During a work meeting, just three weeks into the school year, I get a call from one of my teenager’s teachers. I excuse myself and step outside of the coffee shop for privacy. “Can you help me?” she asks and I take a deep breath and brace myself.

She rattles off the problems — mostly that he’s not completing work and won’t put his phone away — and I feel all of this is a reflection on me, especially since he’s already missed first and second hours multiple times in the first few weeks of his senior year. The perception is that teens who don’t get up for school or don’t do their homework live in homes with no accountability. People assume those kids exist in some sort of free-for-all with zero boundaries, not enough love and parents too preoccupied with other things to be present and, well, parent.

But that is not an accurate portrait. A lot of days my teen is all I think about. I’m not uninvested, I’m consumed. And one of the worst parts is that I can’t talk to anyone about it because of the judgment and shame.

As much as some people would like to deny it, the fact is when your child is 17 and won’t get up, there is nothing you can do. You can’t drag a gangly, 6-foot-tall human from under their covers without being violent. What you can do is turn on a light, knock hard on their door, say their name louder and louder until they hear you. You can talk and plead, take their phone, ground them. You can ignore it and rely on natural consequences. Some or none of the time, some or none of those things might work.

I used to think the baby years were so scary and vulnerable, but I had no context. I couldn’t see into the teen years. I couldn’t know how helpless those years would be; how untamed and unpredictable.

My teen didn’t have tantrums when he was a toddler; he started throwing them at 6, when he was too tall and difficult to wrangle; when the stares and side-eyes from onlookers felt especially accusatory. At that point, I didn’t have a parent group to draw on like I did when my kids were babies and toddlers. Those spaces virtually disappeared as my kids grew older. I often wonder why that happens, why there is such a perceived need for camaraderie and support for parents of young children but not for those of older kids and teens.

Parenting teens is this strange intersection of multiple layers of abandonment. My kids no longer want to hang out and talk like they used to. And alongside that totally normal developmental change, I also have lost the ability to discuss things with other parents.

A couple of years ago I confided in another parent about some trouble my son had gotten into with a friend. She responded by insisting that my child was sweet and kind. The response felt like a chastisement, as though in expressing my concerns, I was somehow too narrowly focused or worrying needlessly. It’s possible that I read into it, that she was merely trying to reassure me, make me feel better. That’s the funny thing about the lack of communication among parents: The silence and judgment — perceived or otherwise — are effective deterrents and they feed on one another.

There is a right answer to the teacher asking, “Can you help me?” The right answer is, “Yes, I’ll talk to him, yes I’ll handle it, I’ll make sure it never happens again.” I stall. I could say the right answer and just pretend, but I don’t. Instead, I tell her that it’s tricky. I tell her that I’m not sure what to do, but I’ll try.

I pack up my things and drive home. I had planned on cramming another hour of work in before school lets out, but instead I climb the stairs to my room, pull on my pajamas and crawl into bed. Sometimes all I can do is collapse into a heap of exhaustion. I wonder about my own failure and let my thoughts sprint from one bad thing to the next. I start at the present then move through a mental list of accidents and mistakes, of divorce and traumas, of arguments and misunderstandings, of the push and pull of parent and child.

I remember when his younger brother was born, I was shocked that no one had warned me about the impossibility of meeting two little humans’ needs at once. Why was this difficulty — surely a common thing — some kind of guarded secret? I spent a full year repeatedly feeling like I was screwing up. I intentionally talked about those feelings and the difficulty a lot. I didn’t want to scare parents, but I also didn’t want them to be caught off-guard or to feel alone if they struggled, too.

As I think about my own challenges parenting a teenager, and my accompanying silence, I feel complicit in a way for not being more open about all of it. My fear of being a parenting failure is an ominous shadow, and I can’t fathom enduring the criticism of another parent while I am so raw and tired. But I don’t want someone else to suffer for my silence.

Tomorrow I’ll be stronger, more prepared. I’ll get out of bed, I’ll try new approaches. I’ll be more tender when I wake him up. I’ll trip over the clothes and dishes on his floor and I’ll keep my frustration over the mess to myself as I make my way to the edge of his bed. I’ll sit and touch his arm and he’ll open his eyes, slowly smile and reach for a hug. I’ll think about how the difficult and the delicate moments interplay, how the battles wound and the gentleness soothes. Later, on a walk, I’ll tell my spouse about it. And I’ll think about ways to talk about these moments — the good and the ugly — with other parents who may be going through the same thing.

Kathi Valeii is a writer in southwest Michigan. Find her online at kathivaleii.com.

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