I 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 I 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 track to take. Her feet moved sheepishly. Scuffling. Slowly. Her boyfriend must have told her she couldn’t win this one. On his 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 people tell 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 swear!” Uh-huh.
“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 know what?
I loved that ride.