This past couple of weeks has had me thinking a lot about parenting. I wrote a few weeks ago about our 17-year-old Norwegian daughter, and while I am not raising her, I am her parent for the year. The last 8 months with her have been a great trial run for what I want it to be like when my own daughter reaches her age.
My husband and I have always joked that since I have an early childhood degree, I would be in charge for the first few years, then he would have to take over the teen years because I felt woefully unequipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of 13 and up.
I will admit that I went into this year really not knowing what to expect. I feared lots of drama, random bouts of crying, and a whole lot of relationship nonsense. I had visions of it taking hours to get out the door, waiting on a teenage girl to get each lash perfectly coated with black mascara and each smudge of lipstick off her gleaming teeth.
I was pleasantly surprised with the low maintenance, easy-going, and responsible teen that moved into my house. She cleans up after herself, does her homework without nagging, and can be out the door in 15 minutes.
We also have great conversations. Not about the things I expected to talk about – the pros and cons of a socialized medical system, why Norwegians are the happiest people in the world, or random tidbits of Viking history – but about what it really means to be an American teenager.
It isn’t easy. Our girls are facing so many decisions that can be life altering. I am not so old that I have forgotten what it is like to be on the cusp of becoming a young woman – the constant tension between fitting in and being true to myself.
Twenty-two years later, I am finally able to reflect on what it was like to be seventeen with some compassion for my younger self. From the outside, no one would have known that I was struggling. I was a successful student, had lots of friends, and was never without a date.
I also had an alcoholic father (he has been successfully sober for almost 25 years now), fought constantly with my mom, and never – ever – felt like I really fit in. I made some bad choices that I was afraid to talk about, and I carried the shame until just a few years ago.
What I wish I had known then, and what I want my daughters to know now is this – No matter how many times someone tells you that high school will be the best time of your life, don’t believe them. There are many wonderful experiences in those four years, and lots of painful ones too. You will learn how to navigate relationships, build lifelong friendships, and figure out how to deal with loss – but it is all just practice for the rest of your life.
Your life will be deeper and richer than you can imagine. You will have immense joys and searing pain – and you will survive it all.
Eventually you figure out that no one is looking at your pimple or tummy pudge, mostly because they are too busy worrying about their own. The sooner you can get past judging how you look against how someone else looks, the sooner your world will open up to all kinds of unexpected relationships.
You will learn the real love isn’t about jealousy or attractiveness or popularity, but about partnership and respect.
Your friendships will change. You won’t stay in touch with everyone you think you will, and that is OK. You will also find that years later, people you would never have talked to in high school become your best companions. If you are really lucky, you will hang on to a couple of those friends who have known you at your best and your worst and they love you unconditionally.
You will find yourself someday in a position to be a mentor or mother to another young woman who is just beginning her journey. Don’t shy away from the stuff that is hard to talk about. Start early with helping her love her body for what it can do, not what it looks like. Help her see that healthy relationships are about trust and respect. Guide her through the tough decisions that she is making.
Find that place in yourself that just knows and learn to use it. It will never steer you wrong.