When the nurse opened the waiting room door and called "Eli!," my son and I both stood up.
"Oh no, we just need the young man right now, Mom," she said brightly. "We'll come get you when we need you."
"Oh, sure," I said, trying to sound like I'd anticipated this change. After all, my son is a teenager.
But truthfully, I was caught off guard. I instinctively turned to Eli to offer a reassuring smile, but he was already through the door — and he didn't look back.
I sat down awkwardly. Eli turned 13 in November, but clearly I'm still catching up. While I sat in the waiting room, I started silently listing the signs of teenager-hood I'd been willfully ignoring: Eating as much as three adults? Increased moodiness? A jaunty "See ya!" instead of hugs and kisses as he leaves for school on his own? Check, check and check. But it wasn't until he walked solo into the doctor's office that the situation really hit home.
Thinking further back, I've felt him starting the process of pulling away from his dad and me for a while now — little tugs here and there. Like the first time he responded to my enthusiastic request for details about middle school friends with an eye-roll and a jaded sigh. Or the nagging sense that we don't have as much to talk about as we did just a few months before.
Up until now, I've felt fairly confident about parenting. I wouldn't call it easy, but I felt like I had things reasonably under control. Now, as Eli starts the wild trip through adolescence, I feel slightly lost. I know my role in his life is changing, whether I'm ready or not. But how do I adjust?
Turns out the doctor had some ideas. When I made it into the exam room, she talked to us together. I nodded confidently as she described ways Eli and I could work together to keep screen time under control, felt only slightly uncomfortable when she offered reading suggestions on healthy relationships for teens, then lost my cool completely and fought back tears when she framed working on life skills like banking, cleaning and cooking in terms of college prep.
College. In five years.
She suggested Eli start cooking dinner with a parent at least once a week to build up a repertoire of healthy dishes he can prepare confidently on his own. I exhaled. Making dinner?, I thought. That, I can do. I'm a cook by profession; the kitchen is my comfort zone. And being the son of a cook and a lover of food, it's a comfortable place for Eli, too. In fact, he already knows how to prepare some basic dishes. And, of course, I want him to be able to feed himself well when he's, gulp, on his own.
A few nights later we decided to make stuffed sweet potatoes for dinner. When we got to work, there was some mild eye-rolling about my semi-fussy instructions, like the correct number of times to pierce a sweet potato with a fork before baking (6 on each side, if you've sliced it down the middle). But, after a few minutes, we both settled into a rhythm and started to chat.
Along with the recipe's finer points, we talked about the test he had taken earlier in the week and some funny things that happened in band practice. I told stories about improvising dinner from bizarre ingredients for my college roommates, and passed on my belief that one should always use slightly less water than the package calls for when cooking rice. We talked about the many ways to cook sweet potatoes, and the Beatles songs he's teaching himself on the guitar.
He learned how to make a killer vegetarian dinner, and I learned more from him in that half hour than I had in weeks. The conversation wasn't earth-shattering, but it was real, and relaxed.
I want to pass on our family's favorite recipes to Eli. I want him to be able to feed himself and his own family some day. But, after that first night cooking together, I realized that, right now, the real reason I want to cook with him is the chance to bond with my teen. The resulting dinner is just a bonus.
The sweet potatoes we made — stuffed with rice and beans, topped with cheese and broiled to perfection — were delicious. Our family of five devoured them. While we cleaned up, I declared, "I predict you'll make some roommates very happy with this dish someday."
"Mom, don't get emotional," Eli scolded. "College is, like, so far away!"
I wish that were true. In the meantime, I'll try to cook — and bond — with him, one meal at a time.