“John. John. John,” John’s brother Joe was walking hurriedly alongside John’s truck as John backed down our driveway, angling his way into the parking bay in the shop. “JOHN,” Joe hissed as soon as the engine turned off. “There’s a LADY IN YOUR HOUSE.”

We had just returned from a raucous dinner at a teppanyaki restaurant, the kind where a chef cooks everything in front of you and periodically tries to squirt sake directly into your mouth from a squeeze bottle. (“Heyyy mama,” the guy had pleaded with me, waving the bottle enticingly, while I tried to convey with a polite head shake that I may be a disaster on several fronts but I’ve stayed away from alcohol since 2013 so let’s not reset the drunk clock with a tablespoon of cheap rice wine which was sure to land directly on the surface of my eyeball anyway). The ruse to getting Joe back to our place was that I had made a New Year’s dessert to share, while in reality we had planned a surprise birthday party for him. The woman in question was his mother-in-law, who was trying to sneak quietly in the front door. “JOHN THERE’S A LADY,” Joe insisted, so confused as to why we were unfazed, while John mumbled that it was probably our cleaning person, which reminded me of the steamed hams skit on The Simpsons (“The aurora borealis!? At this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen!?) and by the time we finally got Joe inside he had the look of someone who wasn’t sure if everyone else had gone crazy or if he was heading into an intervention, but in the end he was most definitely surprised.

It was the perfect midpoint to the evening, really, because there were hours to go before midnight still, and Joe’s wife had made an insanely delicious ice cream cake, and everyone eventually was so hopped up on sugar that we made it to the ball drop without a problem. It was just our foursome, cuddled on the couch together and watching Ryan Seacrest do his thing and John and I marveling at how we were officially old enough not to recognize the various young celebrities on the show.

Earlier in the night we had watched a slideshow from Apple’s Photos app, the little musical number it will automatically create from an album, and our year went flying by nearly as fast as it truly did seem to. There we were skiing, in Disneyland, on the Rogue River, at the cabin, in our backyard, at school, playing sports, at the Grand Canyon.

“We have a really good life, you guys,” I said, and Riley said, “We really do,” and I know life isn’t a cherry-picked set of photos and in between those smiling moments there were plenty of not-so-great ones, but everyone is healthy and my kids seem pretty happy and I’m not sure I could ask for anything better in 2020.

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This week John and I went to an orientation meeting for high school, because apparently it is only a matter of months until we are the actual parents of an actual high school aged human? I am putting a question mark there because no part of that sentence feels remotely real, despite the physical evidence I see on the daily (looming, snarky, wispily mustachioed).

I felt SO many feelings at that meeting, just waves of disbelief that it’s already time to start thinking about program choices along with a mix of hope (so many earnest teens on the panel to address parent questions) and abject terror (so many options! So many possibilities! So many paths that feel so hugely important even though eventually high school becomes a mostly-vague memory for us all!). I didn’t even truly realize how much I was affected until later, at home, when I watched myself robotically devour a bag of crackers followed by a series of holiday-shaped chocolates dipped in peanut butter: Ah, I see our self-medication choice for the evening is food, then.

There is of course the whole childhood-slipping-away, time-barreling-forward side of things to get worked up over, but there’s also this very real and unpleasant feeling of being HUGELY unqualified to be the person who’s supposed to provide guidance and support for another person navigating a system I myself completely failed at.

I mean, I dropped out of high school when I was a sophomore. It’s something I’m not remotely proud of and I have all kinds of messy regrets about, oh, nearly every choice I made between 5th grade and my mid-twenties, and it turns out having older kids is really stirring up a lot of negative self-talk (you’re a loser and you always have been) and I’ve been through enough therapy to recognize when my brain is being an asshole but recognizing a thing doesn’t mean you don’t have to feel the thing before you can maybe, ideally, combat the thing. Sometimes with a whole lot of Trader Joe’s mochi rice nuggets.

I am so proud of both of my kids and grateful that they don’t seem to be dealing with the same garbage I went through/caused for myself when I was their age. I do feel like between John and I, we’re going to be able to handle whatever comes our way — our family unit can be dysfunctional as hell sometimes, but we are tight. We’ve got each other’s backs, no matter what.

But this shit is scary. It’s scary, raising older kids! It was scary before when they were little and it seemed mildly criminal that I had anything to do with keeping helpless infants and suicidal toddlers from death which felt like it was constantly CLOSING IN ON ALL FRONTS (here have a grape OH GOD I FORGOT TO CUT IT IN HALF) but this is worse, man.

It reminds me very much of the time I took college algebra only to show up for the first class and realize that I had absolutely no idea what the instructor was talking about, much less the alien letter-filled scribbles on the chalkboard, because I had dropped out of school and had barely progressed past long division.

Parenting is an ever-shifting landscape and I try to tell myself none of us really know what we’re doing, we’re all just hoping for the best and relying on love to get us through the hardest parts. Even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m in over my head — and unlike that terrifying class which I dropped like a hot potato, the only way out is through.

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