Once when I was a mother of a newborn and a toddler a mother of teenagers said to me “you know I think they need you around more when they are teenagers than when they are babies”. As I wiped pooey bums, worried about delayed speech development, monitored TV consumption and agonised over the nutritional value of a diet consisting solely of peanut butter sandwiches I thought the woman was MAD. How could self-sufficient teens need you around? Wasn’t the natural order of things that they wouldn’t want you interfering in their lives? As teens no longer needed babysitting wouldn’t that mean you got a chance to get your life back? Focus more on work?
Well fast-forward some twelve years and here I am the mother of TWO teenagers. I seriously don’t know how that happened. Wasn’t it just yesterday I was a teenager myself? Oh that’s right there’s an invitation to my 30 year school reunion on the fridge, obviously adolescence was a while ago.
Turns out that mother back in 2001 was right. Teenagers do need you more than babies.
A baby has specific needs that have to be met, they need to be fed, cleaned, loved and cared for, but in reality they aren’t too fussy about who is changing their nappy they just want it done.
Teens need someone to be PRESENT when they are ready to talk. Often, that doesn’t neatly align with your schedule but somehow you have make an effort to be there to engage about the multitude of issues racing through their head on any given day.
Over at The Kids Are All Right forum there is presently a discussion going on about being a working mum with teens a number of the respondents are looking at working from home as an option as their children get older.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter explained in her infamous essay Why Woman Still Can’t Have It All it was the pull of family, in particular the challenges of raising teenage sons that saw her give up her foreign-policy job at the State Department to return to the more flexible working arrangements of academia.
On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.
It came as a surprise to Slaughter to realise that she wanted to give up her dream job.
But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals. My older son is doing very well these days, but even when he gives us a hard time, as all teenagers do, being home to shape his choices and help him make good decisions is deeply satisfying.
It has come as a shock to me just how much is required as the parent of a teen, and I’m not just talking about the endless driving between activities and outings. I too thought I would be able to focus more on work as my kids got older but it seems you have to be very present when you are dealing with modern-day teens who are facing a world far different to the one we grew up in.
Raising teenagers requires a mental dexterity that my aging brain is struggling to compute. You have to think carefully before you react to anything that is said or done ’cause it only takes one false move to sever the vital line of communication that is the only thing that stands between you and a nuclear winter.
Just this week alone in our household, there have been conversations about teenage suicide, depression, self-harm, cyber-bullying, the pressure of exams and the use of social media. You think if your kids aren’t experiencing these issues first-hand they won’t impact on your family but sadly, even in a regional town, my children know teenagers who are suffering. You have to be available to talk these problems through as they struggle to process what they are seeing around them.
My children are considering banning me from the internet because I read things and then insist on have conversations about them. This week I read this post on Mamamia where a mother struggled to deal with her young son being cyber-bullied on Facebook. Apparently there is a F*ck, Marry, Kill game where you post photos of school mates and people have to tag whether they would F*ck, Marry, Kill that person. The post also described some pretty disgusting images which are being circulated.
The conversation I forced them to have with me involved some reassurance,
“Mum, why are you saying this to me? Do you honestly think I would tag someone’s photo that I wanted to kill them?”
“I’m your mother, it’s part of the job description, I have to say these things, so I can tick it off that I’ve had the discussion”.
It also highlighted some concern with my younger daughter feeling like maybe she should share some of the images that pop up because it says bad things will happen if you don’t. We’ve sorted that out.
It also forced me to realise my children were aware of some pretty revolting videos that are being shared, even if they haven’t watched them, they certainly have heard of some of the images they contain.
To think I once worried about the sexualisation and gender stereotyping of playing with Barbie dolls! Come back Barbie all is forgiven!
A social worker friend once told me that she sees children from all types of homes and backgrounds the biggest uniting factor in the development of problems was a lack of communication. So I guess even if we are disagreeing, even if they are reluctant or embarrassed by some of the conversations, even if we are all tired and cranky, the fact we are still speaking to each other is a sign of hope.
If you can keep your kids talking to you there’s at least a fighting chance of getting through these years without complete annihilation. But jeez it seems hard. As you juggle work, managing a house, after-school activities and weekend sport finding the time to put aside your own exhaustion and sit and connect takes ingenuity and dedication.
How difficult do you find it to be a parent of a teenager? Or are you breezing through?