"I Am Mrs. Phelps"

A swim meet offers a moment to reflect on a growing son and the mom-son dynamic.

by SUSAN Kearney Rash • More.com Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

Last weekend, I took my son to a three-day swim competition. Because of the distance, we stayed in a hotel. He’s been swimming competitively since he was eight. So we’ve done this type of trip many times before.

But this time is different. Now he is taller than me. He has five armpit hairs, and counting. He is 13, a teenager.

We’re in the car just two minutes when he takes control of the sound system to listen to what he calls his “jamming” playlist, a collection of pop, rap and rock that “pumps him up” before races. I know the first few songs and am starting to think I’m a pretty hip mom when a rap song I don’t know begins playing. I’m horrified by the lyrics. He is completely puzzled by my reaction, oblivious to the language and sexual overtones. “It’s no big deal Mom,” he says and then explains how he accidentally downloaded that song while trying to purchase a different one. Yep, on my credit card. I tell him it’s time to put on my radio station. He agrees, puts on his headphones, and we continue to our destination in our separate musical universes.

At the hotel, he asks me to define dating rules for him — homework for health class. Hmmm. An interesting assignment since the thought of him dating at this age hasn’t crossed my mind. Let me think. He doesn’t drive. He has a bedtime. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend. Most importantly, at 13, we control his every move. Should be easy, right?  

Any anxiety I may have had about the homework is put to rest when he spends the first night watching YouTube videos of a “guy on a buffalo,” a parody that he thinks is hysterical. I think to myself, "he’s such a boy."  

Our second night is another story. We enter the hotel lobby where we bump into a group of girls he met at the swim meet. They begin firing questions in his direction, “Hey, what’s your name? What are you doing later? Want to hang?” With me by his side, he feigns disinterest. We head to our room, me poking fun at him the whole way. After a shower, now decked in his flannel pants and hoodie, he grabs change from my purse and announces he’s going to check out the vending machine. A half-hour later, I am panicked and planning a door-to-door search and rescue. My cell phone buzzes with his text, “Mom, if you’re wondering where I am, I’m in the lobby hanging out.” I think to myself, he’s such a man (almost). Maybe I should give serious thought to those dating rules.

The next day, I drop my son at the front door of the sports complex as I’d done the previous two days. He’s on his own in there. He knows where he needs to go. He doesn’t need me to hold his hand anymore. “I got this, Mom,” he says.

My son’s swim season begins in September and culminates in a series of championship meets in February and March. This is one of those meets. Every race is important.

My son steps up on the block for another one of those important races. He looks for me, and I give him a thumb’s up sign from my seat where I’ve been all weekend. I have butterflies as usual. He races fast and achieves his goal time. Still in the pool, he finds me again and gives me a triumphant thumb’s up to answer my earlier one. In that instant, I am Mrs. Phelps, and my son is a champion. It is his moment, but it is mine too.

My son is growing up. He has his own taste in music. Girls are noticing him, and he is noticing back. He’s not a boy, but he’s not a man yet. I know he doesn’t always need me, but sometimes he wants me to watch. He still looks for me in the bleachers.

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