He lay on his bed, face down with his hands protectively covering the back of his head.  His voice was low and sad; it was the voice of surrender.

Mom.  It was literally like a cheese grater rubbing against my forehead.  All.  Day. Long.

Big sigh.

This was Noah on Tuesday describing his last two days of an internship in the offices of a downtown Philadelphia theater.  By the sound of it, the poor kid had been subjected to some pretty horrific conditions of which I could only imagine given his pathetic state.  I sat down on the edge of the bed to hear more about his 15 year old trauma, in hopes that I could offer some solace.

“Ok. So tell me about it,” I said.  “What do they have you doing?”
“So first, I had to catalog a list of posters in CHRONOLOGICAL order with almost NO information available.  Then I had to clean out the BIGGEST binder you had ever seen.  And then there was filing into a filing cabinet so TIGHT that I think giving birth would have been easier!”

I smirked at the last reference. Lucky for both of us his head was still turned away from me or this conversation would have gone immediately sideways.  Noah hates being mocked as much I as I hate the melodrama.  But I listened and Noah went on.

“It’s like I don’t even matter.  No one talks to me except when they are telling me what to do.  I mean, they are nice and all, but it’s just …….not fun.”

And there it was.  Real Issue #126.  The First Job.

As a parent you sign up to moderate a few sessions with your child now and again on Life 101.  And for the most part, you are handed by some invisible power a road map with visible signs of upcoming topics along the way:

  • Approaching The Importance of Sharing. Slow down.
  • Boundary Testing Ahead. Do Not Yield.
  • Sex Education. Proceed with Caution.
  • Drinking and Drugs. Stop. Dead End.

Issues like these have been on the Top 40 list since time began.  We wring our hands over them with our spouses and consult with other parents.  We read books and articles about the right approaches.  And when the time comes, we do our best to instill the right balance of knowledge, fear, and support into the guidance we impart.  But every now and then, you watch your kid experience something for the first time that – despite the inevitable nature of the occurrence – was not on your radar as something you might need to help them through.

Noah didn’t understand “work.”

Colossal failure on our part as parents?  Had we not asked him to perform menial enough tasks as he was growing up?  At some point did we suggest that if something isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing?

None of the above.  Given my lack of credentials as a developmental psychologist, I came to the conclusion that perhaps he was a little “delayed” on the adult path to disillusionment, but there was still time for him to garner some much needed perspective.

The trouble was, I wasn’t entirely sure what to tell him.

Was this a lesson in disappointment?  Fulfilling obligations?  Exercising patience?  Displaying gratitude?  And what kind of lesson was this for ME?  How do I help him the most?

The fact of the matter is that some jobs are better than others, people are better suited towards some tasks than others, and probability dictates that we will ALL have our share of shitty jobs.  But at the same time, do I want to suggest to my son that he should never settle doing something that makes him miserable?  What about grit and mettle?   What could I possibly say to him to make this better?

I took a step back and reassessed.  He wasn’t asking to quit; and despite the deep sighs and colorful imagery, he managed to cheer up for his voice lesson that evening.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad.  But before bed, he offered that he would rather be in science class all day than working.  (That’s pretty serious.)  So I cooked up a mish-mash of a few salient points into a monologue which I delivered in hopes that something would stick:

Empathy:  I know how you feel.  I had a few jobs like that in my life time and it does indeed suck.

Validation:  It may seem like stupid things you are doing but I am sure those tasks are a huge help to the theater.

Hope:  I think this is going to get better.  It takes a while to get used to things and next week is the kids camp and that should actually be a lot of fun.

Practicality:  Sometimes the purpose of an internship is to figure out what you DON’T want to do.  You see, this is helpful!

Humor:  When you are super famous, you can talk about that filing cabinet job in your “Before They Were Stars” interview.

Love:  If I could make it all better for you I would.  But I can’t do that.  I am proud of you for trying something new and sticking it out.

I’m not sure any of this actually helped, but he finished out the week in slightly better spirits, perhaps brought on not by my heartfelt words but by Dave taking him to lunch at the Reading Terminal Market on Wednesday.  Either way, he is on board for another week at the theater.  And so are we.

In these parenting moments that are not foreseen nor black and white – but awash with grays – sometimes you can’t fix it.  In these instances I can only hope that just being there is enough.  I did not need to remove the cheese grater from Noah’’s forehead – nor offer advice on how he might do so himself.  I just needed to tell him that I saw it there – and it looked like it hurt like a mother f—–r.  And that he should kindly let me know when it stops – so that I could tell the one that was now chafing at my heart to do the same.

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