My Teenage Werewolf
A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence
"Straight from the trenches, a mom's tale of weathering her daughter's transformation from sweetheart to snark mouth." - People
With the eye of a reporter, the curiosity of an anthropologist, and the open-and sometimes wounded-heart of a mother, award-winning author Lauren Kessler launches an eighteen-month mission, embedding herself in her about-to-be-teenage daughter Lizzie's life. Everywhere from middle school classrooms to the mall, from summer camp to online chat groups, Kessler observes and chronicles-and sometimes participates in-the vibrant, dynamic, and scary life of a twenty-first-century teen.
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Lizzie comes home from school, walking down the long access road from the street where the bus drops her off. She makes her way to the side door of our house. She's wearing (for the fourth day in a row) a particularly unflattering pair of brown corduroy jeans that sag at the knees and butt, a gray Oregon Girls Rock T-shirt (three days for that item), and a pair of blown-out Sketchers. On her back is a twenty-pound pack that includes, among other things, several dozen broken pencils, two or three sack lunches that she thinks I don't know she hasn't eaten, and a science book so heavy it makes you wonder if there really is that much science a seventh-grader needs to know. She drops everything on the floor of the foyer, kicks off her shoes, and starts to walk down the hall past my writing room. She knows I'm in there. I'm always in there, but she doesn't stop.
"Hi!" I call out. "So, how was school?" I ask before she completely disappears from view. She turns her head and gives me a look. There may be nothing quite so withering as the look an almost teenaged daughter can give her mother. What is it, exactly, that look? Exasperation, annoyance, disgust? And that's on a good day. Sometimes it's pure, unadulterated antipathy. She sighs dramatically and mutters something under her breath. I don't want to know what she says. I can tell where this afternoon is headed.
"So, how was school?" I repeat. I hear the false, purposeful brightness in my voice, and, of course, so does she. Why am I doing this? It's like baiting a bear. She's edged back into view, standing in the doorway to my room. Her hand is on her hip, her head cocked to one side, her eyes focused on a point about six inches above my head. I know this posture. I stood in front of my own mother like this countless times. The stance communicates two of the sacred tenets of teen girlhood: boredom and defiance. The message is unmistakable. I choose to ignore it.
"School?" I prompt her.
"You're always asking me about school," she says accusingly. "Stop asking me about school."
"Well," I say sweetly, "that's how you spend seven hours five days a week, so naturally I…" She interrupts me.
"I hate school," she says.
"You don't really hate school," I say.
"I hate it."
"No, you don't."
"Oh yes I do."
"Oh no you don't."
I'm listening to this conversation as if I were not the one enmeshed in it, and I don't believe what I'm hearing. She's twelve and in a crappy mood. What's my excuse? It's a cliché that adults revert to being children when we visit our own parents. I wonder if I'm the only mother out there who reverts to being a teenager when faced with her own (almost) teen.
I'm suddenly reminded of a bit of nasty dialog the writer Gay Talese caught between a famous director (Joshua Logan) and a famous Broadway actress (Claudia McNeil) in one of his iconic pieces of new journalism. The conversation begins with Logan critiquing McNeil's stage performance and devolves into this:
"You're a shocking rude woman!"
"Yes, Mr. Logan."
"You're being a beast."
"Yes, Mr. Logan."
"Yes, Miss Beast."
"Yes, Mr. Logan."
"Yes, Miss Beast."
I remember reading this, years ago, having no clue who Logan and McNeil weretheir heydays were before my timebut being completely immersed in their mutual hostility. It comes as a shockand a wake-up callthat this is sometimes the story of me and my daughter: completely immersed in mutual hostility.
But it wasn't always like this.
There was for us a golden era, a magic decade of peace, love, and understanding that is common in the early years of the mother-daughter relationship. It's like you get a free pass for the first decade or so. You don't even have to work up a sweat. These are the years when Mommy is a saint and a genius, beautiful and beneficent, the font of everything cool and fun. I remember the scores of Wednesday afternoons my daughter Lizzie and I spent together when she was in elementary school. Wednesday was early-release day. I would pick her up at school at one p.m., and we would go roller-skating or bowling or spend an hour at a downtown tearoom sipping hot chocolate from bone china cups and nibbling on the world's fanciest PB&Js. We did projectsmaking candles, friendship bracelets, tie-dye. We made Valentine's Day cards by carefully ironing sheets of waxed paper between which we had sandwiched the shavings of red and pink crayons. (Thank you, Martha Stewart.) We rode bicycles. We hung out at pet shops, oohing and aahing at puppies and letting ferrets crawl up our arms. If this sounds a bit precious, it wasbut in the unironic sense of the word: special, beloved. She actually looked forward to these times. There was no sense of obligation or dreadOh god, I have to go do something with my mom again. No rolling of eyes, no looking at me as if I were the enemy or, less dramatically, as if I were the least interesting object in view.
Back in those halcyon dayswhich were, I am sure, less uniformly glorious than I am choosing to rememberLizzie pitched fits, as the old expression goes, but the anger was superficial and transient. The battles were contained and low risk (yes, you can watch an extra half hour of TV; no, you can't have cookies for breakfast); the damage, minimal; the resolutions, quick. When it was over, she would sit on my lap. At night, I would curl up next to her on top of the covers of her bedthe four-poster bed that had been mine as a childand rub her back until I heard her breathing deepen. In the morning, I would wake her with a kiss. She was warm and smelled like a loaf of fresh bread.
I remember those easy days as clearly as if they were yesterday. Wait a minute, they were yesterday.
Yesterday we spent an hour talking preteen nonsensewho has a crush on whom, whose school locker has the weirdest decorationsand drinking hot chocolates at Starbucks. We walked arm in arm back to the car. She put in a Lucinda Williams CD, and we drummed together on the dashboard. But hold on. Yesterday was also when, just a half hour after we got home from our happy adventure, World War III broke out over the issue of eating fish for dinner. Her mood blackened the evening, as it often does. My husband, Tom, and I sniped at each other. Lizzie shot me the signature look, stomped upstairs, slammed her door, cranked up the music in her room, and then later refused a good-night kiss.
Who is this girl I live with, this twelve-year-old, this daughter I wanted so badly and now don't know how to connect with? And who do I turn into when we lock horns, as we do most days, on… well, on just about everything. We fight about taking showers, choosing appropriate clothing (flip-flops in December?), food and nutrition (she recognizes only two food groups: cheese and deep-fried), table manners, chores, homework, screen time. We fight over everything, and nothing. Most mornings we eye each other warily, waiting to see who will cast the first stoneneither of us free of sin, both of us well armed.
It doesn't help at all to discover that our stormy relationship is so common as to be prosaic, that the descent from mother-goddess to mother-demon is a predictable, well-documented narrative, as predictable as the descent from sweet little girl to moody, mercurial teenager. The years after a daughter reaches puberty are renowned for their drama and tumult. Psychologists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, social learning theorists, and a boatload of feminist scholars are all over this. It is, many argue, the most significant of all intergenerational connections, the earliest and most profound bond. There is no relationship quite as primal, as vitally important, or as deeply conflicted. Mother-daughter identities are enmeshed and interwoven, yet need to be individual and distinct. There is no other relationship that veers so sharply between intimacy and distance, between love and hate.
I've been dabbling in some of the research, slogging through lingo like "conflictual femininities" and "compulsory differentiation," "emotional incest" and "unconscious internalization processes." I've been introduced to mothers who won't let go of their daughters ("toxic entanglement"), and daughters who won't let go of their mothers ("intrafamilial codependency"); mothers who view daughters as rivals, and daughters who view mothers as object lessons in how not to live their lives; mothers who view daughters as brats, and daughters who view mothers as bitches.
Daughters spend their whole lives figuring out how to differentiate themselves from their mothers. (I guess this is why we adult daughters, so many years later, still live in fear of turning out to be just like our mothers.) It appears that particularly intense mother-daughter bonds can inhibit the daughter from establishing her own identity. But particularly weak ones can inhibit the daughter from learning how to be female. There's a strong sense of damned if you do, damned if you don't running through the research.
With all this attention to the relationship that everyone seems to agree is at the core of being female, I wrack my brain trying to think of important, classic mother-daughter relationships. I'd like to learn something from them if I can. I come up with only one, Persephone and Demeter. You remember the story: Daughter is abducted, and loving mother is so distraught that she abandons her goddess responsibilities, and the earth goes to hell in a hand basket, or, as one literary critic put it, oh so literarily, "The springs of fertility ran dry, vegetation languished and animals ceased to multiply." I suppose that puts Lizzie and me in perspective. As distraught as I am about the distance that has opened up between us, I am not likely to visit eternal winter on the earth.
I look in vain for other examples that are not evil stepmother makes daughter's life a living hell (Snow White, Cinderella, Joan Crawford). One of my friends, an English professor with a charming, huggable seven-year old daughter whom I wish I could kidnap, tells me to stop looking. I won't find many mother-daughter relationships explored in classic literature, she says.
I devolve to popular culture, and here I find all kinds of examples of feisty, interesting daughterswith no mothers: Nancy Drew (dead mother); Margie from My Little Margie, the 1950s sitcom I saw in endless campy reruns when I was a kid (dead mother); Veronica Mars, a show Lizzie and I have watched together (MIA alcoholic mother); Lyra in The Golden Compass (her mother isn't dead, but Lyra comes of age thinking she is). What a great way to finesse the issue of how the young women in question achieve their independence, how they negotiate their separate female identityand how the mothers survive it all.
Okay, so there's the Gilmore Girlsanother series Lizzie and I have watched togetherwith a feisty daughter and a mother who is actually alive. But, as Lizzie was quick to point out to me (multiple times and with unrepressed glee), the Gilmore daughter is not as much in need of mothering as is her own mother. Daughter Rory handles just about everything in her teen life better than her mother did. No wonder Lizzie loved this seriesand I had trouble watching it.
What other mothers and daughters do we see out there? The Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger characters in Terms of Endearment? Ouch. Sharon and Kelly Osbourne? Joan and Melissa Rivers? Double ouch.
There may be few finely drawn portraits of the mother-daughter dynamic, but there is plenty of advice about it, especially the conflicting kind. Give the girl room! Step back! That's the conventional wisdom and the recommendations from those who endorse what's known as traditional development theory. Move closer! Stay connected! That's what others are saying, psychologists and therapists among them. Connection, not separation, will keep girls strong and whole. Some experts offer lists of fifty fun things you can do with your teens. Others warn you against "smotherhood."
And so, the road I am travelingthat every mother of an about-to-be or full-fledged teen is travelingis both well trod and mysterious. It's a mapped road, but there is significant disagreement about how to navigate it. It's a mapped road, but even so, the twists and turns take us by surprise. Yes, it's all happened before, but it's never happened to us before.
There are those who believe the mother-teen daughter relationship is "just a phase," that if you can shut up and grit your teeth, it will be over in a few years. This, I think, is the prevailing opinion. I hear it from mothers of twenty-somethings when I tell them my tale of woe. They nod in solemn agreement as I offer the gory details of my life with Lizzie, the daily drama, the random acts of meanness, the horrific shopping trips. And then they smile serenely and pat my shoulder. "That's how it used to be with me and my daughter," they say consolingly. "But now we're really close." Or, "Now we're best friends." Or, "Now we talk on the phone every day." The transformative miracle, according to these beatific mothers? Time. I'd like to believe that, but my own history as a daughter belies the "heals all wounds" conviction.
Even among the grin-and-bear-it folks I think there is impetus to do something other than just wait it out. After all, these years can be a particularly unpleasant phase that may do familial harm if left to play itself out in real time. If the dinner table is a battlefield every night, everyone gets wounded sooner or later. There will be collateral damage. The younger kids, treated to daily lessons in attitude, will soon turn around and practice that attitude on you; the better-behaved kids, disgusted with the sister who makes everything such a big deal, resent you for letting her occupy so much of your time and attention. Meanwhile, the husband, the father, tethered between wife and daughter, two of the three most important women in his life (let's not forget his mother), is playing way out of his league. He hates the nonstop drama. He doesn't understand the turmoil that domestic life has turned into. He sees his wife in one of her least flattering roles, and doesn't like what he sees. They clash over issues neither of them knew they had.
And even if it is just a phase, there is a school of thought that says it is an extraordinarily important phase that deserves as much attention as you can give it. Don't wait it out. Wade into itbecause this particular moment in this all-important relationship can affect every subsequent intimate bond in a young woman's life. It is here, in the heat and the heart of the mother-daughter dance, that the girl develops the interpersonal skills she will need to stay close (yet separate) from others. It is here she will stretch and strengthen the emotional muscles that she will need to flex later as she makes healthy connections with friends, lovers, and mates. At school, if a relationship goes sour, if a friend who used to be close now all of a sudden shuns heror, in the soap opera that is middle school, stabs her in the backshe can take a deep breath, cry a few tears, and move on. At home, if a relationship goes sour, she can't move on. She has to deal. They both, daughter and mother, have to deal. And that's good. I mean, theoretically, that's good. In real life, it's hell.
If those reasons were not enough, I have my own motivation for wantingneedingto make this relationship between me and Lizzie work. She is the third and last of my children, and I am simply not ready yet to get out of the sweaty, body-contact-sport phase of being a mother. I am not ready to step back. My older son has started college; his younger brother will be out of the house in a year. I know that a mother is a mother forever, but my days of heavy lifting with these two are over. They are who they are. Although my older son consults me when he needs a copyeditor for his term papers, and my younger son occasionally asks for my opinion on music or literature or girlfriends, they no longer need me in that intense, everyday way kids who are not yet grown need their mothers. I am glad they don't need me that way. I want them to be strong and independent.
But I can't help myself: I am in mourning for the old days, not the days of diapers but the days of being part of everything they did, of calming their fears and taking away their hurts, of teaching them to read and ride bikes, to swim, to dance. I miss the high-energy craziness of the mornings, with three kids going to three different schools at three different times. I miss everyone converging on home at 3:30, filings to the magnet, birds to the nest. I miss being a full-time family of five. It was hard and often stressful back then. I remember that too. There was always too much to do: Boy Scouts and music lessons, playdates and play rehearsals, fencing club, unmissable band concerts, choir concerts, school plays, community service projects, sleepovers, homework times three, school conferences times three. When you're in the thick of it, it seems as if it will never end. And then it does. I see now how quickly. I know that Lizzie's trashed-out room, the one with the post-Katrina décorclothes, CDs, books, homework, candy wrappers, used Kleenex, loose change everywherethe one that smells of old socks and cheap perfume, the one I rant about (or, when I muster the self-control, merely stew about), that room will soon be empty.
We are now a family of three and a half, the half being my younger son who sleeps here, occasionally eats here but has a rich, busy academic-work-social life that is his own. Next year we will be a family of three. This motherhood thing, which I was not convinced was for me in the first place, now has me firmly in its grip. I wantand needthese last years to be satisfying and enriching, to be fun. For a few more years (two? three?) I want to feel that essential connection between mother and child. That child, the remaining child, is Lizzie.
And, of course, underlying the dynamics of the family I helped make are the dynamics of the family I was born into. Those of us who had difficult relationships with our own mothers, those of us who were hell on wheels as teenswe're often told that it serves us right, the comment veiled with humor that only partially masks the lack of sympathy. We're being paid back for our sins. What goes around comes around. Maybe that's true. I don't know. What I do know is that it's not helpful or insightful or comforting in any way. The truth is, I was an estranged daughter of a distant mother. We never came back together after my teen years. We were never again close. And I don't want the same fate for me and my daughter. I don't want to mess up now, to become, in turn, the distant mother of an estranged daughter. Or, as the author of one book about surviving a daughter's teen years put it: Ten years from now, I don't want my adult daughter to be screening her calls so as to avoid taking mine.
I am not a candidate for smotherhood. I understand, really I do, that my daughterall our daughtersneeds to pull away. I understand the power, the necessity, of rebellion, small and large, quiet and noisy. I was a rebellious teen. I understand that my daughter needs to find her own identity and that sometimes that means pushing me so hard it hurts. I get that this is all part of the process of becoming an individual. If I could be guaranteed that this was only a developmental stage, I would not fret about what we're going through. But the turmoil between my mother and me was not a developmental stage. The rift that opened up between us when I was twelve or thirteen defined our relationship for the next thirty years. For us, this wasn't a phase; this was the beginning of the rest of our lives togetheror rather, the rest of our lives apart.
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