It seems like our kids make developmental leaps overnight. There’s nothing subtle about it. They’re like growth spurts. One day, your child is short and her jeans fit as they should. Two weeks later nothing fits anymore, and you’re scrambling to find the money in your budget for a new wardrobe for your child! This is how it feels with Doireann. She’s about to turn 17. I remember turning 17. It felt monumental to me. I wasn’t just a kid anymore. I wasn’t an adult either. Seventeen feels like some weird developmental limbo. Kids make a lot of weird choices when they’re 17 many of which aren’t so awesome in large part, I think, because they know that they aren’t exactly children anymore. They don’t, however, have the life experience, wisdom, or brain power to be out there making adult choices either. There’s a reason most of us look back on high school and shudder. It’s fuckin’ hard.
I think it might be harder if you’re an only child or a first born. If you’re an only child, then your parents are entirely focused on you. I was an only child with the condtion of having two older step sisters one of whom was sleeping with her boyfriend. My mother found The Pill in her room, and, suddenly, no one cared what I was doing. Score! My other stepsister made it her goal in life to make my mother’s life Hell on Earth since that was what my mother was doing to her so she sneaked out at night, used drugs, and had lots of sex as well. She drove her father crazy and kept my mother busy for years. Score again! I’m being sarcastic here, but you get the point. All the attention was off me. I went from being an only child to the youngest of three girls. Suddenly, I was able to watch two older girls make mistakes and learn from them. Only and first born children don’t have that privilege. They are the guinea pigs. When we parents screw it up with our parenting styles, we usually do it with our first borns. Sure, we can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them with our other kids, but the damage has been done. I’ve done a lot of apologizing with Doireann–“I’m sorry. That approach did not work. If you felt shamed by what I just said, I’m really sorry.” Then, it’s off to bed I go where I replay the incident in my head in slow motion, paying close attention to the look on her face when I unintentionally hurt her, and I feel terrible and guilty. O, parenthood.
I have actually apologized to Doireann for her guinea pig status. I have apologized to her for being the one to go first. I have apologized to her for seeing my parenting style change over the years because I’m learning and improving as I go. I don’t parent her younger siblings the same as I parented her because I know more now than I did when she was younger. I made more mistakes parenting her. I have told her that this is obviously the goal of growing older. We grow wiser and get better. In the back of my mind, I’m trying to play this card for her–“You never let ME do that! I never got away with that!” She’s never said anything like that, and she will not doubt remember things differently than I. I don’t want to be the mother that says, “It didn’t happen that way. You don’t remember it the right way.” That’s gaslighting and crazymaking. I want to be supportive and helpful.
Doireann had a breakdown last night. I think it’s typical of the age. I think Doireann cries once a year. She cried last January as well. She is a high achiever. She takes all IB/AP classes. She’s involved in theatre. She’s in Science Olympiad. She’s never home. I ask her often how she is. She’s a one word reply girl. “Fine.” “Tired.” “Good.” She works on the weekend for our neighbor, John, as his assistant, and he makes good use of her time albeit the tasks are often menial and disgusting. He texts her with tasks like “Clean out my fridge,” or “Clean my oven.” It’s good life experience. Last night, however, she had a massive panic attack that culminated in an hour of crying at the dining room table. She said that she hated school. She hated everything about it. No matter what she did it didn’t matter because there was always more work to do. The work never stopped. It didn’t matter if she graduated because then it was off to college to do more work in a cramped room with a horrible roommate most likely. Then, she had to get a job where she would do even more work. Nothing ended. It was just work, work, work, work. What was the point? Sometimes she just wished that she didn’t exist so that the work would go away.
I tried to penetrate her thinking, but anxiety isn’t rational. She was spinning like a top. I asked her who told her life was like this, and she had no answer. She kept saying that she had to do well. Like a mantra. I asked her who told her this. “The school. They always tell us this. We have to do well or we won’t go to college.” That makes me want to pull my hair out. I try very hard not to hate anything or anyone, but I’ve had just about enough of my school district. They seem to victimize everyone. Prey upon the high achievers until they break. Prey upon the low performers until they stop performing altogether and their parents remove them. Achievement and education are NOT the same thing! Why does no one seem to know this? She said that she wasn’t good at anything else but “doing well”. She sucked otherwise.
As a parent, this was hard to hear. She sucked otherwise? I finally had to ask her if she believed that her worth was tied to her performance. No answer. I tried to punch some holes in her perceptions about performance and her future. She continually said that she wouldn’t do well in life and be successful if she didn’t do well in high school. Finally, I had to tell her that many people find their way differently. Einstein dropped out of high school before deciding to go back a year later. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison were high school drop-outs. Even Walt Disney dropped out of high school as well as Charles Dickens! I’m not advocating not pursuing education. I’m simply saying that intelligent, creative people often don’t find their way in life by traditional roads. I had to take a semester off during college due to a serious health condition, and I was none too pleased to do so. I thought my life was over, but I went back and finished my degree. I did well! And you know what? My high school performance had absolutely no bearing on my college experience. None. What the hell are high schools telling young people today? Is fear and intimidation the best way to motivate adolescents?
In the end, my husband and I discussed possibilities, strategies, and truth, and I discussed the idea of containment with her which is a DBT strategy (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It’s an excellent coping strategy for anxiety, and it works. It actually grows new neural connections. Today, she is taking a mental health day and staying home to catch up on homework that she avoided doing for THREE MONTHS. Just one assignment. But, apparently, she hates doing it so much that she avoided it for three months. It’s due on Wednesday.
Parenting is hard. Being almost 17 years-old is hard. High school is hard. Being the oldest girl in a family of girls where every one of your siblings has at least one DSM-IV diagnosis is really hard.
Isn’t life interesting though?