The Existential Crisis of Parenting a Teenager
Sometimes there is comfort in reading about other people's crises
From my Instagram
“As parent and child, you will never fully understand each other,” the psychiatrist said1.
A friend, someone I have known through feminist blogging for most of my parenting life - her pseudonym is Lauredhel - is the mother of an 18 year old son and one evening2, when we are talking online and I am fretting.. slips me some of the wisest advice I have heard about this stage of parenting:
That transition.. to young adult at home.. that happened SO FAST. I think possibly if I had anything to pass on to parents of early to mid teens, it is to prepare yourself for that, it’s going to happen faster than you think, and you can’t stay in the ‘ban this, ban that” mindset. You’ve gotta help them transition to making their own decisions, faster than you’ll likely be comfortable with.
And you’ve gotta somehow try to position yourself as advisor not boss. Or you’re gonna be the enemy. It’s HARD.
There is no difference between a 14 year old and a 15 year old, except everything.
And there is no difference between a 15 year old and a 16 year old, except one goes away for the week with her new friends, and the other spends most of the past year locked in her bedroom. That’s a difficult shift. I mean, for me.
Let go, let go, let go.
Pro tip from Lauredhel: If you can steer your kid into anything that involves youth worker contact, do it. No matter how “good” your kid is and how much you think they don’t have problems.
More on Letting Go
Don’t ever get into an unintelligent power play with one’s teenager, my therapist advises. Be playful, surprise them. Surprise yourself.
He also tells me my daughter is perhaps not very good at being a child. She was always an old soul, hitting all those baby milestones early. Her very first doctor - a woman weighing her and giving her vaccinations and telling me to take St John’s Wort - said the same thing. An old soul. Things will be better for both of you when she finishes with childhood, they reassure.
Still More on Letting Go
Fill your life now3. Fall in love, get a hobby, throw yourself into a career, garden, craft, play music, volunteer, prioritise your time with women friends, be a feminist. The selfishness will be a selflessness. Your successful transition into mother of an adult depends on it. I never fully realised the importance of my own pursuits until now4. I was always good at doing things I loved.
The pleasure.. and how important the pleasure would be to being a good parent and letting go.
Here is Helen Garner, Describing Moving Out of the Home She Shared with Her Teenage Daughter
M calls, laughing and high-voiced with excitement, to report her exam results. “I knew the mail’d be there early. So I made myself some breakfast and strolled to the post office as if there was no hurry. I got two letters and I even made myself read the other one first’. I shower her with praise. ‘Don’t feel you have to move out as soon as you get back,’ she says. ‘It’d be good to spend some time with you in the house before we part. People have been staying over a lot. Some in your bed. But don’t worry, I always make it nice again’.
I looked up her daughter’s age at the time. She was eighteen. Mine is sixteen. Helen Garner5 had bought a house and had just moved out of her home with her daughter, at the time of writing this entry in her journal. Alice, Helen’s daughter, formed a share house with other young people in that home they’d previously lived in together as a family, while celebrating the end of her Higher School Certificate.
It must have been a successful separation, because sometime later Alice ends up living next door to her when she is raising her own children, Helen’s grandchildren. And some of the sweetest parts of Garner’s published diaries are her descriptions of being a grandmother.
Bless single mothers for always showing me the possibilities6.
Types of Existential Crises You Can Have with Your Teenager
Crisis of freedom and responsibility - you would like to still live a bit like a carefree teenager, maybe just a weekend here or there with your husband or significant other. But you can’t, because the carefree teenager is being so carefree that you are forced to care about everything!
Crisis of death and mortality - what if I am dying? Would you regret all this misplaced cruelty and rejection then? I am not saying I am dying, no, of course I am not being melodramatic, but I could be. I mean I am feeling, god knows what? Perimenopause? Pandemic? Environmental apocalypse? I don’t know, but it could be terminal or it could just be a sense of the finite. And I wonder, do we have time for the hostility? Maybe we just have to skip to the holding and loving. And oh, the letting go.
Crisis of isolation and connectedness - you would like to be able to talk to friends. Or maybe you would like to be able to talk on social media about your parenting dilemmas, like the parents with the babies who don’t sleep and the toddlers who won’t toilet train, about this time and what to expect and how to get through it and is this normal. But how do you do that respectfully and safely when it comes to the experience of parenting teenagers? The parenting woes among my circle feel suddenly very serious, and consequently terribly isolating, because they are things like teen pregnancy scares, crime, police arrest, thrown out of school and into mental health wards, eating disorders, court appearances, black-out drinking, suicidal thoughts, rape, casual sex work, gaming addiction, self-harm, can’t-get-out-of-bed-depression, jumping off heights into pools/jumping into ill-conceived relationships, shave your head, call a paramedic, medication or no medication, diagnosis or no diagnosis, don’t come home, step on a crack and break your mother’s back. My husband, who works in in the hospital for a harm minimisation youth work service, says it is all so normal. It’s ok, and really, it is ok. He yawns, it is that normal. But it is hard, parenting from these trenches, it is hard. And I can’t begin to imagine how horrified the new parent might be reading this or the parent who thinks they are doing it all right with their pre-pubescent child. Surely not, you think. Surely.
Crisis of meaning and meaninglessness - The only mother who did it worse than you was your own.
Crisis of emotion, experiences and embodiment - Was that my heart? That you just casually broke? What becomes of all these emotions I catch before they take hold, so I don’t over-react to your reactions? When one compartmentalise like this all the time, one wonders will there be anything real left in you by the end of all this self-control. I am a better person, so much more Buddhist, yes, but who am I at the end of all this letting go? Maybe I am just an emptiness loving you.
How to Manage an Existential Crisis
Is There Anything More Fun Than Your Teenage Child?
My sixteen year old daughter texts me about a vivid dream she has had about a relative. In the dream this woman has “totally run off the rails”. As evidence of this chaos, the dream version of this woman has begun partying all the time, giving away heaps of money, sleeping with strangers and gifting my daughter a tonne of lingerie. (This is a detail I love, for it does suggest a sense of collapsing boundaries).
Your uncle and aunt are having another baby. Maybe you sensed something new, I suggest.
Must have, she replies.
Women’s Midlife Crises are as Interesting as Men’s
I Hate Suzie is wonderful. I adored this TV series. The unbearable claustrophobia of being found out for an affair. The fuckit of a person’s life falling apart when they then decide to make worse and worse decisions for a while. Discovering all your mistakes did not actually add up to you being a bad person. It’s all there.
From ““I Hate Suzie” is a Brutally Funny Unravelling” in the New York Post:
They were moving into their early thirties, a “rude awakening,” Piper said, and they spent long periods of time on the phone, counselling each other through those years. They started keeping notes, exchanging written thoughts about their daily lives and ideas for the show in the form of long, brutally honest e-mails. Many of these sentiments wound up in “I Hate Suzie.” “We started to get turned on by some of our sort of awful, sad, hilarious shared emotions,” Piper said. “And it became more obvious what we needed to do in the show.”
They rented a room in London and met every day for several weeks to map out the show. “We would put everything up on the wall,” Prebble said, “story ideas, and character ideas, and thematic ideas.” The trauma of a phone hack seemed to encapsulate the sense of personal crisis they wanted to invoke. “The idea of, What if that secret part of yourself was suddenly available to everybody?” Prebble said. The namesake emotion of each episode tends to shape its style. In “Shock,” Suzie bursts into song. “Denial” takes place away from Suzie’s home, mostly in a hotel room, because “in denial, you go somewhere else completely,” Prebble said.
All my favourite television recently has been written by women (and one by a man of colour)
I love dark comedies, which all of this list happen to be, so probably don’t follow my recommendations if you don’t like things dark. But otherwise, I strongly recommend the following, which are:
I May Destroy You (Written by Michaela Coel)
Flowers (Written by William Tomomori Fukada Sharpe)
Fleabag (Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
And, of course..
I Hate Suzie (Written by Lucy Prebble)
The other interesting thing about this list is that it is entirely British! I don’t know why. What is going on in England?
My Slightly Embarrassing Confession about British TV
If I am really anxious I like looking at the sweetest English countryside you can find on media. I’m talking cottages with flowers in the window boxes and such. I watch Insta reels… or The Crown7 or New Forest: A Year in the Wild Wood.
Non-British TV is Also Really Good!
When you lose control, you don’t have the time to keep up appearances
You might like Liz Henry’s newsletter.
If you still think birth is not political
It really frustrates me that when women talk about the significance of birthing there are still some feminists who think it is no more than some kind of middle-class competitiveness/internalised misogyny about vaginal birth versus caesarean or hippy indulgences. This is an amazing podcast series by Dr Ruth De Souza, who I have been friends with for a long time after we met through maternal feminism circles, and it is about birthing and justice. I think you’ll love it.
Imagine being moved away from all your friends and family right when you are getting ready to have your first baby. What kind of birthing system thinks that is ok?
Imagine going into hospital to have a baby when you and your husband’s mothers experienced babies being removed from them in hospitals. What kind of terror might a hospital birth hold for you?
Imagine being an Aboriginal woman who wants to bring soil or plants from home in with her when she births in a hospital miles from her community. Does hospital policy cater for that? Will she be ridiculed or respected for the request?
What is the cost of failing to be truly woman-centred in birth? And what if your woman-centred birthing centre doesn’t include brown and black women?
Birth is political.
Sit with that. It’s big.
How interesting that all these mother blogging connections from the Terrible Twos end up becoming lifelines again later in life when you are muddling your way through the teenage years.
Before it happens.
And oh how I have been punished for them over the years. Turns out we were right.
Helen Garner is a bit of a spiritual mother figure to me. When I discovered she married three times I ran to my then boyfriend (now husband) with relief. It’s ok, I can marry you, even though I will be your third wife and I know the statistics are bad for us. Helen Garner did it three times!
I might be re-partnered now but I still think of myself as a single mother, in some ways.
Yes, of course I am a Republican and anti-Monarchist. And no, I am Team Charles not Team Diana. I know! Outrageous, right?