By Francie Arenson Dickman
“Focus on how you want to feel when you’re finished.” My daughter texted me these words of advice—a tip I assume she acquired from her time spent dancing on stage—minutes before I took the stage for a show I was recently in called, ironically, Listen to Your Mother. I’d had no problem writing the essay I was about to read, but reading it aloud to hundreds of people terrified me. As I stood in the wings, waiting to hear my name, I marveled at my daughter’s maturity. But just for a moment, because that’s all it took. Not for my name to be called but for my daughter’s next text to roll in. “I need a haircut.”
With that, the wisdom of my daughter was superseded by that of Lisa Damour, author of Untangled; Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. “Teenagers,” she tells us, “are totally competent, until they’re not.” How I love this line. It’s a reminder—if not a wake up call entirely—because I have a tendency to rush to judgement. My girls are fourteen years old, almost fifteen, they are about to graduate 8th grade. Yet my presumption is still that they are my children and I am the adult, therefore I advise and they listen, I know more and they know less. When clearly, this is not the case. They have whole subsets of knowledge and ability and insight that I lack. Not only did my daughter advise me before I went on stage, but my other daughter dressed me.
“You can’t wear that,” she said when I came into her room to check myself out in her mirror wearing an outfit I thought was proper performance attire.
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s a dress. You don’t wear dresses.”
I, in the role of the teenager, said, “But I’m sure all the other women will be wearing dresses.” (They weren’t.)
She, in the role of the adult, told me that I had to feel comfortable on stage, I had to feel like myself. After this, she outfitted me. She even layered my necklaces. Then, her sister came into my bathroom to do my makeup. “I don’t know how a 47-year-old woman could get this far without knowing how to do makeup,” she told me. (I can and do, for the record, apply theirs.)
Also for the record, I should add that they had an easier time dressing me than they did themselves. Their process of finding graduation dresses smacked of insanity. If your UPS packages arrived late for several weeks last month, I apologize. We were monopolizing the delivery trucks. It was embarrassing actually but, as I kept reminding myself, they are teenagers, and teenagers are totally competent, until they’re not.
There is no surer sign of competence than the ability to recognize another’s incompetence, which my kids surely can because I got a self-help book for Mother’s Day. You heard me right. My fourteen-year-old gave me a book called something like How to be Badass because, as she explained after I looked at her cross-eyed—in a who’s guiding who sort of way—she didn’t like my attitude towards getting my book published. She told me I needed more badass.
On the very first page of Untangled, Damour explains that when it comes to raising teenage girls, our default setting is fear and our expectation is trouble. “If you are reading this book,” Damour writes, “someone has already remarked about your daughter, ‘Oh just wait till she’s a teenager!'” This is true. I got this line the minute I started to cart them around in the stroller. “Cute now, but just wait til they’re teenagers.” My mother told me several years ago to take a deep breath and hold it for the next ten years.
I’m not saying the expectation is unfounded, as evidenced by the ill-timed haircut request or the 4,000 dresses ordered for graduation. But I admit that the stereotype and my natural tendency to anticipate the worst has unfairly undertoned my parental assumptions. Much the same way my skeptical mindset about getting my book published has been colored by word on the street that the publishing industry, much like the parenting one, is brutal.
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I was great when my girls were younger, when they were four and spent mornings around the kitchen table and my job was to read and teach and theirs was entirely to listen. I’m good at the molding and the shaping. It’s the next part, the letting go, the sending of my projects off into the universe and trusting that they’ll fly that trips me up. And so I keep hanging on by talking and teaching and lecturing and advising even though I know and Damour confirms that I am “wasting my breath.” When a teenager nods her head with glazed over eyes, she’s not listening. She’s simply wearing her “veil of obedience.” I imagine that my daughters’ veils are well worn. And they’re only fourteen. Apparently mothers, too, are totally competent until we are not.
Being a badass, according to my Mother’s Day present, doesn’t mean being tough, it means being brave, acting despite your fear, and trusting in the universe to give you what you need. Indeed, at least on occasion, it does. I was—what do you know—preparing to give my girls a bunch of advice upon graduation. Instructions for how to proceed in the next phase of life. Instead, they gave it to me.
So I will sit in the audience as this time my daughters take the stage, in the dresses they picked, in the make up I’ve done, in the hair that’s been cut, and I will graduate, too. I have four more years with my girls, my girlfriends, under my roof. Why don’t I just take a page from their book, and focus on how I want to feel when I’m finished.
Francie Arenson is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at: franciearensondickman.com.
This piece was originally published in Brain Child in June 2016.