Place every thrill ride in Florida end to end as one long ride and they still could not scare, shake, rattle and roll, nauseate, induce screaming panic, disorient or to give that negative-G, freefall-in-the-dark experience like parenting teenagers. As a writer, I try to learn from my life experiences so I can portray my characters with more depth. Sometimes my life is so odd I don’t think readers will believe such experiences. Raising a teenager falls into that category of too weird to be true. The following comes from my journal.
Once my daughter was safely out of my sight in college, I staggered away from the recent years in search of a solid, level place to recover. I was reminded of a curse: May you live in interesting times. This essay is about one interesting event in that thrill ride known as parenting a teenage daughter.
My daughter’s freshman year of high school was marked as the time we most often denied ownership of Jessica, whose name means Gift of God. Conversations often began with “that child you wanted to have” or “your daughter” and followed with the shocking news of what she did. If she put off studying for an exam until the night before the exam, she was “her mother’s daughter.” Her struggles in math were attributed to my genetic influence. Her need to have the last word in an argument was chalked up to Hubby’s genetics even though his mother, father, sister, and grandmother were always gracious, patient endearing people as far as I could tell. Both Hubby and our daughter possessed a seriously dangerous belief that they could be right despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. As much as we tried to deny her, she was thoroughly a product of our genetics and our parenting, but other outside influences gradually took control of her. Forces of peer pressure and hormonal impulsiveness struck us like rogue tidal waves. We were at the mercy of forces greater than us and we sought refuge and peace in tiny increments to keep going.
We previously dreaded phone calls from telemarketers, but that year we welcomed them as a chance to chat with someone who wasn’t bringing us bad news about our daughter. We subscribed to twelve magazines and two newspapers that year through telemarketers. We didn’t have time to read them all. We were too busy separating truth from the lies we wanted to believe.
Like the time the little darling at fifteen years old started receiving calls from a friend of a friend whom she described as someone who “likes” her. She strategically omitted that this someone who likes her was twenty years old. Of course, she was flattered by the attention of an older man and never stopped to consider why a twenty-year-old man would pay attention to a minor. She lived in a world where she knew everything and adults were marginally functional idiots. We were kept around, tolerated I suppose, simply to tend to her needs.
By the grace of God, my husband and I discovered this 20-year-old someone’s identity and age before the relationship moved beyond kissing. The joker called our house at 11 p.m. on a school night and asked to speak with Jessica. Well, since her well-bred friends from grade school knew better than to call after 10 p.m. I assumed it was one of her new public high-school friends, the kind whose parents gave them the freedom to run the streets until 2 a.m.
“Who is this?”
“I am [name changed to protect his identity] Doofus, Jessica’s boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend? And how is it that we haven’t met you?”
“Well, we haven’t really been on a date yet, but we’re talking.”
In teen-speak, ‘talking’ didn’t mean talking like people do in conversation. It was the equivalent of having his posse talk to her posse in preparation for actually talking to one another. Consider “talking” as a meeting of the tribes. Once the couple actually met face to face on a date, the term changed to “hooking up” which could also mean that they were engaging in sex, but at this point in the conversation and Doofus’s relationship with Jessica I was not compelled to dump his bloody corpse at the police station.
“And which school do you attend?” I asked.
“I’m not in school.”
Silly me and my assumptions. “What does that mean, exactly?” Jail? Dropout?
“Well, Doofus, Jessica is fifteen. She might have told you she was older, but she’s fifteen.”
“She told me you were cool with our age difference.”
“She lied. Until a few moments ago, I didn’t know you existed, so how could I possibly be cool with an adult dating my minor daughter?” At this point in the conversation, my husband sat bolt upright in bed and held his hand out for the phone. I held up my palm to signal that I would take care of this.
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Yeah, you must know that you’re looking for trouble by fishing in the kiddie pool. I may be cool about not judging people, but honestly, as an adult, I have to tell you that you need to protect yourself. Parents will wonder why a twenty-year-old isn’t dating other twenty-year-olds.”
“Oh, Jessica’s real mature for her age.”
“Or you’re just immature for your age.”
“Why are you being mean to me?”
“I am treating you like an adult. Let me explain it in terms you can understand. My daughter is a minor and you are legally an adult. If you give my child a beer, a cigarette or have sex with her, then I will make sure you go to jail or the hospital and then to jail.”
“But she likes me.”
“Of course she likes you. Teenage girls are awed by the attention of adult males. But tomorrow you will call Jessica to break off this relationship.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“That’s true. Listen. If you were twenty-five and Jessica was twenty, I would have no business getting between you two because you would both be adults. So if this is real love, it can wait until Jessica grows up. Then she can make decisions like an adult. Until then, I am in charge of her welfare. And don’t assume that you can sneak around to see her even if she suggests it. This is a small town and news gets around eventually. If you continue to see her, then I will get a restraining order. Is that clear?”
The next morning Doofus, the 20-year-old coward, called Jessica and blamed me for making him break up with her. Very mature. Jessica labeled me a hateful person and accused me of ruining her life. She really said those words just like a soap opera actress. Fortunately, Hubby was foraging in the fridge when Jessica stormed into the room.
“But I looooooove him,” she wailed.
“Perhaps you do. And when you’re a legal adult you two can run off to China if you want, but for now, you are a minor and he’s an adult. He could go to jail for dating you, so think of breaking up as a way of keeping him out of jail.”
“You just don’t understand.” She searched for support. “Dad?”
He shrugged out of the fight since I had volunteered to handle it.
“What is it exactly that I don’t understand?” I asked.
“We’re only five years apart.” She then pointed out two May/December marriages of our friends.
“That’s an excellent argument. Yes, sometimes people of different ages fall in love. However, they are all adults.”
“So? Five years doesn’t make a difference!”
“At your age five years is a huge difference.”
“Okay.” I held up my hands.
Hubby spewed cookie crumbs. “NO!”
“Honey, I got this,” I said.
Hubby stood by eager to countermand my decision if he disagreed with it. As the head of household, he had the right and duty to make executive decisions. This was one of the few times I wanted to assert my authority as Queen of the castle, to figuratively throw down my scepter to challenge the upstart princess.
I told Jessica, “You can prove that a five-year age difference doesn’t matter. You can date any ten-year-old you want.”
Her face contorted into gasping disgust as if she had found half a worm in her apple. Words swam in her head. Finally, she shuddered and spat out, “Oh, my God, mom. I could never date a boy in grade school.”
“That,” I said in a soft voice, “Is a five-year age difference.”
The realization struck her like a slap. She looked to Hubby for support and found him suppressing a grin. She took a deep breath and spun on a heel in retreat. She slammed every door she passed on the way to her room.
Hubby mimed applause while I took a bow.
To all my friends with teenagers, take heart. When you are in the midst of an estrogen or testosterone storm with your teenager, remind yourself that this time with them will pass. Perhaps like gallstones, but they shall pass. Keep your seatbelt securely fastened for the ride.
Postscript: This article was originally published in 2006. Today my daughter is married with children of her own and I get to enjoy a front-row seat as she and her hubby face the thrill ride of parenting.