By Christine Ritenis
The unemployed teen—I’ll call her Nicole—reclined on the couch in sleepwear snuggling with our two dogs, her eyes glued to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” “Dance Moms,” or another insipid reality show. It was 11:30 on a July morning and I was irritated. The frustration began when finals ended, Regents exams were over, school closed, and the lounging started. This was not the way summer was supposed to go. Not for my daughter, a high school junior-to-be, and not for me.
The years when a local zoo or playground outing entertained her were behind us. At sixteen, Nicole preferred to visit major amusement parks, the nearest some two hours away. As much as she would have loved daily thrill rides, they weren’t an everyday option.
We’d discussed several generous possibilities with our only child over the winter. She could participate in a teen tour. “No,” she said, “I’ve done that. Besides, I went on a school trip this spring.” To her credit, she added, “another would be too expensive.”
She could attend a university program and experience living on campus. “No,” she replied, “none of my friends would go with me. Too scary.” I didn’t say: unlike the 60 mile-an-hour 185-foot-drop you braved on the Down Time attraction?
She could participate in a community service project. “No,” she answered, “I’ve heard they’re boring.” Instantly, I was enraged.
Boring? Our parenting mistakes clearly included raising a daughter who didn’t appreciate her good fortune and hadn’t learned empathy for those with far fewer opportunities, a teen whose priorities were twisted up and upside down, like the roller coaster rides she adored.
“How about a job?” I coaxed. “Why?” the 16-year-old retorted. “You give me money.” My face flushed and I began to sweat, fury disguised as a hot flash. Remembering the late nights and double-shifts of my teenage years I resolved to cut off her cash supply. “Besides,” she continued, “we’re planning a family vacation and there’s the Taylor Swift concert in Philadelphia.” The summer, it seemed, revolved around the award-winning singer’s tour dates.
With no further productive ideas, we agreed to an unstructured break—just once—but demanded that Nicole pass the New York State driver’s permit test and take an SAT prep class during her time off. “I’ll be busy,” she assured us.
She wasn’t. Without a set time to get up and a daily schedule, Nicole loafed. Initially, I was sympathetic. After a difficult academic year, she was exhausted. “She needs to relax, recharge,” my husband maintained. But as the first week of vacation dragged into the second, I became unsettled. “Are you getting dressed today?” I inquired post-lunch when l’d spent the early hours chasing after dogs, shopping for a week’s worth of groceries, and folding multiple loads of laundry.
“No, no one can go out.”
The friends had made plans. Some worked as camp counselors or babysitters; others trained for sports teams, life guarded, did something useful. Nicole hadn’t foreseen the limited social options during a summer of freedom. Lacking alternatives, she started vacation homework—reading, essays, and problem solving—and took occasional stabs at tidying her overstuffed room, a task she had assigned herself, but left unfinished the prior summer. Positive steps, though short-lived.
“What are you doing today?” Nicole asked at 2 o’clock on a sunny Monday.
“The usual,” I answered abruptly, “the supermarket, errands, cleaning, cooking, writing.” My job, I noticed, was last on the list.
“Oh. Can you drive me and some friends to the mall?”
Because I work from home, it was generally assumed that I’d be available for transportation whenever Nicole or her pals made plans, an irksome expectation, especially when taxiing teens interfered with deadlines. A trip to the mall would get her out of the house for a few hours, I reasoned selfishly. Browsing in the stores would provide exercise. Feeble justification, but I agreed to drive as long as someone else picked them up.
“They can’t,” Nicole said, “they work.” Recognizing the blunder, she wheedled a ride home from another parent. “I know you do too mom. I’m sorry.”
In her absence, I focused on a long-neglected project while the dogs snored nearby.
“What are we doing tomorrow?” Nicole inquired of the chauffer/social director that evening.
“I’m doing what I always do. You’re on vacation, not me,” I snapped. Despite its flaws, Nicole had grown accustomed to her lie-about-life. I determined then that she wouldn’t have the luxury of languor the following summer.
“How is school break going so far?”
“Enjoy it. You’ll be working soon,” I pronounced more harshly than intended.
Later I’d realize that Nicole would have adult burdens before long. That day she lounged and I raced around. When I returned, she was still lounging. After dinner, she asked me to lounge with her, but naturally, I was busy.
Jealousy I’m ashamed of made its presence known. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Nicole retreated silently to the basement. Subsequently I noticed her playing with the dogs more often. She set and cleared the table without prompting and dug new tunnels through the flourishing clutter-mountains in her room. Soon clothes hung neatly on their hangers and bags of books to be donated lined the hall. Next she prepared for and passed the driver’s permit test. We deferred the SAT prep course until fall—it interfered with Taylor’s concert.
When that event was finally over and our northern-California vacation concluded, Nicole resumed her inactivity. “She’s tired,” my forgiving husband pointed out, “has jet lag.” Me too, I thought, but restrained the impulse to argue with an ally.
The trip was idyllic. Point Lobos, where land, sea, and sky converge in a rush of waves and wind is the most beautiful place ever, Nicole declared. Big Sur’s ocean-side cliffs and dramatic coastal landscape were surely conceived by a painter. The week of family time was filled with new experiences and unexpected discoveries, while home remained colorless.
I wanted to appreciate this extended period with Nicole. Soon she’d be driving and college was a mere two years away. Well into summer, I was reminded by a friend of the year after our college graduation. I had a full-time desk job and a shared fifth-floor walkup in the city. The month of May arrived with its usual sense of anticipation, but office work continued its dull march. June, July, and August came and went without interruption. When was the break I expected? A vague sadness I didn’t understand at first recurred each spring as the weather warmed. I felt it again, that flatness.
No responsibilities. Nearly three months off. I envied Nicole’s limited obligations. She didn’t yet have to support herself. Outside the academic year, she felt little stress and could relax. Yes, I coveted her free rein.
I couldn’t atone for weeks of snappishness, but we discussed a mother-daughter road trip to visit schools in upstate-New York. Diners and motels, no cooking, cleaning, or other demands. One-on-one conversation in the car. We might, if the circumstances were right, sneak in a last amusement park outing before school resumed.
The following summer, I assured her, we’d both be employed.
When not shuttling her teenager around the suburbs, Christine Ritenis writes, runs, and knits recycled plastic totes. She also serves as New York Arts Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine. In 2010, she was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and her essays have appeared in Still Crazy, The Fiddleback, The Writing Disorder, and Brain, Child. Christine earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
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