It has taken me 15 years of being a parent to understand what real parenting is. This is not to disparage the sleepless nights of infanthood, the blur of toddlerhood or the constant rush of elementary and middle school years. Those years were harried, but full of joy: watching my children learn new things; going on adventures; reading new books. Everything was wide-eyed wonder, faces lighting up at the sight of a new slide at a different playground or visiting a pumpkin patch or jumping into snow drifts and having snowball fights.
It’s hard to connect with your teens.
As the parent of a teen and soon-to-be teen, there are fewer moments of joy and connection. There are more arguments over technology and time spent with family is split with time with friends. They don’t run to me with open arms when I haven’t seen them all day; mostly what I see is a closed door to their room while they slog through hours of homework (with social media breaks, or is it vice versa?).
I have to push to get their attention and they don’t just automatically adore me because I’m their mom. The veil of wide-eyed wonder has been lifted from their eyes and now they see me as the flawed human being that I am.
This is the hard stuff of real parenting.
Of course, this was always going to happen and I welcome it, in some respects. But, it’s difficult to stomach the eye rolls when I tell them (for the third time) to pick up their dirty clothes from the floor. I often feel that I’m slogging through emotional mud that never thins. Coldplay put it so well: “No one ever said it would be this hard,” because nobody actually did say it would be this hard.
And that is what I mean by “real” parenting: the hard stuff of being with them when they are crying and telling me they don’t want to talk about something, but knowing, deep down, that they do. Or helping with a last minute project when all I want to do is sit on the couch and watch The Crown.
The hard stuff is knowing that they love you, but don’t always like you. The hard stuff is figuring out when to push them to get something done or to let them figure it out on their own. The hard stuff is letting them fail when all you want to do is make everything okay. The hard stuff is wanting to be their friend, but having to be their parent instead. The hard stuff is trying to be patient and loving in the face of anger and mood swings, theirs and yours.
We’ve all been teenagers and, as I recall, I wasn’t the nicest of the bunch. Slamming doors was a daily occurrence, and all it took was my mom to suggest we go shopping to set me off. Shopping? Really? I have apologized profusely for my teenage self.
I know my kids will look back on these days and not understand why they acted irrationally, or not remember the “family meetings” we sat down to have on days when things were getting out of hand. What I hope they remember and what I hold dear is the “easy” stuff. The easy stuff is going to the movies and sharing Twizzlers. The easy stuff is playing BS and Rummikub and laughing as we play. The easy stuff is wave jumping at the beach. The easy stuff is hugs at the end of a long day. The easy stuff is the love that will never feel hard and will always make every hard moment worth it.
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Jennifer Unter lives in the Bronx with her husband and two children. She is a literary agent. Find her on Twitter @JenniferUnter.