Those of you battling teenagers, stop briefly, and let gratitude course through your body. Crazy? I live in the world of adult children, and I may believe in the value of well-fought teen years.
My children and I, we did without. During their teens I was either working, traveling, and gone a lot, or focused on the various impacts of a marriage’s final years. When I wasn’t around, we couldn’t fight. When I came home, I was tired, and so happy to see them I wouldn’t. And as my marriage ended I refused, feeling most of all the need to keep experienced hostilities of any sort to a minimum.
So now we’re sorting it all through. Which doesn’t mean tantrums, staying out too late, muteness, or the consumption of too much food and illicit substances. Or, if those things happens, the kids are grown, and their choices belong to them. Some tantrums might even be mine.
I am simply catching up as a mother. With little children, you are almost all mother. Your other-than-mother self emerges, bit by bit, as the children grow up. Doing this well is hard. Never mind the difficulties teenagers go through. I mean the difficulties in understanding of what part of us remains still as a mother, and what part can shift, relocate, evolve.
I imagine that battling teens, done with the perspective that adults aren’t perfect and teenagers not yet adults, must help map out the right mother and adult child relationship. Must help burn out new mother territory, albeit with some blackened trunks left behind.
Lacking this time of teen battles, my kids and I are regrounding without fire, if you will. Imagine someone frozen with a mother-to-person ratio appropriate for kids 10 and 7. That’s when I first went back to work full time. The degree of intentional shifting required should become clear. And clarity about shifting also brings clarity about what stays put.
As the mother of young children, you protect them from the world, including any dangerous parts of your self. At least I did. Or, to be precise, I tried my best. Physical risk first and foremost. When they were little, we operated on a concept called “Natural Consequences.” Meaning, if your child is climbing somewhere risky, and you fear their fall, assess the consequences. If the natural worst outcome is something you can tolerate, i.e. a broken arm vs. a broken head, let them climb. But in terms of emotional risk, I kept my own boundaries as strong as ever I could. No rages, no indulging my own emotions at their expense, no encroachment on their coping capacity.
As they grow older, I think I’m starting to apply the construct of natural consequences to our relationship. Keep separate only what I know I must, share and reveal the rest. If the best protection is teaching children to care for themselves, emotionally as well as physically, engaging with authenticity, humility, courage, and humor is the best course.
There is one catch to this approach. Our adult children know a lot. More perhaps than they have told us, and they may decide to tell us now. It may not be comfortable. Protecting them, then, in the true sense, sometimes means being willing to remap our own concept of our selves. When they are kids climbing, you’re sitting safely on a red gingham tablecloth in the shade. When you find new ground with your adult children, you’re out there too. Painted daises long gone.
In retrospect, maybe I’m glad I didn’t have the teen years. I can imagine it would have been hard to stay rational and absorb the words of an angry and unlearned 15 year-old. It’s even hard to take in what I hear from the grownups my little ones became. But if I did my job right, all along, then I have to believe that what they tell me has merit.
When they are young you protect them from the world and from yourself. As they get older you let them experience the world and absorb and learn from harm and failure. Eventually, you have to let them experience you as a person, and learn from that harm and failure too. To a point. The key is locating that point very precisely. A virtual red pin. And understanding that you too have to be willing to learn from said shared harm and failure.
To mother well you have to accept that you’ll be changed forever. And yes, I hear the young women chanting, “Not me, not me, not me.” I don’t mean that you’ll never again travel to Borneo. I just mean you’ll still be a mother, there in Borneo, all juicy green leaves and apes. The choice of how said change manifests, however, is up to each of us. Given the enormous resources I’ve been granted, I allow myself few excuses for getting motherhood wrong.
Mothers of little ones get their authority from necessity. They know without a doubt how many goldfish crackers they allow, how many pieces of candy, how many bedtime stories. That’s what produces the loving but slightly exasperated voice of those good days. You know the voice I mean, that territory. Nobody’s faking it, nobody’s losing it, everybody’s cared for. That’s what I’m trying for. We do the best we can for the rest of our lives.