By Rachel Pieh Jones
Who puts empty ice cube trays back in the freezer? Empty bags of frozen fruit back in the freezer? Teenagers.
My summer day starts at 5:20 a.m. when I push open our squeaky metal gate and go for a run just as the sun begins to emerge. A rose-colored ball slithers through pockets of the gray clouds that still hover over the Gulf of Tadjourah, tinting them pink. Normally I listen to Longform podcasts—interviews with journalists—while I run but this morning I couldn’t find my iPod. I set it out last night, in the armband and with the earphones, all set to go. This morning it was gone. I could probably find it near the pillow of one of my teenagers. I also planned to eat a banana before leaving the house but those were gone, too. I could probably find a banana peel curled around the iPod.
Djibouti is hot, this morning the temperature already registers as 42 degrees Celsius, that’s 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is so humid my moisture-wicking shirt shows a line of sweat before I even walk outside the house and by the time I get home, sweat flying from every pore of my body (did you know eyelids sweat?), the only comprehensible thought in my mind is of the banana-orange-mango juice popsicles in the freezer.
Except…they’re gone. The popsicle box (still in the freezer) is empty. The countertop is littered with yellow and red plastic popsicle sticks with enough residual juice left on them to attract dozens of huge black ants. I would make a smoothie with frozen strawberries and ice cubes but the ice cube trays are empty, the bag of strawberries, though still in the freezer, is also empty. Who puts empty ice cube trays back in the freezer? Empty bags of frozen fruit back in the freezer? Teenagers.
Fine. I’ll have coffee. They haven’t inhaled that yet.
It is now seven a.m. and I have until noon to get my work and errands done before they wake up.
My first clue that the teens are awake is that my Internet suddenly slows down. They’ve moved from horizontal on their beds to horizontal on the couch, still in pajamas, and are watching YouTube videos. The second clue comes when I’m in the kitchen preparing lunch and I hear the ping of a metal spoon against a glass bowl. My son is eating corn flakes for breakfast. He uses the biggest spoon we own, more like a shovel. Lunch will be ready in thirty minutes but no problem, he will be hungry again by then.
Lunch is the main meal of the day in Djibouti and the whole family sits around the table together, sharing stories from the morning. The teens have nothing to share since they slept most of the morning away but their mouths are too full of lasagna to talk anyway. After lunch we plan the afternoon which, unfortunately for the teens, doesn’t include naptime. A trip to the grocery store, sports practice, visiting friends, work meetings, and for them, the never-ending hunt for more food.
So far, they haven’t spoken very many audible or intelligible words all day, but that starts to change around dusk. With the setting sun, at the end of my day but in the middle of theirs, conversation begins to flow. I try to be careful to not say something so eye-rollingly mom-ish that they shut down but inevitably I do. After a few minutes of stern silence, they launch into a new topic, sufficiently convinced that I’ve learned my lesson. I have, at least for a while, and bite my tongue. Sometimes literally, so that I wind up with canker sores, but it is worth it. As we talk a question pricks at the back of my mind but I don’t voice it: Does sarcasm come along with their hormones, the way a sense of invincibility does?
By the time night comes and the dinner dishes are put away and my youngest, not yet a teenager, has gone to bed, the teens are back, horizontal, on the couch. Or they are absent, at a friend’s house, and will catch a ride home. When I am ready for bed, they are finally fully woken up. We talk some more and they start flipping through television channels. When I can keep my eyes open no longer, I slip away to bed and they turn on a movie.
All day I have been almost irrelevant, invisible. I made the food, drove the car, managed the schedule. But they could have gone on just fine without me. I hover and when an opening appears, a conversation topic, I pounce. Sometimes this feeling of being unnecessary feels heavy, but it is also a lie. Babies and toddlers needed me to keep them alive, my care for them had a sense of urgency and vital importance. That same keeping-them-alive interaction is absent from my relationship with my teens but that in no way means I am unnecessary.
They can, driving issues and adrenaline-induced risks aside, keep themselves alive now. But they are in the middle of learning how to navigate life, relationships, work, studies. They are exploring values and morals and interests. And since I want much more for my kids than simply to remain alive, the kinds of things I can offer them now, or steer them into, or help them understand, are of vital, urgent importance. So I’m not irrelevant, even if they think so or pretend to ignore me.
A day in the life of a mother of teenagers stuns me with its wide-ranging diversity. Physically demanding (cooking, finding, and cleaning food), conversationally rigorous (how to not sound mom-ish except when sounding mom-ish is the right thing, when to butt in, and when to shut up), emotionally draining (are they making good choices? Have I failed them in some way?), and identity-challenging (that whole am-I-still-relevant thing).
This is the last thought in my mind as I drift off to sleep, that I’m not irrelevant, that they do still need me. It is comforting even as I recognize that I will have to fight to believe it again in the morning while sifting through the empty cereal boxes on the shelf to find one with food still inside.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.