kid with a strong sense of justice. And I know him now...as the pre-teen boy struggling to find balance between his sensitive nature and his keen understanding of the social games that seem to require his participation.
I don't know what comes next but know what lies within him and, because of that, I have faith that he will find his place.
I have faith enough for both of us.