We ached for the creek and our future
running across the wet stones,
smooth and round. But when we found the water again,
we stood at the bank— all of us afraid to enter.
–Robert Lee Brewer, Cold Water
I’ve lost my parenting chutzpah. So I’m turning to Sharon Olds, Louise Erdrich, Rita Dove…women writers who have survived their own teenagers. Endured with flair.
When my children were younger we dwelt in possibility: finger painting, rain dancing, plushie tea parties. Fast forward to three teenagers. Nothing prepared me. I’m running scared, despite my affair with treadmills and trails. I need to find another way.
Judy, a friend of mine, once recounted a UFO took her daughter at age fifteen and left a shell. For years Judy mothered this snarky stranger, hers-but-not-hers. Then, one random day, the UFO returned her and she was normal again. I’m living this now, this body-soul teen abduction. I’m stuck in the vacuum’s roar, in the empty space where my children’s hearts used to dwell.
Friends with kids now adulting tell me to buckle up for the ride. How? I lost the instruction manual. Love and Logic? Dr. Sears much? How about a pastel What to expect when you’re expecting…teenagers? I beg advice but the answers aren’t easy: Be positive. Be patient. Listen. I’m trying. Truly. Borrowing Neil Gaiman’s words, “The hardest part is simply surviving.” I survived my own teen years, sure, I’m just not sure I can survive my children’s.
At this point in the mom-a-thon, spirits sagging, many of us cope by going back to work (done that), back to school (done that too), going entrepreneurial (been and done, thank you), or traveling abroad (done many times sans children, joy and ache and distance pulling like Silly Putty). What’s left? Pottery class? Yoga more? Pray?
On Instagram I recently saw a pic of a naked Barbie tree-stuck, kids chucked there ages ago, discovered by the economy of seasons: the tree dropped its leaves to reveal the plastic neon pink pantied glory. With kids, this is the norm, crazy weird great things. Kids dwell there, in one giant what if/then experiment gone gonzo. Possibility, an insatiable quest for life. But I’ve lost what they already own: faith and big girl panties chutzpah. Barbies be damned, what’s one to do?
Truth is I’ve receded into the background of my kids lives ungracefully. I’m an unpoetic, redundant, out-moded iPhone 6. So I fight it, grappling with sludge, theirs and mine. Evolving as they evolve, ugly duckling style. And I’m not OK with it. I’m an aesthete and parenting teens is anything but. It’s less art walk, more floorless mine field. Where is the safety net of my grandmother’s laugh reassuring me, Everything will be fine?
There is no net.
In line at the Disneyland Matterhorn, a jubilant well-groomed male voice (one imagines) booms, “Permanecer sentados por favor….Remain seated please.” Ad nauseum. Be patient; when it’s your turn stay seated, buckled, and enjoy the ride. However implied, this smacks of parenting teens. Enjoy exactly what? A bone jarring duck-and-cover gut punch despite the shakes?
With time the poetry of chubby hands and haloed heads evaporates, replaced by teenage snarls or silence. Flashes of brilliance shine, absolutely, but more often teens take offense, rebuff compliments, and assume you lie 80% of the time. No one warned me. I’d take a full Diaper Genie, a dozen hours lashed into one of my Ergo baby carriers of yore, or potty training constipated toddlers over hormonal teen jam and jelly. Pessimism + narcissism? Check. Refusal to bathe regularly? Check. Avoiding chores for the billionth time? Check. Nose in the iPhone/iPad/iWhatever device? Check check check. I should be grateful though. It’s not unprotected sex, cutting, sexting, trolling, vaping, or drugs. Fingers crossed.
Is teenagerhood half-empty? Because I’m in the dregs. OK, let’s pivot then. How about this: growing up is not a loss. It’s a becoming. An ongoing transformation, a million baby steps towards adulthood. And we’ll get there somehow. (As I write this mantra, I want to believe it.)
What of teens and failing then? I hear teen years are the ideal time to let kids fail. It’s safer than adulthood. Less at stake. Sure, only the formation of future identity, college admissions, and The Rest of Their Lives. So while I struggle to broaden boundaries and quit helicoptering, I cringe as my kids thrill and flail in the last vestiges of their pre-adult years jamming the heart button on Insta, grooming virtual pets, and maneuvering real and virtual world bullying by anything but friends.
This stubbornness and flailing though, aka learning. It’s messy and happens to be the building block of teenagerhood and life. I was stubborn too. Am still. And still learning. My own mother doulaed me through my fears, kvetching, and dreams for decades. Might I, too, find grit to do the same?
Sharon Olds, in a beautiful, truth-wrenching poem about her son, declares, “I will have him on any terms.” This is my truth, too. Whatever my children choose, my mother-heart will take on any terms they are willing to give: a rare smile, an odd helping hand, and in twenty years maybe a phone call or, “Oh, I get it now.” I will accept them, unconditionally.
My friends, this is the truth we must tell ourselves in order to survive. An instruction manual does exist, it is love.
Recently I ran into a parent-wise-friend at a holiday party. She looked stunning and younger than ever. When I asked her her secret she said two words, “Empty nesting.” Might I live as long? One only hopes.
What survival advice do you have for parenting teenagers?