stormed out of the house in the freezing cold with my husband's wool
coat thrown over my pajamas looking like a Disney character with
long floppy coat arms at my sides and fluffy slippers that I was
sorry I'd worn. They didn't see me standing squarely in front of
the car. I positioned myself like that guy who stopped the tanks in
Tiananmen Square and I slapped both of my hands on the hood, still
warm because he'd only just brought her home from the date. Late.
Past curfew. Way past curfew. Before I turn back to the house, I
see the shock on their faces. Actually, hers was a look of horror
-- not that she'd been busted but that I was standing there like a
mad-woman in front of her precious boyfriend and god forbid I do
anything to embarrass her. This was, even
knew, over the top. I fumed back up the walk to the kitchen, where
I waited for the showdown.
What she didn't know was that my stomach was as knotted as hers.
When she came in moments later, her chin red from making out with
her boyfriend, I felt a wave of nausea at what I knew was to come.
But, thankfully, I could tell from her footsteps toward me that she
had chosen the right tack to take. Her feet moved sheepishly.
Scuffling. Slowly. Her boyfriend must have told her she couldn't
win this one. On
advice she was doing the right thing. I knew it wasn't the lectures
we'd given her on the rules of the house or making smart choices.
That was one of dozens of similar nights with similar fights over
similar infractions. Because that's a teenager's job: to infuriate
an adult is duty number one. And a parent's job is to let them do
it. A parent's job, I learned, is to be the brick wall the teenager
can push up against. A parent's job is to be unpopular sometimes.
And it's hard to be unpopular.
Raising a teenager is one of the toughest things you can do and if
someone tells you different they're either lying or they're sitting
ducks for what is to inevitably come their way later on. But it's
like chicken pox: better to get all this over with when they're
young. Hunker down and let them rage. But not for too long. Let
them fight. But not too hard or physically -- ever. Let them test
you. Over and over again until you think they might be brain dead
because what else could explain why they can't seem to remember the
simple basic tenants you've outlined for them.
My situation was not the classic one. I am a step-mother and so I
parented my eldest step-daughter with one arm tied behind my back.
My husband -- like many fathers sweet on their little girls -- was
reticent to step in and confront his daughter. He didn't want to
drive her away, he said.
Be that way,
I said. And at
the time I thought I'd drawn the short stick. I thought he was the
lucky one, dodging these knock-down-drag-outs. The trick was (and
is) to stay on top of it all. Back in the day combating teenage
drinking meant locking the liquor cabinet but now we also have to
lock up our prescription medicine (and ask other parents to do the
same). Yes, it's a different world now and it's a great one. But
along with greatness comes responsibility.
Our girl was a straight-A student (to be fair, her grades never
dropped but that's not really the point here), a girl whose face
would fall if she thought she'd done anything to disappoint us. We
never had to come down on her -- she was always tougher on herself
than we could have been on her.
Fast forward and there I was one night, sniffing like a bloodhound
for traces of alcohol or beer or, god forbid, cigarettes. I'd have
rather had her smoke pot than cigarettes. I still feel that way.
Here's a sample of my nights back then:
"I didn't have anything to drink, I swear!" Really? "One sip, I
"I couldn't get anyone to bring me home until just now that's why
I'm late!" Really. Huh. "I couldn't call you because my cell ran out
of battery." Yeah, right. Since when does a teenager let their
cell battery die out -- it's their lifeline for God's sake!
"I swear to God, Amie borrowed my purse tonight -- those are her
cigarettes not mine, swear to God!" Really?! "My hair and clothes
smell like smoke because I was standing next to her all night."
It's hard to remember that it's only natural. It's normal for them
to act this way. Yes, it's sometimes impossible to believe this
lying, moody, hormonal, angry child was your baby not long ago.
But you have to sniff and look at pupils, take away car keys,
confiscate cell phones and SIM cards. It's a battle. I fought it
and you know what I realized along the way?
I was the lucky one. I hadn't drawn the short stick after all. My
step-daughter learned more than how to follow rules. She learned
that no matter how much she drank or yelled or smoked or broke
curfew, I was not budging. I wasn't going anywhere. Ever.
One night, years after she graduated from college, we stayed up late
talking. Then, just like that, like it wasn't a bombshell, she said
the words I thought I'd have to wait decades to hear:
"I just want to thank you for hanging in there with me during the
whole high school thing. I made it really hard for you but you hung
in there. And I really appreciate it."
Yes, she tried to break me. She tested my patience at every turn.
And I almost buckled. There were a million times I said to myself
it'd be easier to crawl into bed alongside my sleeping husband, put
my pillow over my head and pretend a little girl wasn't crying out
for help. As a step-parent I knew I had a built-in parachute
clause. But there is no "step" when it comes to teenagedom. You're
either on the roller coaster or you're off. There's no in between.
I wish I could tell you it'll be a smooth ride but it won't be. Not
if you do it right. I strapped myself in for the ride. And you
author of Sleepwalking in Daylight ((MIRA
March 2009; Hardcover; $21.95 U.S.),
is a former journalist who reported for Time and People
magazines and worked as an on-air correspondent for CBS before
becoming a full-time writer. The New York Times bestselling
But Inside I'm Screaming, Everything Must Go
and Me & Emma
-- a Book Sense Notable title and Highlight
Pick of the Year -- Elizabeth hails from Connecticut and currently
lives in New York City. For more information, please visit http://www.elizabethflock.com/.