This is the last photo he'll ever allow me to take with him.
The Surprise Smooch was the perfect Last Shot.
In December of 2002, when we told Cole his dad and I were getting married, he threw both arms in the air and with a fist pump said, "YES! I'm going to have TWO moms!"
I gush about the teenager all the time. Because he's totally gush-worthy. He's helpful, and kind, and so funny. He's clever and has a good heart. I adore him.
But if I'm being perfectly honest, and I think it's important to be: It wasn't always this easy. There were times when I didn't gush at all.
I met Cole when he was five. He was a bright, albeit hyper little boy. Those first couple years were good. But things started to get difficult for me when he was about eight. I was pregnant for Matthew, I think, when things got challenging. A) Eight to ten is kind of a rough age for little boys. They're no longer cute and silly, but they're not old enough to reason with. Its an age filled with frustration and boredom (the desire to "play" wanes a bit...) and annoyance. B) I had my own child to compare motherhood to. I won't lie. It was hard. I had to force myself to love him sometimes. And, the one and only time he played me (lied to his mom to get his way), happened in October 2004. It was horribly painful for me. And only he and I knew the truth.
I remember around that time, I heard somewhere that you're supposed to smile every time your child walks into the room. I remember feeling like I just couldn't always do that. I was home with Matthew on maternity leave, and because it was summer, I was spending a lot of time with Cole too. His mom and dad both worked a lot, and I admit that I had some resentment about how much "care" I had to give him. Because it wasn't me he wanted to spend time with. The second I picked him up, and every hour until Cory got home he's say, "Where's my dad?" "When will he be home?" That used to be very difficult for me, being a parent, but not being one he wanted.
But here's the thing: I tried my damndest to make sure Cole never felt my frustrations. I have always been very honest about my feelings, and believe in sharing them and getting them out. I found friends who I could trust, and my mom, of course. I talked to them about my challenges, so I could be the best mom to Cole possible.
In September 2009, Cole and I had the mother of all fights. It started with something silly, and erupted into a "you're not my mom!" fight. A horrible, terrible fight in which Cole went on a rampage saying things that were hurtful. So terribly hurtful. After that fight, he and I didn't talk for a couple weeks. At all. We had taken the television out of his room as a consequence. I had told him that to get it back, all he had to do was apologize.
When I was ready, I picked him up from his mom's. It was clear that we were both done being hurt and angry, and we had a long talk. I talked to him about anger, and hormones. And I told him that it's okay to feel anything, but it's not okay to hurt other people. I said, "You know how sometimes you'll be having a perfectly normal day and then all of a sudden you're so mad you want to punch a wall? Well, that's hormones. And it's normal. And it's okay to be that mad, but it's not okay to punch the wall." I followed it with, "You know what you have to say. And I know it's really hard, but it's important. Just say it quick and be done with it." He turned to me and said, "Sorry." I said, "I forgive you." And we haven't had a fight since. No lie.
When boys are eight, nine, ten, and they get mad when they don't get their way. They scowl, say ugly things, march down the hall, slam their door, and keep the silence until they're over it (with Cole, it's always over after a good night's sleep). I used to follow after him with my own "last word." And one day, I realized that I was part of the problem. It got so much easier once I learned to walk away. Once I learned to let him storm down the hall without my voice chasing him down, making him feel worse, things got so. much. better.
When boys are thirteen, they reason with you. You give them a consequence for behavior and they understand it. If I'm not being fair, they say, "That is really unfair. Do you think we could..." They reason. They negotiate. They learn that if they help out willingly, they will get extra video game time. The art of you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours is mastered. YES. This is the good stuff. Real life skills, implemented.
For the past 20 months, things have been dreamy. Cole often walks in the door and says, "Hey, can I take the kids to the park?" He helps me haul in groceries -- every time -- without being asked. He automatically clears the table after dinner. He loves to help me cook. He's been with us full time since January, when his mom moved a few towns away. Next year, when he goes to high school, he's going to be with her the majority of the time. And my heart catches when I think of it, because he's such a treat to have around. I no longer have to worry about not being able to smile when he walks into a room.
What I've tried to remember every day for the nine years I've been a stepparent is this: I picked Cole. He was part of Cory's life when I met him and I CHOSE him. I married both of them, and there is a huge amount of responsiblity in that. It hasn't always been easy, but it's always been good. I've been good for Cole. He's been good for me.
Last winter, I had an opportunity to talk to Cole about blended families (REAL conversations. I love having real conversations with him). We were talking about how you get multiple holidays if your mom and dad split up and I suggested to him that most kids would prefer to have their mom and dad together than have bonus holidays. And I asked him, boldly, and for the first time, "How about you, Cole? Do you wish your mom and dad had stayed together?" He thought for only a brief moment before he answered, "Nah. I kind of like it like this." Halleluja.
And now, on his fourteenth birthday, I can feel confidently, that through my hard work and my constant self-examination and hours and hours of prayer, I've earned those fist pumps that little guy gave me nine years ago. I kind of like it like this too.