The push and pull of parenting a teenager

When I started this blog, one of the topics I intended to write about was parenting a teenager. But that’s turned out to be nearly impossible, since I want to respect her privacy. I did one blog post back in January about an ill-fated escapade of hers, and somehow she found out about it and was furious. Rightly so. I removed the post.

But I do want to say – if I can do so without embarrassing her – how I have been spending more and more time feeling sad about her leaving the nest.  She still has one more year of high school, so it’s not imminent. But the signs are all around.

When she attended her school’s graduation in June, we were all thinking that next year it would be her turn. As I organize a weeklong camp for her soccer team later this month, I’m aware that this is the last summer it will happen.

My neighbor Leslie Laurien painted this picture of my daughter and her son at Stinson Beach when they were little. You can see more of Leslie's work at Copyright by Leslie Laurien, 2001.

I look out the living room window at the horde of five-, six- and seven-year-olds playing catch and riding bikes on our street and I feel nostalgic. I think about  the things I assumed we’d do someday – like renting an RV and driving to national parks – and realize that the window has closed. At least for doing those things with her as a kid.

I feel like I’m in a mild state of advanced mourning. I’ll probably stay in this state for the next year. No matter how close we’ll be as adults, we’ll never be as intimate as we have been for the past 17 years – living under the same roof, eating the same meals, cuddling when she was little, driving her around now that she’s big but still unlicensed. I wish I could turn back the clock to ages four to eleven, probably my favorite time period as a parent

And yet this week, when she left town for six days, it was such a relief to have her go.

We’d entered into one of those ruts where we were both driving each other crazy. I felt like she was constantly sullen. She probably felt like I was constantly nagging.

 Mom: Want lunch? Come on down. We’ve got great leftovers.

Daughter (entering kitchen): What is there? 

Mom: I made turkey curry. There’s leftover prosciutto. Leftover sliced turkey. I got some little salads at the market. Fresh melon and blueberries. Lots of great stuff.

 Daughter (opens refrigerator, peers in, makes face, goes to cabinet and pours bowl of cereal, goes upstairs with it silently).

One thing that drives me crazy is preparing food and then having it rejected, or eaten grudgingly. Fortunately Sam is always appreciative – we would have divorced long ago if he weren’t.

So I’m delighted this week to be cooking exactly what Sam and I like, without worrying about the taste buds of the younger generation. (Catfish! Lamb! Arugula!) I’m delighted to have the house to myself during the day. I’m relieved not to be nagging anybody, and feeling their anger at being nagged, and then getting angry at their anger, and so on…

Weird. I’m crushed that she’s going to be leaving us next year. And I’m delighted that she’s gone right now.

The parenting books talk about how teenagers have a conflicted push-pull going on – wanting to break away and be independent, yet at the same time not wanting to leave the nest.

I think I’m experiencing the parental version of that teenage push and pull.


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7 Responses to “The push and pull of parenting a teenager”

  1. Christina Baglivi Tinglof Says:

    My twins will be sophmores next year and I tearfully think about them leaving in three years! I completely get what you’re saying. Who knew that life would fly by so quickly? If I did, I might have been a nicer mom. : )

  2. Anna Mindess Says:

    I’m totally with you, Ilana, but speaking from the other side of the chasm, I want to say there are bright points ahead. My daughter just finished her first year away at college and now is working as a counselor at her old camp in Yosemite for 10 weeks.

    The year before she left, I too, was in a state of perpetual state of pre-grieving, “Oh, this is the last: birthday, Halloween, Hanukkah…” At the same time, the thing that drove me/us crazy was when she went out at night, I insisted she tell us where she was.
    “Why do I have to???”
    “Because…I want to know…s’pose there’s an earthquake?”
    I never had a convincing reason, I just wanted to know and slept fitfully until I saw (under our closed bedroom door) that the hall light was out.

    Then she was away at college for months and of course I didn’t have a clue where she was at night, what time she got home and it was a huge relief not to even think about it.

    When she came home, she gushed about missing us and my cooking and we had long talks and walks and dinners and shopping excursions. Feeling closer, less sarcasm and more caring. (Except when she goes out at night and I want to know where she is. So I try to remind myself how I totally forget about it when she’s at college and bite my tongue.)

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      That’s so funny! I end up using the “earthquake” answer all the time too… “Tell me where you end up hanging out just in case there’s an earthquake…” it stands in for all the unknowns.

  3. Nicholas Says:

    Oh yeah. I spent part of the weekend with my cousins, one of whom has a 3 year old. He snuggled and napped and hugged and I picked him up and turned turned him upside down and made silly noises and faces at him to make him laugh and laugh.

    Both of my children will be in college for the first time this autumn. And I’m mourning their entire childhood and all those things we will never do again, as well as those things we never did. And, like you, I feel a relief that they’ll be on their own.

    On the other hand, I’m aware that lots of children now return to the nest after college. It wasn’t something I ever considered doing, but I’m watching it happen. I wonder what will happen….

    Great post, Ilana. Now I’m gonna go cry a little.

  4. Janice Dean Says:

    I must admit that it is very strange for me to hear the other side of this story (strange does not equal bad, just for the record). The depth of my desire to get out of my parents’ house was unplumbable. Before I even left for college in Virginia I told my parents that I was not coming back to Michigan to live, and I have not broken that vow.

    It has only been in the last couple years that I have even stopped to think about how my parents must have felt about how strongly I pushed them away. I was simply focused on how full my soul felt in being my own, distinct, self-governing individual. My parents are not effusive or clingy, so that is not what I was trying to escape.

    Since my parents and I have re-negotiated the terms of our relationship, I am so much happier interacting with them. I absolutely hated the inferior/superior interactions, but I *love* interacting with them as an equal adult. I am not the kind of person who calls and talks to my parents all the time (that’s my sister), but I feel so much closer to them than I ever did growing up. I appreciate them more, and I also feel more appreciated by them.

    I am sure that, if I am ever a parent, I will be able to identify with the perspective you describe. In addition to cherishing the time you still have with your daughter at home, I would gently suggest that you look forward to how wonderful and rich and more flexible your relationship will become. I want to acknowledge and validate how you’re currently feeling while also saying that there is likely to be something even better around the corner.

  5. Kaveh Says:

    I liked your honest portrayal of this complicated stage, Ilana.

    Speaking of portraits, that’s a sweet painting by your neighbor… Yes, it could be sad to see those days of attentive nurturing and warm togetherness go, and I understand your “advanced mourning”. I was doing some of that a couple of years ago, as our oldest was preparing to leave the nest. Unexpectedly, positive changes began to fill the cavity I expected to tug at me from her departure to college. It was not all smooth sailing, this big transition, but she began making good friends, liking her college, some of her classes. She is growing, of course, and this is what we hoped for, what she wants to do, right? This made all the difference.

    And, as others have mentioned, for us communication has improved, both ways, probably, after a year away (she’s home for part of the summer). So I agree with Anna and Janice about the richness to come, the benefit of relaxing a bit and letting them separate–I’m not as worried now about having to go through this again in a couple of years with our younger one.

    Don’t worry, your daughter will enjoy and praise your food again, and, conversely, you won’t care as much if she chooses cereal instead!

    We’re gonna keep an eye on them on the beach and we’re gonna let them run!

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