My life — both inside and out — is awash in adolescence. Seven years of being a teenager, then 28 years of raising them? I clearly signed THAT contract while under the spell of a milky-mouthed, heaven-scented newborn.
Imagine the bedroom of a stereotypical teenager and you’ll have a perfect picture of my inner world as of late, only if you were to risk entrance, instead of books and garbage and underwear and electronic devices, you’d trip over messy love, imperfect solutions, deep heartache, shallow arguments, glowing pride and dust bunnies of fear that — no matter how many times I sweep them out — reproduce in the corners of my consciousness whenever I’m not watching.
Thing is, about the time the prefrontal cortex of my firstborn resumes growth (re-capacitating her with the self preservation skills that came to a screeching halt around age 13), daughter #4 will take her place in line beside my other two gray matter-deficient offspring.
In other words, I’ll be treading these muddy waters for a very long time.
Raising teens, in my experience, has proven equally intense as raising littles, just a different kind of intense. While the physical load has lightened a bit, an emotional load quickly replaced the squirming toddlers, nursing newborns and pounds of pregnancy. And very much like raising littles, I can’t afford to think too much about it because while I’m sitting here trying to get everything just right, one’s likely to slip out the front door and take off down the road to God Knows Where.
I do have an advantage over some parents in that I tried just about everything you can imagine as a teenager, myself. Not exactly naive, I’m able to draw from personal, first-hand experience when the question, “what the HELL are they thinking!!??” hits me time and again.
Unfortunately, teenage rebellion as a part of my own story does not make watching them struggle any easier, and it certainly doesn’t ensure that they’ll be spared hard knocks of their own. In fact, secondhand heartache is as much a part of the adolescent rearing experience as diapering in the early years: it may vary a little from child to child, but it always stinks and there’s no opting out.
Lately, while digging for empathy and understanding, I’ve been reflecting more than usual on my own rather wild adolescence. What was I thinking? What would have helped? What factors contributed to my angst and discontentment? Who and what made a real difference for me and why?
What I’m realizing is that, of all the risks I took and decisions I made (that rightfully scared my fantastic, loving, involved and still-married parents half to death), I’d really only change one thing if I had it to do over.
Which means that of all the choices my daughters have made and will continue to make, and all the battles I can either engage in or attempt to diffuse, there’s really only one matter that truly concerns me, and one overarching battle I know for sure to be worthy of my engagement.
But first, here are a few others that, while concerning to many parents, I don’t actually see as problematic in and of themselves:
Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that any one of these factors can’t lead to a whole host of problems. They absolutely can, and for me, they often did. What I AM saying is that they aren’t necessarily problems in and of themselves. In fact, many are actually indicators that you’ve got a particularly smart kid on your hands, or a leader in the making or a creative type for whom self expression feels as essential as air and water.
So, what WOULD I change if I had my adolescence to live over? Daughter #2 did some guessing:
“Your anger toward your parents?”
“Going to a ‘crappy’ college?”
“Having a kid so young?”
“Making all that…macrame?”
Nope (but sorry again Mom, Dad). The one and only thing I would change is this:
My level of self love.
Think about it: throw self love into any one of the aforementioned rebellious behaviors and suddenly, you’ve got a built-in ruler for calculating risks, a safety on all the triggers life hands you and a way to explore the world without getting completely lost. Better yet, it’s a not a measure that requires experts or parental supervision or a fear of hell to give it legitimacy.
Had self love been my one and only anchor, I might have:
“Great!” You’re thinking. “But how in the world do you encourage an already-angsty adolescent to love themselves more?”
This, like most interpersonal dilemmas, is as gray a matter as the tissue missing in our teens. I honestly can’t tell you what my parents might have done differently, and it doesn’t matter, because I know they did their best, and that’s enough. Truth is, I rebelled against order and stability and organic gardening and therapist-grade understanding. I wanted WILD and UNCERTAIN and THRILLING and FORBIDDEN. I craved darkness and pain for contrast. I had to figure things out myself. I still do.
This is not the fault of anyone. It’s simply who I am.
But from this end of things — now that I’m the one holding the lantern lest my babies get lost — I see something kind of essential that’s hardly even mentioned in The Manual (that none of us ever received to begin with), and it has nothing to do with how well we’re parenting.
As a whole, we’re doing beautifully in this regard:
We love them to death, even when they’re intolerable and we’re totally spent.
We see their strengths and point them out often.
We support their interests, encourage their passions and celebrate even the smallest successes.
We mind their sleep, their food, their screen time, their friends and their mood swings.
We find ways to connect, relate, understand, empathize and forgive, over and over.
We love our children deeply and they know it. At this, parents, WE ARE DOING AN INCREDIBLE JOB.
But many of us are a little less skilled when it comes to the rest of the rarely-mentioned reality:
Instilling SELF love in our children requires leading by example:
These acts of self love are not encouraged in our culture. In fact, given that many of us were taught that loving ourselves is selfish, it’s no wonder that we spend so little time considering our own needs and deepest desires.
Ultimately, it’s not our job as parents to shape our teens into who they are meant to be. Our job is to love them, care for them and model healthy adult reactions to the world, both around and within us. Despite our society’s outward focus — on appearance and achievements and tangible measures of “success” — our children are receiving but a partial picture of love when we focus on the external, including THEM, at the expense of our own inner wellbeing.
In keeping with my rebellious tendencies, I’d like to suggest that our generation of guilt-stricken and perfection-pursuing parents amend the all-popular biblical teaching when it crosses our paths and minds:
Yes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is good advice.
But first, love yourself as you do your children.
Learning alongside you,
Thank you so much Beth for writing this. You are so right on with this topic, I was devouring it in every way. Self love is so important. I too, a teenager of wild and free, having a child too young, and rebellion of all sorts would not change a thing, but self love. It wasn’t until recently within the last 3 years that I really dug deep to find what I was missing and came up with just that….self love. Thru my self love journey my relationship with my now 17yr old is stronger,healthy, loving, open and honest. My relationship with her isn’t the only one that changed. Finding self love has seriously changed my whole life. I am so grateful for this journey, for I still have 3 more kiddos to go, but I feel a bit more up for this journey of teenage years. You inspire me and I am blessed to know you <3
Thank you Heidi! Starting young offered us a unique and valuable perspective, I think. I so appreciate your encouragement and companionship (however virtual!) along this journey. Your light shines strong. <3
You are truly a remarkable woman and mother. This piece struck such a cord in me. Learning to love myself has been a long time in coming. I can see if I learned that lesson sooner, I may have been able to help my teen daughter learn that lesson sooner. But the fact is, even in my imperfection, at 24 years old she has learned that lesson about 30 years sooner than I did. The wheel goes round and round, and life is just as it is – loving and messy.
Messy love. YES!! Thanks, Kelly. I treasure your kindness and encouragement.
This is excellent!
Thanks Cameron. I love that you read me and find value as a non-parent. It’s a compliment of the sweetest sort. <3
Isn’t it lovely when you read something that washes you in peace? This is it for me. Looking back on my own turbulent emergence through those years and looking ahead as we are rolling up on the first of five being “officially” there, it seems so clear. Self-forgiveness and a boost of encouragement in one fell swoop. Thank you so much. Also, I love the caption under your picture…it made me laugh, 16 was a pretty hateful year for me too!
“Isn’t it lovely when you read something that washes you in peace?” Hearing that my words have had that effect on someone washes ME in peace. Truly, it’s the ultimate. Thank you, Beth. <3
Love this-thank you for writing and sharing.
This, in particular, struck me “When we dare to live the lives we know we’re here for, we give our children permission to do the same.”
Glad you like that one, ’cause I pulled it directly from the book I’m writing. Thanks for telling me, Lora. <3
Mom. Those comments/guesses were sarcastic. I really was only making fun of you and telling you that I love you.
I love you too Taosy. Your sarcasm, your (mild) acts of rebellion, your subtle encouragement of my work…every bit of you is awesome. <3
you hit it home for me EVERY time. thank you for this, beauty. i’m getting married next week and, through all the excitement, am hyper aware of making sure i am loving myself in the wedding planning process and beyond… the idea that self-love is selfish is ridiculous but somehow embedded in us along the way. this is amazing. your compassion blows me away. i hope we have an opportunity to sit down for coffee one day and just talk. you’re amazing. XO
Oh Luisa!! Next week!!!!!! I’m sooooo excited for you and happy to hear that you’re loving yourself through the process. It’s truly amazing that in the midst of such an act of love, we so often fail to extend it toward ourselves! Good for you for daring to be different. Will be sending love and peace and deep breaths your way, just in case your resolve is tested! 😉 And YES, one day, we MUST catch up on these twenty years in person! <3
this was an amazing piece beth. well written. very reflective for me. i love you.
Thanks, sweet sister. And thanks for holding me through the more…colorful seasons. <3
Beth this is such a gorgeous and powerful post, thank you!! I remember someone telling me your kids mirror back to you all the aspects of yourself that need healing.
I am step mom to 2 teenage step daughters now aged 18 and 16 and I used to find myself wondering, how do these children who I did not physically birth manage to mirror so much of my own behaviors so accurately back to me, surely that’s not fair !! lol
I have been reminded time and time again of late how it all boils down to self worth, self respect and self love. It is a universal language that we all speak, whether we have birthed these children or not, they show us where we need to show up and shine bright.
Thank you for your incredible post, it has touched me deeply. So from my heart to yours, deep love sweet soul.
I love this! Well done. It makes me smile to know we are doing our best and now we lead by example. xoxo
Beautiful. Completely agree.
As a mature gay male with no children, one might assume I know little about such matters, not least because my own journey suppressed rebellion as a teenager in exchange for a desperate quest for parental approval in many areas (sexuality not being one of them, since in the 1970’s such things seemed beyond the pale to me). But I find your piece wonderful – full of wisdom, humility and love. I agree with the essence of everything you say and, in particular, the core proposition, that self love is what is most needed in this world. Lamentably, the ignorant perveyors of a dying cultural paradigm do indeed wrongly label such things as selfish – it is ignorant, however, because it is the opposite of the truth. That the universal life force many of us label “God” IS love of the purest kind is rarely questioned and deepest of all that love is its self love. Are we to assume then that we live under the patronage of a selfish God?! As a writer and recovering lawyer, I rest my case!
Loved this. I have a little still, not a teenager yet, but I think about it often, wondering what the equivalent of his toddler behavior will be when he’s a teenager. Thank you.
Wow, Beth. You are an angel straight from heaven. You have SUCH exquisite insight, and SUCH a gift for expression. I’m so grateful for your integrity and for the love you’ve worked so hard to lavish on yourself — it’s allowed you to be a blessing to the rest of us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
AHHHH!! Love this! Thank you so much for your insight and your kindness on this topic!
I’m a marriage and family therapist and I run into this conversation every week from parents of “angsty” teenagers. They want me to fix it. Right now. And then deliver the perfect teenager back to them.
It takes many sessions to sort through THAT before we even begin the real work!
Wonderful, wonderful. What a gem you are.
I’m a middle school teacher and SO appreciate this perspective on adolescents. Their exploration, challenging, raging, risk taking and questioning are developmentally appropriate strategies to learn how to be an adult in the world! And we NEED them to do this – their wrestling with tough issues teaches them how to create the world we need, above and beyond what those of us who are already adults can achieve. Thank you.
I appreciate this! Everyday I feel a struggle with my little men on how I think they should be and what should be important to them but sometimes in the moment or at the end of the day, I ask myself “am I modeling this in return?” I seem to come back to this as the solution to what I feel is a problem. What a wonderful reminder about how important it is love yourself as you do your children. As always look forward to your stories and perspective.
Beth, there had better be a big chapter on this in the book. Because it will be dog-eared and referenced many, many times in my copy. Self love is the only thing I would change about any part of my life. Right up to this moment. I’m going to sign up for that free online course too! Thanks for everything, sweet friend!
beth! a few things…I know you love brene brown like I do, and any whisperings of her work is welcome for sure. i am a recovering perfectionist more and more, i have found that it’s just a cover for not feeling enough.
self-love is something I am working on even as an adult…for me, obviously, and because we cannot give [or teach] our children what we ourselves don’t have.
so much wisdom here…and humor. love the photo caption.
My oldest son recently turned 13, and I’ve also got two very young boys (2 & almost 4)…
I can sympathize with the idea that toddlers/infants and teenagers are equally taxing even if in very different ways. I think there’s a six month window right around age 8 when children are perfect…they’re still lost in play, imagination, not so sure of themselves that they’re unwilling to take your every word as fact, but also capable of managing themselves largely…parenting is the most difficult pursuit, because anything else can result in failure and very little is worse off because of it.
By that I guess I mean that if you want to learn a new language, and you don’t, you’re fine, you’re just not “more”. Even if you want to skydive or climb mountains and you fail, and you die, well it’s just you – your choice, your failure, the end.
If you screw up with kids though, well it takes what, 15, 30 years to know? And by then it’s too late?
Though I might also wager that there is no such thing as a successful human raising, just varying outcomes of the process.
Ramble over, but really enjoying your writing today.