When I graduated from college, my sister and I decided to travel through Europe together. In a pre 9/11 world, all our parents really said to us was “Great! Don’t forget your passports.” Now more than twenty years later and parenting teens, I think of that trip often not just as a fond memory but as a metaphor for where I am now. Back then, I was a newbie traveler wandering through European cities and exploring the countryside. Now, I am an experienced mom to three teens, but I recognize the excitement combined with the terror, the glorious independence with the frightening missteps, the pretty views with the underlying peril. The experience of parenting teens now is as traveling was then: beautiful, strange, and a little dangerous.
There is one moment in time from that trip that my mind wanders back to these days. After traveling all day, my sister and I had made it to a little village in the Alps. Hot and worn out, all we wanted was a quick dip in a cool lake. As luck would have it, there was a beautiful crystal clear one right beside the house we were staying in for the night. At dusk, we broke off from our group of fellow travelers for a quick swim. With nary a toe dip into the water, we didn’t think or plan, we just held hands and jumped right in with both feet. The paralyzing cold, our collective gasps, the instantaneous and terrifying realization from both of us, now so far removed from help, that this had been a bad idea still delivers an emotional punch all these years later.
Parenting teens feels just like this sometimes. At the start of this new year, I had been traveling a particular rocky road with my 16 year old daughter for a couple of months. Despite adhering to the 10 commandments for parenting teen girls, I found myself miscommunicating with her over little things like her schedule and her schoolwork. When bigger things came along, we were speaking completely different languages without the benefit of interpreters. We were relying heavily on white flags at this point. I had no idea what conversations would bring us around to each other again, no idea what questions to ask to move us forward from this place. Sure, there were still times when our relationship resembled the friendly, amicable one we had shared for many years once she outgrew her mini-maelstrom phase. Other times, I was in my own parental version of traveler’s hell with piss poor maps and missed connections everywhere.
The step that finally put us back on the right path back was a familiar one. At the start of each year, I pick a word that I will use to frame the 365 days to come. An idea stolen from a friend of mine, it’s a habit that has helped keep my “oh look, a rock” tendencies in check. My word this year is “engaged.” At home, with friends, in work, in the world, with my kids, “engaged” encompasses the hard work I want my heart to do this year. So, as we were getting ready for dinner one night, I had a quiet moment with my daughter. We talked about what we hoped would come to pass this year: trips we would take, friends we would visit, things we hoped to see or do. I shared with her my word for the year and revealed the things I hoped this word might usher in.
“What would your word be?”
She took her time with her answer. I stirred the pot of spaghetti, put the garlic bread in the broiler, and pulled out the salad dressing. I was quiet; she was thoughtful. There was the faint click of the clock from our library. I was waiting; she was thinking. There was space for her to find this. I was going to let her.
“Yes. My word is yes.”
I stayed quiet and listened to her reasons unfold. She had been afraid of new things in the past. She didn’t want to disappoint us or herself, so she sometimes felt stuck. She wanted to have the kind of courage that created possibilities. She wanted to take the kind of chances that make you someone new. She wanted to be the very best version of herself. She wanted to say “yes” to all of it.
I nodded. I pulled the garlic bread out of the oven and put the salad bowls on the table. I recognized that feeling, that desire for the kind of energy that comes from jumping in with both feet. My girl wanted to throw herself into life; she wanted to gather momentum; she wanted to grow.
And then my heart felt that same exhilarating, terrifying punch that it did in that alpine lake so many years ago. My growing up thing had been hard enough, but helping someone else grow up is something else entirely. There are no guarantees, guideposts, or easy passages through this place called adolescence. But sometimes asking a simple question smoothes the road a little, lightens the traveling together, let’s us both see what lies before us a little more clearly. It certainly helped us. We have our old happier, easier rhythms back. This connection makes it easier to just hold hands and jump when the time comes.
So this is what 17 looks like around here: a lovely girl with her arms outstretched, ready to take on the world. She is gulping in life, and we are grateful for her passion and her purpose. We are also equal parts proud of who she is becoming and where she is going. But there is a little touch of scared too.
This parenting gig is, as it always was, beautiful, strange and a little dangerous.
Check out our books, “I Just Want to Be Alone” and “You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth.”