The dreaded teen years and other parenting cliches.
He was born in an ice storm, fourteen years ago today. Through our first-floor bedroom window I could see the wind battering the cherry laurel. Bend, don’t break, I thought, as another contraction hit. I glanced at the clock: five-oh-oh. I can keep this up for about another two hours, I thought, and then, obligingly, he was born, just a little past seven in the evening.
That was the last time parenting went according to my plan. I laughed out loud when I saw that he was a boy. I had just known I was carrying a girl all those months. Everything I thought I already knew about my child was shed in that moment, and I have since come to believe that the main work of raising children is letting go of what you knew it would be like, over and over again.
People told me what being pregnant would be like. What birth would be like. What life with a baby would be like. Now people tell me what having a teenager is like. Sometimes they are talking about their own experience. More often, I think they are just repeating the stories they were told. It’s so easy to recite from a script, not realizing we are handing out a part with each cliche.
Patrick cracks a joke about the older boys’ rising artistic talent, from which we both take no small degree of pride. “Well, someone around here better go into banking and make money,” he teases.
“Let’s not tell that joke anymore,” I say one day, realizing I have been guilty of telling it, too. I know adults who have been creatively paralyzed their whole lives by fear of the starving artist tale they were handed as kids. Even we, working in the arts with as much comfort and uncertainty as most middle class people we know, are still passing it along. And it means nothing. There are no career choices insulated from risk.
I feel the same way when it comes to cliches about teenagers. No one knows better than me how tumultuous adolescence can be. But I don’t want to hand my particular experience to my own kids as a general expectation. When I mention that we have entered the teen years, and people respond with a groan of mock sympathy, I think, “Let’s not tell that joke anymore. Let’s just see.”
When I was pregnant with him, I noticed there were two stories about having babies: one about how great the cost is, another about how rich the experience is. I decided to surround myself with people who were telling the second story, even when they were sharing candidly about the challenges. I believe it made all the difference in how I experienced those intense early years. It wasn’t so much hard, as it was all new.
So far, being the mother of a teenager isn’t so much hard, as it is new. Every day he surprises, delights, and confounds me with evidence that I still don’t know everything I thought I did.
It might get harder. It might not. Either way, I choose to keep telling the second story. And to just see.