What we really do when we parent teens

by Kristin on September 5, 2013

in Love, family & community

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.

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  • sarah louise

    Have never raised teenagers, but this is a lot like raising oneself, whatever your age. Muddling through the people things and when you can, focusing on the things that make you happy. Love this post.

    xo,
    SL

    • kt_writes

      Yes! I like that. It *is* a lot like raising yourself. We like to think we’re a bit more in control over ourselves than others, but that’s not always the case.

  • Sarah Miciek

    Kristin, this is beautiful, and perfect. On Tuesday I watched from the front steps as one walked down the street for his first day of high school, and 6 minutes later the next one walked down the street for her first day of middle school. The early years of parenting when we instruct, advise, and protect seems to come naturally, but this next stage of waiting, watching, and trusting is harder to learn!

    • kt_writes

      It’s SO much harder to learn! I’m glad you found your way over to this post so we could commiserate and virtually support each other in these emotions. Peace to you!

  • Joi

    I only just now read this, but I think it needs to be submitted to a parenting magazine! I agree with Sarah — it is beautiful and perfect. I wish all mothers of teenagers could read this. It would be like a balm for the soul.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com/ Jennifer Luitwieler

    I’m not sure. This is the mantra of the parent of a teenager. And how did my mother do it without knocking me senseless? And how did I learn how to shake hands and not be surly. And how did she let me walk out the door or drive the car without running after me, begging me to come back? Whew. Damn. Parenting is not for the weak.