“What time do we need to go?” My daughter asks.
“Six,” I lie. We don’t have to leave until 6:30, but I’ve learned to give her plenty of leeway if I ever want us to get anywhere on time.
My daughter is a teenager. These days I spend countless hours waiting. I wait while she rearranges her hair for the tenth time, changes her outfit for the fifteenth, and answers text messages that never stop coming. Getting out of the house with her is so painful that I rarely attempt it. Unless I have to take her to the orthodontist. You know the universe is trying to tell you something when along with enduring a teen in the house, you also have to take out a loan to pay for their teeth. The same teeth they clench every time you ask them to do something that doesn’t involve an iPhone, an iPod, or an iPad.
I’d always wanted a girl. While still pregnant, I yearned for the pleasure of tea parties and the excitement of going out together to shop for pink accessories. When she became a toddler and we got our first Foreign Service assignment, I cried watching her stuff her toys into a suitcase as she insisted on helping me pack. When she started school in yet another country and ran home to tell me about the new friends she’d made, I prided myself on being a great parent and creating a beautiful bond with my daughter. I never thought it would end.
My daughter has been an overachiever ever since she did a ninety-degree turn in her crib the day after we brought her home from the hospital. She counted to 10 in three languages by 18 months, she knew her alphabet by 2, and she started reading at 4. Naturally she took the same approach to becoming a teen—she decided to start at 12.
It began innocently enough. An unexpected argument here and there, a case of rolled eyes, a series of slammed doors. I reacted as I did before by tightening the rules, handing out consequences, and taking all doors off the hinges. Only the last approach worked.
Clearly things were changing. Our perfect relationship was cracking and those weren’t just some easily mendable plaster rifts. I should have seen the difference right away, but being old and senile (my daughter’s words), it took me a while to recognize that those cracks would not go away with a simple layer of gesso.
I needed a change of direction, a complete overhaul in thinking—and not only in the approach of taming the obnoxious behavior of the alien that invaded my daughter’s body. I had to transform the way I felt when she told me she hated me, when she blamed me for ruining her life, and when she encouraged me to go die in a hole. Those are not easy things to hear. Especially when they are coming from a girl who just a few months ago told me that I was “the most beautiful mother in the world,” and who still calls me “mommy” when not possessed by the aforementioned alien.
After a few months of tears and desperation I turned to the only sources I knew could help me. Wine and parenting books.
Thankfully, good wine is in abundance where we live now in Madrid and parenting books are in abundance on Amazon. Armed with a glass of Rioja, I pored over stories of moms who have gone through the same—or worse—and were now writing parenting manuals. I practiced the “innovative approaches to communicating with your teen” on the glass of wine in front of me, and, most important, I learned that everything I was feeling was normal. I learned that I was normal. And I learned that she was normal.
You have no idea how good that felt. Then again, maybe you do.
My daughter didn’t really hate me. And she didn’t suddenly develop an acute psychiatric disorder that made her go berserk every time I took away an electronic device. She wasn’t possessed, crazy, or delirious. She was simply separating from us, and finding her independence while still torn, wanting to be our baby. It was a relief to read that. I got it: I’d be lashing out too if I had to go through this kind of dichotomy.
The books also helped me realize something bigger. It wasn’t the insults or the screaming or the hateful comments that hurt me most. It was the slowly creeping understanding that my baby no longer needed me as much as she’d needed me before. It was the fact that adolescence was the start of her staking it out on her own. And the start of me being left behind.
Unfortunately, while pondering all of this, I logged into Facebook. My feed, usually a healthy mix of depressing news, adorable cat videos, and toenail selfies from beach vacationing friends, was suddenly an unending stream of toddler photos. All accompanied by endearing words of love those toddlers have said to their mothers.
I finished the second glass of wine and poured a third. Migraine gods smiled somewhere but I didn’t really care. For a few moments, I considered commenting on every one of those photos with a snarky emoji and a suggestion to bottle some of that love for the future. Enjoy it while you can, I wanted to write, for there will soon come a time when your sweet child becomes a beast, and the connection you cherished lives only in old Facebook posts.
I let the venom dissipate, closed Facebook, and remembered my own experience with adolescence. I remembered how I screamed my way through arguments, slammed doors, and threatened to run away almost daily. Often, after a particularly nasty fight that involved my father’s hand and the back of my head, I would storm out of the apartment, determined never to return. When that determination ebbed away somewhere between the third and the fourth floor of our building, I would hide in a small space where the elevator shaft met the trash chute and sob about my awful life, decimated by my parents.
My mother’s answer to my teenage angst was to drag me to a psychologist’s office. Aside from Dr. Spock’s famous Baby and Child Care there were no books on parenting in those days in the USSR. The psychologist, a middle-aged woman in a white robe and an equally white surgeon’s hat that perched atop her Henna-dyed hair, spent five minutes listening to my mother’s complaints, and then dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
“She just has short temper,” she said without even talking to me. “Are you sure, doctor?” My mother inquired timidly, never the one to question or contradict doctors. “Absolutely,” the woman responded. “All you need to do is to tighten discipline. Young people have too much freedom today.”
My parents took her advice seriously. And in response, I rebelled on a grander and more devious scale. I decided that lying and scheming were far more superior than shouting was in getting me what I wanted. Lying also protected me from the burden of being criticized, judged, and belittled—the three Soviet child-rearing techniques my parents employed on a regular basis. When the teenage years were over, I didn’t stop. Keeping things from my mother was a lot better than being judged by her.
Today my mother and I are not close. The independence I attempted to establish as a teen severed the connection between us forever. As I poured the remainder of the wine bottle into my already empty glass, I decided that being left behind doesn’t have to be forever, as it happened between my mother and me. Being left behind can just be another leg of the motherhood journey—a temporary experience that’s devoid of pleasant scenery, yet full of contemplation. Kind of like the dry steppe you see from a window of a train as you leave Madrid. Not something for your digital picture frame, but something that definitely makes you think.
One day, adolescence will end. Until then, I will persevere. I will do the opposite of what my parents did, and I will sit back and enjoy the scenery.
Because soon the dreary scenery will change and the green rolling hills of Andalucía will come into view. The fights will subside, the insults will disappear, and my daughter will learn to get ready on time. Our bond, now lifeless and spiky as a steppe bush, will grow into a strong orange tree that will never stop bearing fruit.
And I’ll go back to being the most beautiful mother in the world.
Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and parenting news.
You might also be interested in: