On Having and Being a Teenager

Anyone who has had or currently has small children has heard some variation of the following: “Enjoy every moment, because they grow up fast.” And they do. Mine became teenagers in the blink of an eye. The four of them are pretty close in age, so it feels like this has happened suddenly. In the younger days, we were doing each stage in lumps. We had four baby-toddlers for what felt like years. Then we had four young children, four pre-teen to early teens. Now all except Emmy are solidly in their teen years. And Emmy is darn close. They did grow up fast. And I definitely did not enjoy every moment.

Rachel is my oldest. My pregnancy with her was textbook. I was sick for a second. The rest was fun and interesting. Labor was long, but not traumatic. She was a brilliantly easy baby. Rarely cried, slept through the night pretty quick, had an easy temperament. We were lucky. I know that now, but at the time, I just chalked it all up to my physical superiority and excellent parenting skills. Trying for Lilly mere months after I had Rachel was an easy decision. Pregnancy was cool. Babies were fun. And I was an amazing mother…

I found out I was pregnant with Lilly on Rachel’s first birthday. Which is incidentally about the time Rachel became… curious. Parenting was no longer about feeding, napping, holding. It was now about my emotional survival and Rachel’s physical safety. She was still good-natured, but keeping her alive became a near-full-time job. She wanted to see, touch, taste everything. I would describe this time in her life as manic. During my Lilly pregnancy, Rachel gave up naps. Exceptionally early. When I needed her to nap the most. By the time Lilly was born, I was already tired.

I will not bore you all with the ins and outs of each of my other pregnancies. What each kid was like at the time, etc.. I had 4 kids in 5-and-a-half years and it was hard. Enough said. Physically, they needed so much from me. To bathe them, to feed them, to dress them, To buckle them into the car, to cuddle them. By the end of every day I had the very pointed desire not to be touched by anyone. And I love physical touch.

Parenting toddlers and babies is both difficult and boring. Which is the worst combination. But it is simple. You feed them, you dress them, you love them, you keep them alive. Bonus, they are so so cute. They say cute things, they do cute things, they love you unconditionally. They want all the cuddles. You are their hero. You can do no wrong. They are intrinsically precious. My teenagers are categorically not cute or precious. And they no longer see me as a perfect human being. They still love me. Fiercely. But my humanness is starting to show.

Another phrase I am sure all you parents have heard. “Just wait until they are teenagers”. The implication is that this is where the real work is. And this is true to some degree. My sister Summer once said something like “toddlers and babies are physically hard. But teenagers are emotionally difficult.” Spot on. Now that my kids are in their teen years, the problems are more complex. The problems are heartbreaking. The problems are heavy. But raising teenagers doesn’t suck. Not even a little bit.

In my mind, I am just exiting my teenage years. It just happened, right? I am still a young adult. In reality, it’s been 25 years since I have dealt with the issues my teens are dealing with right now. But I remember it well enough to know that, while living with teenagers is difficult, being one is much harder. The hormones, the uncertainty, the drama. The almost-adultness of it. As a mom dealing with teenagers, I can walk away from it. I can hide in my room. I can escape into an audiobook. I can get lost in my work. But for my teenagers living a teenage life, there is no escape. I try very hard to remember this every single day.

The hardest teen years as a parent by far have been the early teenage years. Years 11-13 specifically. 12-year-olds mimic 3-year-olds in every way. They think the world revolves around them, and don’t understand why we do not all bow to their needs. They are emotional, unreasonable, unkind. I have had to sit on my hands on many occasions with my preteen kids.

But categorically, as my kids have exited these years, they have become exceptional humans. And exceptionally easy to parent. My teens are not great students. They are not taking advance placement classes. They do not have anywhere near a 4.0 average. They are passing. They will graduate. They do not excel at sports or music. They do not behave perfectly. But they make relatively good decisions. They don’t bully. They are aware of their peers. They are kind. They want to do great things with their lives. And I love hearing about all of it. My teenagers are INTERESTING. And they are good. I like what they have to say.

Now that they are older, we can watch all the things. We play games that are not Candyland and Shoots and Ladders. We have meaningful conversations. I do not have to spend my days making sure they are physically safe. They can feed and dress themselves. Forget buckling them into carseats. These kids can mostly drive themselves around town. And I love all of it. So much.

I have less control over the ins and outs of their lives. I hate this, but I also kind of embrace it.

We had a trampoline when the kids were little. Early on I realized that I absolutely could not watch them playing on it. I knew it was dangerous. I knew they could be injured. Watching them do all the tricks just gave me anxiety. Carson even broke his arm once playing on that damned trampoline. But I knew I needed to let them play. So I did. I just didn’t watch. I couldn’t.

Raising teenagers is much the same. There are times I cannot watch. I cannot participate or condone. I cannot be in Rachel’s car and tell her to slow down. To stop riding the other car’s bumper. I cannot tell her friends to stop swearing (among other things I don’t want to think about). I cannot control how they behave once they leave our front door. I have to trust them. But I need to let them experience it all. They need to do life. They need to have their hearts broken. They need to face all that life is going to throw at them. They need to feel the heavy. And I need to impotently stand back and let it happen. To a degree. Just like I took Carson to the doctor when he broke his arm, I need to be here for them when the emotional shit hits the fan. I soothe with my words, with my availability. I have to heal by just being here. This is all I can do.

When I was a kid, my mom was all about the home-made meals. Healthy meals. Everything was whole wheat. Everything was from scratch. We never had soda in the house. Or freezer meals. If you wanted a snack, it was a banana or a slice of cheese. Or a homemade piece of bread with peanut butter and jam if you were lucky. When I approached my teenage years, that changed. All the sudden, the freezer was full of Hot Pockets and frozen pizzas. There were granola bars and animal crackers and a variety of other snacks I never saw in my younger years. Part of this was a change in my family’s socioeconomic status. Money was not quite so tight as it was in my early years. But a big part of it was my mom’s attempt to keep us close. She made our house a safe-place for all my friends. A place where they could eat all the Hot Pockets, and take naps on the couch, and watch all the movies. Her reasoning was that this would keep us close to home. If our house was the fun house, the safe house, we would be more likely to stay put. In a controlled environment. This was genius. I have taken a card from my mom’s deck, and tried to do the same at my own small and modest home. There are 5 of us in a very tight space. But if my kids want friends over, I say yes. If they want half a dozen friends to spend the night, I give them my pillows and make an extra special meal. I keep the pantry full of all the snacks. Anything to keep these four amazing incredible humans as close to me as possible.

Teenagers are great. They are the absolute best. For all you parents out there approaching the teenage years, don’t be scared. Your toddler years are ending, and a new and better dawn is arising. It is a wild and amazing ride. It is more interesting, more textured than the toddler and young child years. And it is a blessing and a privilege to be involved with these people who will shape our future years.

My mom often says that she wished she could go back and hold us as toddlers. Just for a moment. Not forever. I feel this so hard. I miss the unconditional love. I miss how cute they were. I miss the simplicity of it. I miss the cuddles. But just for a moment. The teen years is where it is at. I love this time so much I wish I could bottle it and keep it forever. It will pass. They will all become young adults. And someday they will be my age. They will reminisce about when they were young. They will remember how hard it was to be a teenager. They will be better parents than I was. That’s my legacy. That my kids do a little better than I did.

We are hard on this upcoming generation. They are ridiculous, pampered, uneducated. They are naive. But that is what everyone says about the next group of upcoming adults. I think our young people are great. They will do good things. They will make a difference in our world. Just like every generation before them. God save and protect our teens. Let us give them the respect and courtesy they deserver.

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