(an edited version of this essay now appears on http://www.grownandflown.com)
About 14 years ago, I sat in a church service with my husband and tiny daughter.
My mind settled on the family in front of us. Two parents and three teenagers. I have thought about this family so many times over the years and even more often recently. It was the early service.The teenagers were awake but looked rumpled. Two boys and a girl. And I looked at them with envy. That woman, the mother, she had done it. She survived (it appeared) 17 years of raising children at least. I had just barely begun. And she got three teenagers at church sitting with their parents on time. One of them had their head on her shoulder! She did something right. They looked like the perfect family. How did she do it?
Now I am moving into that stage. I have two teenagers and an eight year old. (Yes, we do teach family planning courses for couples who enjoy weird challenges and intricate school schedules and carpool planning that would make your head spin. Contact me for details)
Let me tell you something. I had no idea about the teen years. None. This is some PhD level crap to deal with and I have a 4th grade level of preparation. I am stunned and overwhelmed by the twists and turns of parenting teenagers. This is hard work. DIFFICULT. Mental Jedi level parenting. Nearly all of the stereotypes have really become true to one extent or another and I just didn’t want to believe it. All of that was surely not going to happen in this family. Pfffft.
They are moody. The moods. Wow. It feels like hugging some cacti over here. Lately I feel the need to announce that I might hug them. It goes like this. Hey, it will be ok. I’m going to move toward you now. I’m going to hug you. It’s happening. I’m your mother and since I birthed you I feel you owe me this much. Feel free to stand there woodenly and hold your breath until it’s over. But make no mistake. I am going to hug you…3,2,1.
It’s hard not to take things personally when they are so crabby. It’s a combination of their random malaise and my lack of sympathy that causes the rift. I mean, sometimes their day- to-day lives are akin to what I associate with the afterlife. Pick ME up in sub zero temps in a warm car within 34 seconds of my activity ending. Hand me a cocoa. Heaven. Force ME to go to bed at a reasonable hour in fresh sheets in a clean room. Heaven. Wash my clothes. Invite my friends over. Make me breakfast. Make my friends breakfast. Leave me alone when I’m on a Netflix binge. Give me cash from time to time. Ask me how my day was and soothe me when it wasn’t a good one. Heaven, heaven, heaven. And yet, I sometimes still get the large moods all up in my face.
They are self-focused. They stand at the epicenter of their very own universe. If I had a dollar for every time “It’s not all about YOU” was uttered in this house (by us parents) I’d have enough to actually visit the epicenter of the universe and fly first class. The narcissism works against them. I try to point out that literally nobody else notices their hair/skin/scowl/braces/pants/test grade/shoes/mistake/social gaffe because all THOSE people are self-obsessed too. They don’t believe me.
They do stupid things. Their friends do stupid things. They all are doing stupid things together. (I’ll choose not to elaborate…wherever your mind is running off to right now-it likely happening with my kids, your kids and/or the kids they know or it will or it already has) And they think nobody will know about some of these bad choices and parents will never find out which is just so painfully naive. Newsflash: Everyone will know (faster and wider spread with the assistance of social media) and all parents find out everything eventually. Whether we find out within minutes of the event or on our deathbed…we find out. We parents are just one generation older who already did all the stupid things or were with other people while they did them. Hellooooo. We invented and perfected stupid just like our parents did before us. Duh.
They think I am yelling if I ask them something or tell them something. Example: Could you please bring these dirty clothes to the basement so I can wash them? This is met with large sighs, hunchback body language, eye rolls, a chorus of “I KNOW!!!!” and this…”You don’t have to yell at me!” Um-what? I wasn’t yelling. Why would I add to the din of this house with yelling? When I yell, you will know. I could blow the roof off with the yelling. Do not test me. You know not what I am capable of with yelling.
They act like typical teenagers. They play their music. Loudly. Early in the morning. I have some negative feelings toward Lil Uzi Vert at the moment. Will he be the Prince of their generation? Nope. No he will not. And yet I suffer through him now. They watch tv. Some of it is absolute crap. They know things about the Kardashians. Makes me want to cry. My son recently answered a geography bee test question correctly. He learned the answer by watching 324 episodes of Modern Family. I’m so proud. They leave water bottles everywhere. They argue with me for sport. They leave food wrappers on the floor of their rooms. They fling their shoes in every corner-and sometimes they reek. They embarrass me sometimes. I embarrass them sometimes. We are in a cycle of mutual inadvertent embarrassment. They get mad when I take their photo. (see above) They eat all day. A meal schedule means nothing to them. A sleep schedule means nothing to them. I’m awake when they are asleep. They are awake when I am asleep. They change their minds on a whim. Their phones are an appendage. They move chargers around the house and then lie about not moving the chargers. They wear earbuds around and then act surprised when they can’t hear us. They glom onto a ‘catch phrase’ and can’t stop. If my son doesn’t stop saying the word ‘savage’ soon…I’m going to attack him ferociously.
Their friends are everything. This I remember well. It’s hard to shine a light on the fact that some of these friendships will be lifelong. They might have a friend now that would walk through fire for them. They will see them through good and bad and they will have their back and it will be unfathomable how life could continue without one another. Other friendships are all drama and destructive and exhausting and an avalanche of negative bull$h*t and when they finally figure it out and walk away, it will be like removing an anvil from their neck. And sometimes as a teenager, you can’t figure out which friend fits into which category and it might take years to gather enough evidence to sort it out.
They think I “just don’t understand.” And I don’t. I don’t understand all of their experience and I really wouldn’t want to. I remember the teen years but it this ain’t your mother’s teen years. I think it is worse.
My 15 year old often puts in 16 hour days. She isn’t running a Fortune 500 Company…just going to high school. On December 15th she was at school by 7:30am. She had something before school during ‘zero hour’. She had 6 classes (complete with tests/lecture/notes/presentations) and then went straight to dance team prep for a jazz meet. She danced her time slot at 7:10. Then she ran down the hall, changed into her orchestra dress and jumped into her spot in the concert orchestra (rocking some serious eye shadow and fake lashes) to play the violin at 7:43. (We are now at 12+ hours spent in that building) Then she ran back and changed back into her warm ups to cheer on her team in their dances and be present for awards. Then she hauled 50 pounds of cookie dough (music fundraiser), dance team bag, costumes, school backpack, etc. into the car to head home. Home at 10pm. Then she ripped out her bun form and hairnet and peeled off her false eyelashes at the kitchen table and ate something and finally sat down to start START on a few hours of homework.
I’ll tell you, the modern teenager has full days but sometimes I wonder how much living they are doing. They are on some sort of high speed treadmill and it’s nearly impossible to step off of it. The intensity level of school, activities, friends is relentless. When they say “I don’t have time” they actually mean it. They run out of hours in their day-often. In some ways, it’s no wonder they shut down and lose civility once they get home. This is the last bastion of relaxation. Home. Where people love you but then nag you about picking up your wet towel.
Needless to say, I have had to adjust my expectations. A lot. It is not my carefree adolescence of the 80’s. They can’t just complete their homework on the bus or skip it all together (like I did). They don’t have 45 minutes daily to devote to outfit selection and hair prep (like I did). They can’t bomb 3 tests and make up the points with cute extra credit or daily work (like I did). The pressure they feel is product heavy and process light. Achieve, achieve, achieve. There are posters at our local high school boasting that it has been ranked “One of the most challenging high schools in America.” Maybe that inspires? It only depresses me and I don’t even have to go to school there. Teenagers are under a lot of stress. I had stress in high school…92% of it was self-inflicted. I wasn’t bombarded by a competitive results focused message from my parents, my friends, my extra curricular, my school district, my phone. The pressure is taking a toll on their mental health. How could it not? It has somehow become my job to be the counterweight to ALL OF THAT and foster a “do enough” approach. I never thought that would be my role. I never thought I would want them to achieve less and work on cultivating more joy. I thought I would be cracking the whip. But the world is already set on whipping them. They need encouragement. They need a freaking break.
And this stage isn’t all bad. They are fun. So much fun. And funny. Oh my God…funny! I enjoy their stories and they read better than any screenplay or novel. I can’t even tell the stories here or they’ll never speak to me again. (I asked) I should get a Finsta. I could tell all my secrets there. But I wouldn’t. All that can be screenshot and saved-and it is. I can talk to them now about the big things and be straightforward and they get it. In some ways, I can be more myself than I could when they were little. Occasionally they do their own laundry and cook their own food. I love watching them learn. Sometimes minor miracles happen and they load the dishwasher or help a neighbor or play with their little brother or make a positive but tough choice without input or without a death threat from me. And sometimes they show glimmers of the adults they will soon become and it gives me great hope and energizes me to last through the day.
I think about that family in church. Maybe one of the kids had to be dragged out of bed to make it on time. Maybe one had been grounded for a week and slept in the clothes they were wearing. Maybe one was there of his own free will but was about to pick an epic fight on the ride home. Maybe all three of them had headphones in the entire ride to and from. Maybe that mother was just sitting there for one quiet hour like I do now and think…
-Well (*sigh)…at least we are here.