This is Adolescence: 14

This is Adolescence: 14

By Catherine Newman

art-banjo

Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown.

Fourteen stands in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You remind yourself to pay attention. In four years he will be gone.

You put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your manchild fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You remind yourself to listen to the actual content, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried in gravel. Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. He wants to work in a paper factory or a fabric mill or inside the enormous cross-sected engine room of a ship. “I mean,” he says, “Believe me. I know those are all totally crushing jobs in real life. But still.”

Fourteen watches The Possession, The Shining, The Birds with buoyant delight, but looks on with frank, exaggerated horror when you pluck your chin hairs in the bathroom mirror. You can tell from his expression that every revolting thing in the world has been concentrated in the lower part of your face. When you catch his disgusted eye in the mirror, he reshapes his mouth into an apologetic smile. You stick up your middle finger and he laughs, leaves the room noisily beat-boxing.

Fourteen picks up a banjo to accompany his sister on guitar. He bends over her math homework, his long hair hanging into the long-division problem he is patiently explaining. He says to her, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Great. Now I have to wash all over again because you pet me.” When she snatches her hand back from the cat’s damp fur, you remind her that it wasn’t really the cat complaining, and Fourteen says, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Yes, it was.”

Fourteen is full of sudden domestic judgments. “Does the kitchen sponge have to be so gross?” (Yes.) “The recycling smells.” (Indeed.) “Didn’t our floors used to be nice and shiny?” (They did!) Coming in from his monthly lawn mowing, Fourteen manages to communicate more overheatedness than a supernova. He flops on the couch, conspicuously fanning himself, and asks, breathless and, it would appear, having a small stroke, if you wouldn’t mind getting him a glass of ice water. You bring him the water, then can’t help yourself. “Fourteen,” you say, “it’s, like, ten square feet of mowing. I think you’ll be okay.” “You’re welcome,” Fourteen says. You’d love to stay and argue, but you have to rush out and buy him pants, pants, and more pants. The getting of pants is your new full-time job. If you listen hard in the night, you can hear his legs growing.

Speaking of the night: Fourteen no longer looks like a baby while he sleeps. For years, even as his limbs stretched and dangled, his dreaming face regressed to the contours of infancy: downy cheeks, pearl of nose, the pink, pouched lips of a nursling. But now that it’s been kiln-fired, the face has taken this opportunity to chisel out its jutting new edges: brow and jaw, nose and chin. Like a Neanderthal crossed with a peach.

Fourteen sits on a stool with a wooden spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, eating buttered noodles right from the pot. Fourteen and three friends eat two pounds of bacon in four minutes. Fourteen is a bottomless pit, and you secretly love this, although you don’t know why. Probably because feeding him is your idiom for loving. As is grabbing his face in your two hands and kissing his reluctant cheeks, breathing in his fleeting scalp scent.

Fourteen is lazy in the best possible way. One day you and he lure the cat into bed with treats, then spend the glorious start of the weekend in leisurely conversation about Friskies Party Mix. “If they were human treats, which flavor would you pick?” He shows you the package and you pick Meow Luau. He picks Mixed Grill, then asks which you would pick if they were still cat treats but you had to eat them. You both pick Cheezy Craze.

The cat snores softly, draped over your four shins. An hour passes. “This,” Fourteen sighs happily, “is a classic Friday afternoon.”

Fourteen is also lazy in the worst possible way. You have been arguing for fourteen years about his teeth and whether they really need so much brushing. “Fine,” you say evenly, one night. “Don’t brush them. They’re your teeth.”

“Oh god!” Fourteen says, his indignant voice like a deep-dug hole. “Mama! That’s brutal! You still have to make me.”

Fourteen scrambles into his enormous boots to take a walk when you invite him. The oak leaves on the ground are thick as leather, and they fill you with joy and sadness. In four years he’ll be gone. These are the same oak leaves that Fourteen crunched through when he was a chubby, staggering toddler, proud in his brown lace-up shoes and knee-deep in autumn. “I feel like we’re just walking through the leaves, and the calendar pages are flying off, and we’re already walking through the leaves again,” you say, and Fourteen says, “I know, right? Even I’m starting to feel like that.” He bolts away to look at something, then smiles at you from a patch of sunlight. And it’s not so different from when he was two: all you can do is be there, open-armed and always, in case he turns. In case he runs back.

Author’s Note: I wanted to write a piece about teenagers and evolution: how nature adapted for acne as a kind of lifesaving flare-like reminder: “Note this pulsing red beacon of my hormonal state! I have a neurochemical situation here, people!” And how cave teenagers with clear skin were killed off by their irritated parents who’d forgotten that they were just going through a little adolescent something, and didn’t mean to be such a pill about taking out the mastodon bones or whatever. But I wrote this instead.

Catherine Newman is the author of Waiting for Birdy and the forthcoming Field Guide to Catastrophic Happiness, and of the blog Ben & Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist at Real Simple. She lives with her family in Amherst, Mass.

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This is Adolescence: 15

This is Adolescence: 15

By Jessica Lahey

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Fifteen is protective of his space and his autonomy, but Fifteen loves me. Of that I am certain.

 

Fifteen isn’t easily impressed. The details of my teaching and writing, his father’s doctoring, his little brother’s imaginary battles for world dominance—these things rate a nod, maybe a raised eyebrow, but no more. To offer more might be interpreted as enthusiasm, and Fifteen doesn’t do emotional histrionics.

Fifteen has long been inscrutable, but he hasn’t always been an enigma. When he was little, he offered up his feelings on everything, particularly his love for me. He hugged, and cooed, and settled into my arms without reservation or reluctance. His love was available on demand, and I got a little too used to that abundance of adoration. Fifteen doesn’t do adoration anymore, but he does do opinions. He specializes in them, actually, and as he’s come of age with a cell phone in his hand, Fifteen’s lifelong verbal reticence has been supplanted by the convenience and emotional remove of the text. Texting allows Fifteen to voice his feelings and opinions everywhere, all the time, a sarcastic Greek chorus of one.

When a recent marital debate took a nasty turn into discord, my pocket began to vibrate. I suspected some sort of alert, a flood warning or approaching electrical storm, but no, it was just Fifteen, texting colorful commentary on our respective arguments from the next room:

BEN: You just crashed pretty hard

BEN: You’re spiraling

BEN: This is going well

BEN: Nice recovery

When the fight is over and peace re-stored, Fifteen rolls his eyes at our displays of affection and tolerates our need for hugs, but we are to understand that he does not, and will not, initiate that sort of sappy nonsense.

Where there was once abundance in his affections, we are now on meager rations, served up dry, with a dash of wit and superiority. And like any great chef, he metes it out in tasting portions, just enough to delight, never enough to fully satisfy.

ME: Everything go ok? Need anything?

BEN: No, I’ve started doing heroin

ME: Need clean needles?

BEN: No I’m sharing

ME: I love you, I miss you

BEN: It’s been 3 hours

When discourse sneaks over the line from affectionate into mushy during three-way text conversations, Fifteen offers subtle cues that he’s maxed out, and would like to be excused, thank you very much. He spends much of his day in his teen lair, a bedroom marked by the chaos of unfolded laundry and scattered guitar picks.

Fifteen emerges for food and hydration in regular intervals, but he can also be lured out of there by the aroma of his favorite meals. I am shameless in my use of these meals; I use them to express my love and foster conversation. The dinner table is still home to our favorite discussions, our dinnertime discussion of “High/Low/Funny,” in which we account for the best, worst, and most entertaining moments in our day.

Fifteen is protective of his space and his autonomy, but Fifteen loves me. Of that I am certain. His displays may be rare, but they are all around me, all the time. I feel it when he’s playing guitar in the kitchen, and switches from his favorite song to one he knows I adore. I hear it when he talks about his English class, and the unexpected realization that he, too, likes poetry. I hear it when he asks me about my work, my day, my worries.

And then, when I’m most hungry for it, he lets me see it as well, offering up an abundant feast right before my eyes.

BEN: I love you too.

Author’s Note: In the months since I wrote this piece, Fifteen has turned sixteen, and our relationship continues to change and grow. I like to think of adolescence as a very long pendulum in which our children swing away from us for a while as they gain confidence in their own autonomy, but I think my adolescent has recently started his return trajectory. As time passes, I’m seeing more and more evidence of his love. I figure if I’m lucky, and patient, we’ll settle into a much closer orbit.

Jessica Lahey writes the bi-weekly “Parent-Teacher Conference” advice column for the New York Times. Her forthcoming book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, will be published by HarperCollins in August.

Photo: Catherine Newman

This is Adolescence: 16

This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

This is 16 art
Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.

 

Stunning in her complexity, 16 balances in the gray area—in my moment of hesitation after she asks if she can stay out later tonight. Before I can answer she says, “Great, thanks Mom,” and I wonder if she’s heard me or if this is sarcasm. I don’t know if she’s going out with the older boyfriend I don’t like and don’t trust. “Not with HIM,” I shout as she hops in a friend’s car parked in front of the house, because some of 16’s friends drive now. And some of 16’s friends have sex and drink and smoke pot.

Sixteen is my peanut, the nickname I gave her when she appeared on the ultrasound in that shape. She is still my small-framed, green-eyed wild child. She is experimentation, pushing every button I have, and hugging me in between.

Sixteen loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen is different than the early years, when milestones were more predictable—first steps, first days of school. Sixteen is unique, sometimes volatile, and I’m more alone and insecure in my parenting than ever before.

My sixteen is ripped jeans, eyes stenciled with black eyeliner and the Bob Dylan station on Pandora. She is love and peace; she is hate and war. She is the girl in the back of the class, not trying too hard. She is nothing I expected and everything I wanted.

She loves me. She loves me not.

She is the one who set her own path in kindergarten, dressing herself in her snowsuit and leaving the classroom to play outside, alone. She did not need cohorts to mastermind ideas, if others came along, they came along, if not, then not. She is still that way.

Unlike many of the 6-year-olds at that small non-conforming but still impossible-for-my-daughter Montessori school, she hated flower arranging and helping the teacher. My 6 loved to collect rocks on the playground, stash them in her pockets, and empty them when she got home. “See,” she would say displaying what was really gravel in her hands, and I’d ask her what she liked about those rocks. “They’re mine.” And I wonder now if those rocks made her feel grounded.

Sixteen is flunking Algebra Two, getting her driving permit in spite of my efforts to hold her back from the wheel of a car, you can always start next year, I say casually. Sixteen needs to prepare for SATs. “I’m not going to college,” she says when I sign her up for a test prep course. “I’m taking a gap year.” She is not, I say. Not a chance. She leaves the room and I am panicking, the prospect of 16 living at home for another year, it is not a warm vision, and I am glazed in guilt. Then she comes back. “What day is the test?” I don’t realize now that some day in the near future she will apply to far away schools, and I will wonder why so far, and wonder if it’s me. And I will miss her until my heart cracks sideways.

She loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen is my first child, the first grandchild, the only person my mother—her grandmother—remembers now after five years of dementia. When we walk into the nursing home my mother looks at me and says “Sophia?” “No Mom,” I say, “she’s coming.” When 16 arrives my mother kisses her and 16 hugs back, and I remember “the hug” when 16 was six. When I told her her father and I were getting divorced, “and never getting back together,” so she wouldn’t get her hopes up. She scootched her way out of the big upholstered chair where she had been reading her Lola book and came to me, her shoulders narrow under her ladybug sundress. She took my hand and we walked out to the swingset and sat side by side. “Watch me kick the clouds,” she said. “Mommy kick the clouds!”

The clouds are not kickable these days and they are often lined with black. No silver. No blue. Really, I can’t tell. The storm changes by the day. No hour. No minute. She is suspended for buying alcohol but she is also first violin in the county orchestra. She is a girl in a tattooed halo, my girl. Regardless.

She loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next. Yet she has no fear and no sense of consequence; she makes the same mistakes more than once, if the boyfriend asks her to ride on his motorcycle—to do almost anything—she’ll do it, then tell me, “it’s no big deal, Mom.” And I will have my words with her, and she will dismiss those words before they even have a chance to dissolve in the air.

Sixteen quit the volleyball team, and instead got a job as a counselor in an after school program she once attended, the program where she lost her first tooth during the square dance in the gym. When I pick her up at work she is the only adult in the room, with a dozen 1st graders, and I am astonished. Little girl, I want to say, where did you go?

And she loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen breaks up with her boyfriend, “to be the breaker is harder than to be the breakee sometimes, Peanut,” I say. She tells me too much about the relationship (I get all or nothing) and I note to call the gynecologist in the morning. We sit on her bed, legs Indian style, cans of cranberry lime seltzer on the bedside table. She is crying and her pale face against the orange walls that were once wall-papered with baby barn animals, looks older. Instead of the froggy sheets with matching comforter, the one we sit on is tie dye, and she has written I hate her, in ink across the top edge of the blanket, and I wonder if it’s me she is writing about.

She loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen stays home from school sick, we snuggle on the couch both stuffy-nosed and sleepy. “I caught it from you,” she says laughing. “No you,” I say. And I am reminded of the day she saw the first psychologist and told me after the session that she caught my depression, that I passed it to her, as if I passed the mashed potatoes. I blamed myself. I blame myself for all of it. Always. I look at her on the couch next to me, spent and sniffling. “Peanut let’s go get ice cream,” I say and we drive to Stop n’ Shop in our sweatpants and slippers and buy three flavors of Haagan Dazs. It is 10:00 in the morning. “You are so much fun Mom,” Sixteen says as we check out. And I think, I am fun.

And she loves me, and I stop here.

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, and the author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood.

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This is the sixth episode of This is Adolescence, an essay series conceived by Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate. The series will be published in full in Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens, coming in Spring 2015. To order our previous special issues for Parents of Teens click here.