When you have children, there is a wide range of wonderment and fear that you have at each stage of life. I remember bringing my oldest daughter home from the hospital and the abject FEAR that we were going to mess her up. We thought the nice nurses and doctors had lost their minds in allowing the absolutely clueless parents to take this little baby home….without any help…or any idea what to do. Neither of us had ever been around a newborn before. None of my friends had babies before me and our parents lived 600 miles away. What were we thinking??
Then, as we got the hang of things and even managed to occasionally eat at the same time (which was a milestone past remembering to eat at all), we started to relax a little bit. And even though she was not a happy baby, our cluelessness served us well because we had nothing to compare it to. Mobility was the next fear to be overcome, then talking, and then at some point we decided we were skilled enough to add another child to the mix.
Our second daughter was born and by this time we had parent swagger. The nurses weren’t telling us anything we didn’t already know and we just wanted to get home to start life with her sister. Our second baby slept all the time instead of screaming all the time like her older sister, so of course, we panicked a little bit and thought maybe something was wrong with her. By this time, we had a little experience observing other newborn behavior so the fear was short-lived and we breathed a sigh of relief that with this baby, things would be so much easier.
Enter the blissful period. Of course that is how I remember it NOW and it might not have any actual correlation to how I felt at the time. But the way I see it, the next 13-15 years were just the easy years that were preparing us for the all dreaded teenage years…with girls! And puberty! And the boys that would inevitably come sniffing around our little beauties! Those years included a divorce, moves, job changes, death and various other emotional hurdles that seem like a piece of cake compared to navigating parenthood through the minefield that comes with raising teenage girls.
But here is the thing. The challenges are totally different than I expected. And I prepared! I read books. I threatened to WRITE books, such an expert was I. I had all the answers…for all things… from the sex talk, to drugs and alcohol talk, to the oft expected teenage deception, lying, screaming, disrespect that I had been warned about. I had my books and I was armed for battle. So how is it that in all the reading and expertness that I had under my belt, I missed the fact that parenting had the potential to break my heart and bring me to my knees? And most disconcerting, that the heartbreak would be for reasons I wasn’t prepared for at all? Me…not prepared!?!
I’m actually one of the lucky ones. My kids have always been very respectful. We have ingrained in them a belief in the merits of kindness and respectful discourse. That doesn’t mean that they don’t disagree and sometimes express that disagreement enthusiastically but I can’t ever remember a time when they were downright rude or course with any adult, me included, at least not in the way I have seen in other teens. My kids generally like to be in our company. They enjoy family vacations and family activities and just hanging out. In other words, I have it pretty good.
None of these things make my kids immune to being teens, and to making the mistakes that teens are prone to make. The problem is that I have gotten the idea somewhere along the line that I can somehow protect my kids from doing the dumb things that I did, prevent them from learning lessons the hard way and experiencing the pain that I felt from those hard lessons. And even as I reflect back on my own mistakes and see the value in the lessons that I took away from those mistakes and their consequences, still I have to resist the urge to be a helicopter parent who swoops in and performs the rescue. At the end of the day, seeing my kids experience that pain makes me relive it a hundredfold. The helplessness and heartbreak sometimes feels like it will be my undoing and none of the books prepared me for that. In all the warnings about “just wait till they are teenagers” not once was I given ample preparation for this feeling that my heart would be living outside my body in the form of my daughters and every fracture in them would break me wide open.
There are times that the pain of the consequences, some natural, some imposed by me, is too much for them. When I see them experiencing that pain, I want so badly for it to go away that I have to tell myself over and over that I am doing the right thing. I have to remember that parental perseverance is rewarded in the long-term, but often not in the short-term. I have to accept the consequences of my decisions, which often include disharmony, sullenness and the chill of the “ice out” when one of my little girls stops talking to me. (When there is disharmony, I always long for the little girl years when they loved me no matter what, and would crawl in my lap, and when my hugs and kisses were enough to heal their hurts.)
But even today, as I struggled for reconciliation, in the midst of one of the biggest ice outs I have had the displeasure to live through, I learned something from my daughter. After two days of crying and longing, we talked, and she taught me something really important. So pay attention…this is something you will want to remember.
She taught me that teenagers aren’t so different from the rest of us. Sometimes they don’t say what they mean…just like us. And just like us, they expect us to know what they really meant and not just what they said. Let me give you an example of our behavior to compare this to: When a woman goes on a long rant to her husband and he repsonds with “I see” he really means, “I have no flipping idea what your problem is or why you are mad at me.” When a husband asks his wife what is wrong and she responds with “Nothing. I’m fine” she really means that he is in the doghouse and better know why without her telling him. Similarly, when a teenager tells us, through word or action that they want us to go away or leave them alone or give them space, what they really might mean is, “Come after me. Love me. Don’t give up. I’m confused about all these crazy emotions and I need your help.” And I can tell you that when the dialog makes that truth come to light, it is the kind of thing that takes the shattered pieces of a mother’s heart and stitches it back together.
I do NOT have all the answers (despite my book collection of expertness), but I do know this: My kids need me, even when they don’t know it and especially when they say they don’t. And as much as it breaks my heart, it is not my job to protect them from mistakes. It IS my job to pursue them until reconciliation is reached, no matter how long it takes. The reward for my pursuit may be that my broken heart will be healed by the power of a girl’s smile, hug and “I love you.”
So all you parents who are following this, I will try to continue to blaze the trail with a string of mistakes, and I will share them with you in the hopes that the sharing might help you avoid some of them (which will leave you plenty to make on your own). Assuming my heart can withstand all the shattering and stitching, I know that my reward will be demonstrated by the love of two little girls who will one day grow into the incredible young women that I know they can be.
Maybe it is time for me to accept that even though I feel like they may just kill me sometimes, the best things are the things that the books didn’t tell me.