On a recent trip to Manhattan, I experienced a miracle.
My teenaged son, Cameron, asked a stranger to take a photo of us. Together.
Parents of teenagers will recognize this unicorn of a moment.
The years of child rearing can feel long when you’re in the trenches, but the time between “mommy’s little darling” and “stinky demon who locks himself in his room” are actually painfully short. At a certain point, you’re lucky if your teenager will let you to take his photo, let alone allow you into the frame. So, when a moment like this happens you lean into your kid and smile like your life depends on it.
For most of Cameron’s teenage years, I’ve been counting my lucky stars. No rejections at school drop-off, ample unsolicited affection at home and in public, and conversations that go beyond “fine” and “whatever.”
But unbeknownst to him, I’ve had one fear that looms larger than the rest: When will our travels together end?
I’ve travelled with Cameron for his entire life. In my house, passport renewal times are followed more closely than medical appointments. While we regularly travel as a family of four, often it has been just Cameron and me – off exploring Mexican cenotes, traipsing up hilly San Francisco streets or tracing a path through civil rights history in Alabama. Our shared adventures rank high in my life’s highlight reel.
But in recent years, the opportunities to explore together have waned.
Now, at 18, his life is full. His first year of university is behind him and friends get first dibs on leisure time.
There’s an adage that parents often hear: You only get 18 summers. It’s easy to shrug off the notion when your child is five but harder when you’re staring down the barrel of that 19th year.
When Cameron, a social activist, was asked to give a TED talk in New York over spring break, I suggested we expand the trip. He agreed and before he could change his mind, I booked the flights and locked down a plan. This would be my chance to keep my mother-son travel dreams alive. The only sticking point? How to keep him interested and engaged.
I shouldn’t have worried.
On the heels of pandemic closures, New York has burst back on the scene with a host of new entertainment options perfect for teens. All I had to do was follow his interests. We started with his stomach. On a food tour of Queens, our guide from Culinary Backstreets, Esneider Arevalo – a chef and self-described punk rocker – shuffled us through neighbourhood streets as we sampled food from Ecuador, Mexico, Japan, India and beyond, meeting locals as we went. For a kid who never misses an opportunity to snack on free samples at Costco, this was a dream of a day.
Next, we leaned into his love of social media. I offered myself up as the official photographer and we turned our exploration of New York into his private video shoot. It was a great way to explore classic sites like Times Square, Grand Central Station and 30 Rockefeller Plaza. We discovered that visiting the same site at different times of day allowed for completely different experiences. Newer attractions, such as the observation deck at Summit One Vanderbilt – a three-floor immersive space in a Manhattan skyscraper – offered mirrored walls and silver helium balloons to add to the fun of photos.
There was some self-sacrifice. I had to swallow my risk-averse instincts when he stood on a railing for what turned into a beautiful shot, and when he ditched his coat in sub-zero temperatures for selfies at outdoor murals. Patience was required when a trip to a camera store turned into him talking lenses for 30 minutes with the salesman. And – surprise, surprise – cranky teen attitudes and premenopausal mood swings are not always a good match.
But having an older kid with me in New York also had its perks. He quickly figured out the subway and could head back to our Soho hotel alone, leaving me to hang with adult friends or explore solo. Those hours apart made the reunions that much sweeter.
The trip also exposed our generational differences. I had to explain that 9/11 was to me what the pandemic had been to him. It wasn’t until we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan that Cameron fully understood. Before this trip it had just been a world event that happened before he was born. And during intermission at MJ the Musical on Broadway, we found we had differing opinions on whether it was politically correct to still enjoy Michael Jackson’s music. The conversations wouldn’t have happened in the same way when he was younger and left us both with something to consider.
This trip with Cameron was different from travels in our past. I realized that while releasing the reins on my baby boy won’t be easy, seeing him out in the world was an opportunity to celebrate that he is more than capable of holding his own.
That photo taken by a stranger was terrible. We ditched it almost immediately in favour of a selfie, but it really didn’t matter. In the end, I got what I came for: Time with a son I’ve been missing. A trip to a city I adore. And a wedge in the door of possibility that maybe, just maybe, there are more getaways to come.
If you go
Why not explore a new-to-you borough on your next visit with one of these stops:
The Bronx: Build in time for one of several tours of Yankee Stadium. And, this summer is the 50th anniversary of the creation of hip hop. It all started in New York and Hush Hip Hop Tours offer explorations of the Bronx (as well as Harlem and Brooklyn hot spots).
Brooklyn: Coney Island never disappoints. Come for roller-coasters, a boardwalk and a slice of old New York. Rule out arguments about what to eat with a visit to Time Out Market in DUMBO (an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) where everyone gets what they want.
Manhattan: Check out the current Destination Cosmos exhibit at Hall des Lumières, the interactive cultural experience opened in September, 2022; spend some outdoor time in Little Island park in the Hudson River Park. It’s a great spot for photo taking or quiet walks.
Queens: Trade in ho hum exhibitions and check out the Museum of the Moving Image, which focuses on film and TV, and don’t miss the Jim Henson wing; surprise them with surfing at the Rockaways
Staten Island: Catch a minor league ball game with the Staten Island Ferryhawks; get some retail therapy you’ll both enjoy at Empire Outlets.
The writer travelled with some support from New York City Tourism + Conventions. The agency did not review or approve this article before publication.