“What fourteen-year-old doesn’t want to have dinner with her mother?”
A woman named Lola bellows this in the teen area of the library where I work.
“Do you see what she’s doing to me?” she adds, turning to the kids in the room, all friends of her daughter, Shelly. “I’m sure you don’t treat your mother this way!”
The kids slouch in their chairs and grunt noncommittally. Shelly folds herself into a small ball in a corner and cries. This isn’t the first time her mother has had a flare-up like this in the library. As the head of the department it’s up to me to put an end to it, to calmly but firmly tell Lola she needs to either quiet down or leave. I’ve said these things to Lola on other such occasions, but today I’m having a hard time mustering the evenness expected of me as a librarian.
“If you keep humiliating her in public like this,” I hear myself say, “you’re going to lose her.”
Naturally, my blunt advice backfires.
“Oh, you don’t care,” Lola yells at me. And to Shelly, “Are you happy now that you’ve made me look like the bad guy?”
I leave work that evening feeling a mucky stew of emotions. Flustered. Furious at Lola. Miffed at myself for giving her more ammo to use against her daughter, instead of defusing the situation.
“That woman’s a horror,” I complain to my coworker, Gloria, as we clock out, and again to Dan at home. “She has no sense of boundaries. She can’t get past herself and her own selfish needs to see what she’s doing to that girl.”
During this second diatribe, I stomp around my apartment feeling righteous and indignant.
“What fourteen-year-old doesn’t want to have dinner with her mother?” I repeat mockingly. “Uh, pretty much all of them, most of the time.”
Though I continue to rant a while longer, beneath all the lava something inside me starts to soften a little. Lola is losing this battle because she thinks it’s Shelly she’s railing against when really it’s change and time.
Ethan was five when I first started working at our local library. Whenever his kindergarten class came over for storytime, he’d run to me, scramble into my lap and stay there for the full hour, one arm possessively looped around my neck. A few years later, when his third grade class came for their weekly visits to pick out books he’d march from the children’s section into the teen area with a group of friends and announce proudly, “My mom owns this room!”
But, alas, such adorable devotion eventually morphs into something that looks like its opposite. For a while, in middle school, Ethan and his friends sometimes came to do their homework in my teen area, but that quickly fell away. These days Ethan only visits me at work if he needs cash or has misplaced his keys.
“It’s probably a good thing I never became a parent,” Dan said to me recently. “I don’t think I could handle the rejection.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve worked with teens for so many years but I’m pretty good at not taking this lowering of my status personally. I’ve even figured out an effective method for turning it around.
When Ethan and I are both home on weekends, I make a point of appearing in his doorway, especially if he’s spent the better part of a day in his pajamas strumming guitar and watching YouTube videos on his laptop, to propose we get out and do something together.
Let’s catch a movie. Come with me on a walk. How about we go out to lunch?
But the truth is, even as I make these suggestions, I already know I’m likely to get one of two answers.
Nah, I’m good. Or, Maybe later.
Why do I ask then? Because in doing so, I am making a statement, the kind I find you have to come at sideways when communicating with a teenager. What I’m really saying is I’m available. Come find me when you’re ready.
It always works. I’ll drift back to my computer to revise a chapter or curl up in bed with a book and inevitably get interrupted by a one-syllable call.
Hearing it, I respond in a way that used to come much harder to me when Ethan was smaller and his desire for attention felt relentless and all consuming. I happily drop what I’m doing and go to him, at which point he truly opens up. He tells me about a book he’s reading. Discusses a class he’s either enjoying or not. Plays me a new riff he’s just taught himself. Asks me to read through one of the many college essays he’s working on.
You see, I have it all figured out, this living with a teenager and keeping our relationship positive and strong. Only, of course, I don’t always remember what I know. If, after lazing around all day, Ethan gets a text and is suddenly up and rushing to meet a friend to do one of the very things I suggested, I sometimes hear myself ask, embarrassingly and only half-jokingly, “What? Do you just not want to be seen with me in public?”
And there it is, my own inner Lola revealing itself.
This is why I couldn’t respond to her most recent outburst with the equanimity my profession is known for. What Lola does, at poor Shelly’s expense, is show the world the raw and needy part all of us carry around. As parents we work hard to keep it in check. To, well…, be the grown up. But none of us succeeds all of the time. How can we? In our earliest years as parents, our children were not only our constant companions, they showered us with a level of adulation few of us ever experienced before or are likely to experience again. It’s a lot to give up, but that’s exactly what we have to do. Unlike all our other close relationships, we are meant to be outgrown by our children. Of course this doesn’t mean our inner Lolas won’t occasionally rant, sometimes internally, sometimes aloud, Hey, I miss you! What about me?
I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from Doing It Differently to continue work on two book-length memoir projects and see Ethan through the college application process—the past and the future, that’s where we’ll be focusing our attention! See you in the New Year.