I think that I am like many people who become moms and dads. As we enter into parenting, we read voraciously on the subject, then put the books down for years, naively confident that we’ve become pros at this parenting business. Yet, we find ourselves racing out to bookstores when our kids hit 11 or 12, snatching up books with titles like Stop Negotiating With Your Teen, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager, and Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?. We find books with titles so onerous that we feel compelled to hide them from our kids because, unlike when they were toddlers, now they can read.
I am one of those people who have rushed to the bookstore during this “second wave” of parenting, that is, of parenting a teenager. Just as new parents seek advice on how to interpret their toddler’s behavior, I needed help deciphering my teen. At first glance, I thought I Wanna be Sedated: 30 Writers on Parenting Teenagers was yet another “how-to manual” that would tell me what to expect from this phase of my child’s life. Fortunately, was I mistaken. I Wanna be Sedated, edited by Faith Conlon and Gail Hudson, and boasting work from Anna Quindlen, Dave Barry, Joyce Maynard, and Daniel Glick, is a lively and diverse collection of personal essays on raising teens.
These essays are contemporary, compelling, often irreverent confessions of what it is like raising children in today’s society. They vary in mood and tone, as is fitting, because parenting a teen is filled with moments alternately sublime, riotous, and agonizing. The title of this anthology, I Wanna be Sedated (from a song by the ’70s punk rock band The Ramones), reflects a common experience of parents of teens — the feeling of burnout, the need to be anesthetized for a time from the challenges of rearing an adolescent. The book is divided into sections; the first (aptly titled “Too Late to Turn Back Now” — another ’70s song) explores what it feels like to have sons and daughters on the cusp of adolescence. The middle sections move into the nitty-gritty issues parents of teens face: sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and school. The final section, “Piece of My Heart,” explores our yearning to hold onto our children, and our mandate to let them go.
The book opens with W. Bruce Cameron’s hilarious “Teenager Owner’s Manual.” Cameron presents a simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and brutally true-to-life expose of a teenage girl, in the clever form of a manual, complete with instructions for feeding, cleaning and clothing her. Under the “Warranty” heading we are told, “If you are dissatisfied with your teenage daughter, well, what did you expect? In any event, your warranty does not give you your little girl back under any circumstances, except that deep down, she’s actually still there — you just have to look for her.” This brand of sarcastic humor is a necessary antidote to the strain of parenting the most deadpan species on the planet.
If I had younger children, I’m sure I would be shocked at the blunt style in which some of these pieces are written. It might be hard to find the humor behind accountings of homemade tattoos, lip piercings and grades dipping precariously in school. But as a parent of a teenager myself, I find that a sense of humor and ability to put things into perspective has become increasingly useful, and even necessary, when coping with adolescents.
This need for humor and levity is called into play in Daniel Glick’s seriocomic piece, “I Definitely Inhaled,” which recounts the dilemma a father faces when his son begins questioning him about his past drug use. He spins a beautiful yarn, taking us on his journey as the father of a budding teen, and we watch his philosophy on the drug issue evolve. Glick’s conversational, tongue-in-cheek tone and flowing dialogue help to traverse this rocky territory: “Like many in my demographic bulge now finding themselves raising teenage kids, I knew I would eventually face a day of reckoning when I would have to confront how much to reveal about my own past — and current — experiences and experimentation.”
The entertaining short piece, “Into the Wild,” details writer Peter Applebome’s shock when his son develops an interest in Boy Scouting. After years of imagining that his son’s adolescent years would be filled with dyed hair, bad poetry, and today’s equivalents of the Stones, Applebome is totally unprepared for his son’s desire to participate in an activity that he has always considered un-cool. Applebome skillfully uses irony and dry humor to describe his adventures in the great outdoors and camping, and we are not surprised when he ends up discovering things to enjoy and respect about scouting. His piece reinforces the belief that in doing things together with our children, even things that we do not initially like, we can learn much.
In “How to Get to College Without Really Trying,” Gail Hudson uses a clever device to get her point across: the step-by-step account of getting her daughter through the college application process is presented in a school-year calendar format. Her section headers are the months of the academic year, starting in September with a trip to the high school college advisor and following through to May of the next year, when her daughter’s final college choice is made. We feel the tension and exhaustion mounting as the months flow swiftly by, through late night essay revisions and arguments, and culminating in frantic last minute drives to the post office to mail off applications. Is this how it’s going to be?
Although many of these essays are witty and light-hearted, others are of a darker sort. We read candid, painful accounts by parents of children who run away, experiment with drugs, and test their limits at home. Stevan Allred’s “Only Rock ‘n Roll” discusses one father’s journey with his seventeen-year old son, “a sexually active, pot-smoking high-school dropout who likes to sleep until noon.” To society at large the author feels he may be viewed as a failed parent, but he sums up his experience by saying, “My son is still alive. He still talks to me. He has his GED. . . . He’s a decent human being.” Allred acknowledges the flaws in his son, and in his parenting skills, while also embracing his son’s positive qualities. Allred’s gritty, stream-of-conscience narrative works because he doesn’t mince words — he doesn’t romanticize his son’s problems, or soften the difficult situations he deals with as a parent.
One story in particular offers no comic relief at all. In “Runaway,” by Debra Gwartney, a mother attempts in vain to control her daughter’s drug and truancy problems. In achingly plain, confessional language, Gwartney describes how she comes to terms with the fact that she cannot change her daughter’s destiny. Through the use of analogy, the author deftly explores her situation: on the farm where her daughter has been sent to live with a foster family, a young calf loses its mother in childbirth. An attempt is made to induce another new mother to “adopt” the orphaned calf, but the plan isn’t working, much in the same way that Gwartney’s daughter is living, but not thriving, under the care of her foster parents.
Joyce Maynard’s piece, “The Girlfriend Sleeps Over,” tackles another difficult situation — teenage sexuality. After making an effort to be open about sexual issues with her children as they grow up, Maynard feels unprepared to tackle the issue of their sexuality while they are living under her roof. Written in memoir style, Maynard’s essay opens with her own feelings of shame and embarrassment at developing sexually during her adolescence. Some readers will remember Maynard’s memoir, At Home in the World, which detailed her own formative years, including her seduction at age 18 by famed author J.D. Salinger. Here Maynard compares and contrasts her own upbringing with the way she is raising her kids. Those who enjoyed Maynard’s memoir, which brought her as far as early parenthood, will appreciate catching up to this point in her life, when her children are on the cusp of leaving home.
“Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen” by Barbara Kingsolver differs from many of the other essays in several ways. It’s much longer and focuses more on the writer’s coming of age than that of her daughter, for whom this piece is written. It is also softer in tone, more lyrical than the majority of pieces in I Wanna be Sedated. In a series of reflections, Kingsolver recounts her own changing psyche as an adolescent. What she writes about her own daughter is very positive; I would have liked to learn more about her, and how Kingsolver parented her.
The essay that hit the closest to home with me (because I have a teen and a younger child) was “Gods and Monsters” by Marion Winik, who finds herself in the perplexing predicament of being adored by her younger child while being simultaneously reviled by the older one. She writes, “To my three-year-old, Jane, I am the world, I am God, and I am love incarnate,” while with her older son, “the idea, it seemed, was that I would wait on him hand and foot while staying entirely out of his way, requiring nothing of him, and completely avoiding all public and private displays of affection.” Winik’s frank, realistic depiction of life with her teenage children rings true. We understand through her tender passages that she loves them intensely, yet can still feel angry, frustrated and defeated at times. It is one thing to wax poetic about your teenagers, especially when they behave well, as in Barbara Kingsolver’s piece, but to me, Stevan Allred’s and Marion Winik’s pieces are that much stronger and more compelling because they reveal to us, in courageously honest terms, a part of parenting that is much more difficult — loving our growing children despite how they act at times.
It is hard to imagine just how much our children will change and evolve as they grow up. What this anthology offers is an opportunity to see how other parents have tackled some of the difficult situations that we will all face. The writers in I Wanna be Sedated don’t attempt to provide us with happy endings or heavy moral statements. Rather, they simply allow us to peer into their lives, which are the lives of parents of our generation.
Parenting a teen can feel isolating. We’re not in the park anymore, trading information and strategies with fellow parents, as we did when our kids were younger. Parents of teens need a community, just as parents of young children do. I Wanna Be Sedated reminds us that we are not alone as we stumble and fumble through these experiences — other parents are facing the same challenges that we are in raising, loving, and learning to let go of our teenage children.