When our children were little, my friends and I cried "Mama Bear" to justify our slightly crazy parental instincts. We are all familiar with the archetype: the dad who leaps (without spilling his beer) to yank a toddler away from speeding cars. The mother's ability to hear, identify, and respond to a real cry of trouble three blocks away. The out-of-nowhere gumption it takes to yell at menacing big kids on the playground. Yes, we share Mama Bear's instincts to protect our brood.
I've got a real problem with this bear.
As I wrote here, however, parents need new role models as our children hit puberty. Mama Bear serves us well while our children are small, but she hibernates just when things get real.
Well, I have another issue with her example. (Poor, imaginary Mama Bear! What has she ever done to me?) Since I have become a parent of teenagers, in fact, I flat-out resent her. That bear is just so darned sure of herself.
In my experience--and according to the hundreds of parents I have observed and interviewed--one thing is certain: when teenagers live in your home, you rarely (if ever) feel sure of yourself. Even when things seem pretty good and the family is mostly getting along, it's a messy, muddled mind-trip.
Mama Bear is sure of herself; parents of teenagers are (usually) not.
It's easy to blame yourself when teenagers are difficult. It's hard to step back and gain any perspective. Gone are the days of protecting our children with atavistic aplomb, only to sink into our pillows each night, exhausted and frazzled, but sure of our role in the world.
With toddlers, the rules are clear, and pretty simple to enforce. Stove, hot! Street, dangerous! Dipping your cookie in the toilet? Not the best choice!
We know what toddlers need to learn, and young children are interested in all of it. The alphabet, numbers, the names of things, how trees grow and why it rains and how to play the piano and clean up your mess and tie your shoes and use the toilet and tell a joke and eat with a fork.
Once they become teenagers (and as I discuss here, teens are so very much like their former, toddler selves!), things are more complicated. The rules? They're difficult to negotiate amidst brave-new technology and old-school adolescent rebellion. Teenagers--because it is their job--tell elaborate lies, crawl out windows, test limits, and beg us in many other ways to question values we hold dear.
It is unbelievably, unexpectedly bewildering to try and parent teenagers.
We need to teach adolescents a LOT, but they specifically don't want to hear it from US. They are mercurial and confused. They are whirlwinds of angst, self-loathing and delusions of grandeur. They contradict themselves with wild passion. Engaging in conversation with teenagers often feels like an off-the-rails carnival ride.
Our children are almost-adults, smack in the midst of actualizing their unique personalities. We know how difficult they can be, but when we engage with them, we forget. We bite their crazy-bait and let them hurt our feelings. We almost never feel sure of ourselves.
Clinging to certainty (or perfection) will doom us.
I recommend we let Mama Bear go as a role model because expecting perfection--or certainty, or family harmony, or knowing what the hell we are doing--makes everything so much worse.
Parents of teenagers need new role models because it's supposed to be hard. Raising a family is difficult and awful by design; raising people who can survive on their own and enjoy their adult lives is just an ugly, painful process. If we expect to know what we are doing--if we think we should feel sure of ourselves while raising teenagers--it's a million times harder.
We need to cut ourselves some slack.
Parents need new role models. When we admit we rarely know what the hell we're doing, it's actually easier to keep going. Pretending everything's okay--and expecting it to be perfect--eventually exhausts us; all we can do is cover our eyes and hibernate.
My observations have taught me that parents do best to KNOW, PROTECT and HONOR their adolescent children. There is not one new role model for the likes of us; in fact, I have identified these ten. Every day, parents must find a balance, walk a fine line, and quick-change between many, many hats. It's exhausting, but--I promise!--our teenagers and our sanity are worth it in the long run.
Leonard Cohen on those lines from "Anthem:" That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
– from Diamonds in the Line