I don't know how to parent my teenager

Photo by Fran Ulloa via Creative Commons

After her dramatic entry into this world, I held my firstborn in my arms and felt her weight free of my body for the first time. This separation was the first step in a long walk toward total independence. As I inhaled her scent, ran my fingers across her velvet skin, and gazed at her scrunched-up little face, I asked: Who are you?  Who will you be some day? I sensed her individuality emerging even in those tender moments. She was her own person. Who she’d be someday was already determined by genetics. I was only there to provide food, clothing and shelter and to discourage her from choosing serial killer as a career.

While it took a number of years for her self to be fully realized, back then it was a far-off concept. Back then, she was pink and chubby. She cooed and gurgled and curled into me when I held her. Back then I thought we had an unbreakable bond. As I reveled in the reflexive squeeze of her tiny fist around my finger, I fantasized about a future with us lunching together, dancing barefoot in the rain and sharing secrets.

Never in those baby-powder scented days could I have imagined a person who’d recoil from my touch, who’d stuff ear buds in her ears to drown out my conversational chatter, who’d slam a door in my face before I could finish a sentence or who’d pull the plug so swiftly and surely on all lines of communication to render me unworthy.

I thought it would be different between us. I was going to be a different mother. She was going to be a different daughter.

I thought if I did exactly the opposite of what my mother did, those things that ripped a hole in our compatibility, that the opposite would result.

I thought wrong.

Maybe there is nothing anyone can do to prevent this inevitable phase. I have no idea how to parent my teenaged daughter. No clue. It’s gotten to the point where I dread the days she is at my house. Not because I don’t love her. I do with a fierce passion. I dread those days because they result in a tsunami of emotions that overwhelm the entire household. No matter how Zen I try to be with her, to just experience the frustration and ride with it, to avoid throwing fuel on the fire, to be the adult, the bigger person, it always ends up the same: one or both of us shouting or in tears. It always ends with me venting to my husband or one of my friends or the Internet.

Further complicating matters, she lives with me four days out of the week. So, the remaining days, she’s getting an entirely different message, living within an entirely different dynamic. It’s like a looping weather pattern, as our family travels in and out of the eye of the hurricane. Calm for a few days, and then an emotional onslaught so debilitating at times I question my strength to get through the day. And she’s a good kid, really. She’s not into drugs or drinking. She’s a solid student. I cannot fathom what I’d do if I had a juvenile delinquent on my hands.

I’ve been at the gym a lot lately. Sweating away my frustrations on the cardio equipment and weight machines. I’ve been meditating like a maniac, hoping the calm achieved might give me some added mileage.

I’ve been searching online for tickets to South America.

No. Not really.

Some of it is normal teen angst, I’m sure.

Some of it is the particular suckiness that is parenting through joint custody.

Some of it is a middle-aged mother who realizes her oldest child is a mental gymnast. She is very much her father’s daughter: He is the master of debate, the fan of forensics, worshipper at the altar of logic. I hate conflict and endless debate. They live and breathe it. This personality clash led to the dissolution of my first marriage. What, then, do I do about a mother-daughter relationship built on the same shaky foundation?

I’m waving the white flag of resignation: I don’t know how to do this.

I don’t have answers. I welcome heartfelt suggestions.

I leave you with this link to a smart piece I heard on PRI’s “This American Life.” Listen to Act III: family dysfunction has a long and colorful history.

Driving Miss Crazy


By quinn anya via Creative Commons

I base many of my parenting decisions today on things I did as a teenager.

That is why my almost-16-year-old lives in a box in the basement.

Well, not yet. Soon. She’s going on her first big night out with another teenager in a car. Alone.

I’m worried. I sound like my mother did in 1980 when a cute guy with his own car asked me out and she said “NO!” just as she did on every previous occasion when a member of the opposite sex expressed interest in me.

Yes, you read that correctly. My mother would not let me date. I don’t think my father was against the idea. But due to the economy at the time he was working nights or out-of-town or something that made him unavailable for day-to-day parenting decisions. So, I developed dating loopholes: I spent a lot of time at “the library” and “the movie theater” and at “Dora’s house” (not her real name). Dora and I had a deal: Our whole friendship was based on lying for each other so we could go out with our boyfriends. Every few months we’d actually have to make an appearance at one another’s house just to keep things legit.


I’d say I was going to see “Alien” or  “The Blues Brothers.” Except, not really. I’d read the synopsis in the newspaper, memorize it, then head to a dive bar  in Detroit that let in underage suburbanite kids with small brains and fat wallets to hear eardrum- shredding bands. I hated that I wasn’t allowed to officially date. I hated the sticky web of lies I’d spun. It was hard to keep all the stories straight.

Eventually I decided to take a stand and declare that I had a boyfriend. Mom was not happy. Still, I kept up the relationship and eventually she acquiesced. She had loopholes of her own. She eavesdropped on phone calls. (There were no cell phones back then.) She took the phone off the hook so I couldn’t make late-night calls. (There was no Facebook, IM, MySpace or e-mail back then.) She intercepted letters and searched my room while I was at school.

I do not want to be that kind of mother to my Girl from the West. I know my mother did it all out of worry and fear of the unknown. (We had teen pregnancy back then and something called V.D.)

That kind of parenting creates liars and sneaks. So far, I feel my Girl has been as honest with me as is possible for a teenager. I know she’s not telling me everything but I feel I have some kind of handle on her comings and goings. Mostly, it’s because I am directly connected to those comings and goings.

But, with the impending arrival of  driver’s licenses as she and her friends each reach their 16th birthdays,  a world of worry opens up.

What about the other teenagers out there? How honest are they? How mature? Are they practiced liars who fool their unwitting parents?  Are they on drugs? Will they drink and drive? There is so much to consider, to worry about with a child who is almost an adult. Cars carry with them a multitude of dangers, some involving a vehicle in motion; some pertain to cars at rest.

It doesn’t take much to think back to the irresponsible, recklessness of most of my peers when they had that piece of plastic in their wallets and what new levels of stupidity it propelled us into. I think of the dead man’s curve that claimed the life of a 17-year-old classmate on July Fourth, when he took his eyes off the road to toss a firecracker out the car window and ended up hugging an oak with his engine block. I think of the guy I was scheduled to go on a date with had he not been broadsided and killed on his way home from a Detroit Tiger’s game. Dead at 20. All this occurred in our sleepy suburb along the lake, where a traffic jam might be six Cadillacs lined up by the valet parking shed at the country club. My girl will be traversing some of the busiest stretches of road in our area.

So I worry. It does no good. I cannot control all the forces the universe, even with my super-deluxe magic wand. I can’t really lock her away in the basement. (Damned social welfare agency and their rules.)

My guide is this: If she’s not doing any of the stuff I was doing, or only one-tenth of it, we’re good.

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Mr. Spock, where are you?

When I tangle with my toddler, I can always seek refuge in Dr. Benjamin Spock’s sage advice.

That Doc Spock rocks! He knows his stuff. I’ve been referring to the same dog-eared volume of “Baby and Child Care” on my nightstand since the early ’90s, when I faced the uncertain future of life with newborn Girl from the West. Although this well-read book addresses the issues of adolescence in a general manner, even the late-physician admitted much of it is up to the parents’ discretion.

I have a library of books on baby care, early childhood matters and illness. There is another slew of tomes on adoption-related matters. But nothing is worth its weight in advice on the wrangling of teens. Why is this?
Teens have a special radar I call PBS — parental bullshit sensor –that kicks in whenever adults approach them with newfangled, warm-fuzzy techniques of communication. This I know being a child of the ’70s, when such methods were thrown around like rice at a wedding. None of it stuck. All those so-called “mod” adults who wanted to sit around on woven rugs and have “rap sessions” with us teens really just made us want to gag. We didn’t want to hear any of their hippie nonsense.

The closest thing to an effective tool may have been those “Scared Straight” assemblies in high school. You know, the one where the ex-con, former herion addict stands before an auditorium full of bored adolescents telling sordid tales of collapsed veins, hepatitis and jail time. It scared me, a little. I don’t know about its overall success rate.

I’ve decided there’s only one way to go. What we need here is Mr. Spock.

You don’t mess with this guy. He is half Vulcan. He has pointed ears and inquisitive eyebrows.  He is all about business and logic. There is no warm. There is no fuzzy. You will not find yourself rappin’ with this guy on a hemp rug. Try to a finagle your way out of taking the trash out with this guy. It’s not going to fly. If you push him too far — you face a mind meld or worse, the Vulcan Nerve Pinch.

This is what I need to learn. I’m looking through our city’s continuing education brochures, the local enrichment catalogs. So far, I’m not finding these classes offered. Is it more of an underground thing? Do I need to know a code word? Is there an unmarked door down a dark alley I have to knock on three times to gain access to this world? If anyone knows, send me an e-mail. I’m desperate for a solution.

In the meantime, beam me up.

Careful what you say …

When my Girl from the West was a babe in arms, I cooed a promise into one of her little pink ears:
“Mommy wants you to grow up to be whoever you want to be. I won’t be one of those mean mommies who forces her daughter to vote Republican or chastises her for not choosing the convent as a career choice.”

If my baby grew up to be a bald, lesbian shot putter, that would be OK. If she aspired to be a minimalist performance artist who wore nothing but sticks and grass and chose to live in a refrigerator box in the town square, great.
It’s not that I want her to grow into someone whose lifestyle puts her at risk for ridicule and persecution. But I told myself I’d let the blossom unfold as nature intended. No making a righty out of a lefty or anything.

However, life doesn’t always play out that way, does it?

Say your babe in arms edges closer to adulthood and suddenly begins taking on all of the characteristics you abhor? Say you are an atheist and she decides to become a Born-Again Christian. Say you are vegetarian and she decides to take up bow hunting? Say you are artsy and edgy and she prefers to try out for the cheer squad?

Get the drift here?

I see my baby spinning out of my orbit so fast I’m not sure I got the flight plan before she launched.

I can’t help but recall my teen years. What hopes did my parents have for me? What was the sound of those dreams as they collided with the reality of who I was becoming? I know one of the biggest collisions had to do with my continued failure to subscribe to their religion. To this day, almost 30 years after leaving their church, I still get subliminal messages that they are not pleased, thank you very much.

Thankfully I have a number of friends who’ve traveled this bumpy road of parenthood. Their advice to me is to stop asking so many questions already! I’ll get more answers if I listen.

So this is my challenge of late: I must cross the razor’s edge. I must keep some distance, lead by example, have eyes in the back of my head and keep my flippin’ mouth shut — most of the time.

Bye-bye, baby

When I dragged my carcass down the steps this morning (late night, friends, concert, etc.) I found four large white trash bags stuffed to the seams lined up in the front hallway.
To what do I owe this unsolicited gift? Christmas in August? One of the kids ran away but oops, forgot some of their stuff? Someone felt guilty and made up for all the forgotten birthdays?
Nah. Girl from the West decided since she’s starting high school in a few weeks that it’s time to remove ALL TRACES OF CHILDHOOD CHILDISHNESS from her bedroom. All of it. I’m envisioning something that took all of two minutes to complete.
Pull drawer out of dresser.
Turn drawer upside down over trash can.
Wait as flotsam and jetsam topple, pour and plummet to their death.
Upright freshly empty drawer.
All performed, no doubt, while texting three friends on her cell phone. All performed without a shred of nostalgia or remorse.
And why, do you ask, did Girl from the West not just deposit the trash bags in the trash receptacles in the garage? Good question, Internets.
Here’s the thing: There’s a track record here and it’s not good. There’s a history of finding things in the trash that shouldn’t have been tossed. Like entire packages of computer paper. Like brand-new clothes. And gifts.
So, Girl from the West knows better. She bags it up and I sort it out.
I begin unpacking and sorting contents into various piles.
Several times during this process, I stand up and stomp into her room.
“What the hell?” I shout, waving brand-new notebooks, bundles of pencils and pens and new books. Also, there are travel-size containers (full, never used) of shampoo, hand lotion and cotton swabs and jewelry.
“Mother,” I’m informed with cool distain, “I don’t want them. Chill out.”
“Chill out? I’ll tell you what I’ll chill out. The amount of money I spend on you,” I shout back. I’m losing it here now, because I know within a week or two will come the barrage of requests.
“I need new pens and pencils and notebooks and Q-tips and travel-size shampoo.”
But she won’t want what she threw out because the pens and pencils have flowers and smiley faces on them; the notebooks will be the wrong color or be “too sparkly”; and the shampoo and Q-tips will be the wrong brand for a high-school student.
I know it. I hate it. But it’s her and I have to deal.
I end up so worked up I have to take a brisk walk. Along the way I dissect the issue.
What is really bothering me?
Is it that she’s wasteful and doesn’t understand the value of things?
Yes. But there’s more.
How can she be so callous, throwing away jewelry and other items that were gifts? It’s not that I don’t understand her feelings about some things, but holy catfish, have a little discretion.
Then it hits me. (This is where you can imagine the sound of tires squealing on the pavement and me coming to a screeching halt in a wake of smoke and flames.)
I don’t want her to grow up.
All those bags of Junie B. Jones books remind me of the nights we don’t sit up reading before her bedtime anymore. All the little craft kits, the framed kitty-cat pictures, the bead sets, are all things we shopped for together, worked on during summer breaks. Haven’t done that in a few summers. The sparkly notebooks, the smiley faced pens? No big deal to me. But to a high school freshman, probably the kiss of death.
While I’ll forgive her for growing up, it may take more work coaxing my wallet to open up.