The challenges of parenting a teenager can leave one powerless and alone. Accepting these challenges is the only way to get to the other side
Sharing the Load is a column about parenting children of all ages
Raising my daughter through this teenage stage is scary and I don’t know if I will get through it
These years in the thick of raising teenagers are a little like the first years of parenthood. You, once again, feel overwhelmed and incompetent. There is also the aloneness.
Sometimes, when I admit to another parent that this is hard, harder than I expected, they lower their heads near mine and, with eyes widened, whisper urgently about something very worrying they are contending with as a parent. Their voices convey the relief of an honest conversation but also, the ache of big problems that cannot be immediately fixed for a child.
The aloneness we felt when we were raising babies was about maintaining the facade that babies weren’t softening us too much or that the days were filled with nothing but joy. Now, the aloneness is about being discreet. Teenagers have a right to privacy and rebirth as they muddle along. While adolescent impulsiveness is entirely predictable, poor choices are still judged very harshly by the rest of the world.
I do not know if the world is getting more complex to raise teenagers in or if it has long been this fraught. I don’t know, because like I said, no one talks about this part of parenting with much real honesty. I recently asked a close friend for advice. She was facing a tough time of her own as a mother, but she said, reassuringly, it is probably like that book we read over and over to our children when they were little: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
In the book, a young family go on an adventure to find a bear. The plot resembles the motivations you fabricate to keep the energy of small children up on long walks. We are walking, why? To find a bear, of course. When you are walking with small children even the simplest of walks present challenges. Every bit of mud or water that you manage to get through without a child falling over in it feels like an achievement.
So, it always made sense to me that the book focuses more on the obstacles of the walk than the dangers of a bear. And each time the family is deterred by new terrain, the book repeats the mantra: we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it.
When I used to read that story to my children, I assumed its appeal lay in the whimsical sense of drama and sing-song lessons in prepositions and spatial concepts. But maybe the book was written for parents? Rereading it as the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, it seems obvious that its true purpose is imprinting a script for living.
And so, I now look with curiosity at the depictions of mother and daughter in the book. In one part of the story the family are making their way through an overgrown field. The mother and the little daughter, with their arms stretched towards one another, are holding hands but are swallowed chest-deep into long grass. Is the daughter showing her mother the way or is the mother helping her daughter through the grass? We cannot assume by this stage of parenting teenagers that we, as parents, always know what is best.
That is how it sometimes feels to be a parent, I told her. I am trying to call you back, to warn you of the dangers in the world, but you are disappearing into the long grass
I am reminded of a quietly haunting poem by Lucille Clifton, My Mama moved among the days, describing the experience of being the child of a mother who is unravelling. The mother does her best – “she got us almost through the high grass” – before tragically succumbing to something terrible inside herself and running back into the grass alone.
My own experience with mothering a teenage daughter is that there is a lot of push-pull. She still wants to hold my hand, but she is insistent that she knows the right way ahead through the long grass. So, when I look at that illustration in the Bear Hunt story, I see a mother trying to pull her daughter back from a dangerous course.
I try to explain this fear to my daughter carefully, so as not to offend her.
How it feels to not only be scared, as a parent, but also unexpectedly powerless. My daughter and I were walking our dogs off-leash, when I told her about a fear in the United States, real or imaginary, that dogs can be lured away from their owners by coyotes.
Whether the dog follows a coyote for play or out of bravado, we cannot say, but the result is they underestimate the small, impish creature until finding themselves isolated and surrounded by a pack of them. Then, far from their owner’s protection, they are killed.
Her mouth dropped in horror. That is how it sometimes feels to be a parent, I told her. I am trying to call you back, to warn you of the dangers in the world, but you are disappearing into the long grass.
Of course, my daughter is not like a pet. She is not mine; she is becoming her own person. And I deliberately sought not to raise my daughter to be too fearful of the world, lest she curb her participation in it as a young woman.
But the youthful underestimation, my corresponding powerlessness and the collision of all this with a world not as kind as I hoped for my children are proving to be a daunting combination for me as a mother.
What to do? When I am feeling engulfed, I remember the instruction of the book. The resistance and avoidance are their own pain. Reaching acceptance – that I will have to go through this and do the hard work involved – is the only way for me to get to the other side.
My friend, if this is you too, I have these words for you: keep going.
• Andie Fox is a freelance writer who writes about motherhood from a feminist perspective