Photo by K. Tennant
When they were little, parenting was exhausting but clear, the way I imagine a marathon must be. There’s nothing easy about it, but the route is marked and you know exactly what’s expected of you: preparing food, combing tangles out of hair, calming irrational tantrums, enforcing naps, teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street, then carrying them when the sidewalk gets too long.
Parenting teens is a bit like sitting on the sidelines of the race you had planned to run, with your leg in a cast. A small part of you is secretly relieved to not be out there, puffing and sweating. Another part of you feels surprised and a bit hurt to see that the race can go on without you—without your impressive, heroic efforts. And then there’s the part of you that feels helpless and useless, and a little afraid of all these feelings.
So you watch and encourage. You smile and say “I love you” as they pass through a room, kissing their heads as a one-way substitute for eye contact. You hang off to the side, always standing ready to receive those rare moments when they feel like talking or crying, opening their hearts up when they become too full to comfortably manage on their own. Because those moments do come, even if not often, and probably not today.
Some days, that helpless, useless feeling grows a bit too big, filling up a bit too much of your mind, a few too many hours. So you sew kitchen curtains, paint the dining room, make a peach cobbler (yes, this is what I did last weekend). You do things that you know exactly how to do: Thread the sewing machine, measure windows, cut fabric in straight lines. Scoop and measure flour exactly how your mother taught you, careful not to pack it into the cup, using the flat edge of a knife to level the mound neatly off. Bend and flatten the bristles of the paint brush to perfectly cut the paint in to meet—but not touch!—the woodwork framing the windows.
There are moments, of course, when we pause in that straightforward work of the hands to give one teen a ride, to send a text to another, just to check in. We pause to receive the barrage of questions and requests—Can I? Will you? Why not?—and manage the debates, careful to strike a balance between dictatorship and laissez faire, just as our children unconsciously struggle to strike a balance between childhood and adulthood.
I say “I don’t know” and “Let me think about it” far more often than I’d like to, but I’ve finally admitted parenting teens isn’t something I can fake.
Then I stall, creating more perfect stitches on my sewing machine, a hand-me-down from my mom, and wondering how she parented the fast-talking, persistent teenage version of me. I say a meandering prayer that trails off with my row of stitches…
Finally, I tell my daughters “yes” or “no,” even if I’m not exactly sure how I arrived at my answer. Or maybe I ask for more details, propose a compromise. I search their faces for clues, say “I love you” again, sneaking a quick hug and another kiss on the head, doing my best to make sure they know they are wonderful and cherished.
As they leave, I smile and wave goodbye, reminding them to “Keep me posted!” Then I step outside to water the little tree that was just planted in front of our house, turning the hose on to just the right level and setting a timer, tending to its roots exactly as I was instructed.