Last week, I sold a large lot of doll clothes on Craigslist. I met the buyer outside in our guest parking, a beautiful young mama, who confessed she was new to the world of American Girl. From the back of her minivan popped two adorable little girls, dolls in hand. As they sifted through the enviable shoe collection I was selling, the mom and I got to talking. I told her my two daughters were now teenagers and this was the last of the doll clothes. My youngest is starting high school in August.
“Wow,” the mom said. “Teenage girls.” She grimaced. “How’s it going?” “Great,” I said. “Better than I ever expected. I love my teenagers. Don’t let people scare you.” The fact is, people had scared her. She told me people had been offering her preemptive sympathy for the teenage years since her second daughter was born. I’d had the exact same experience. So, I wanted to bless her, rather than discourage her! “I actually love having two girls,” she said, like she was admitting a guilty pleasure. “So, what’s the secret?” That’s a tough question to answer in a moment, in a hot parking space. I think I said something like “Have hope, and give them tons of attention when they’re little like this.” I wish I’d had time to say more. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I love, love, love watching my babies turn into young woman. It’s the greatest blessing I have ever received in my life, after the grace of Christ. I’d like to bless you, if you are a mom of boys or girls, that not all the best time is behind you, nor are all teenagers monsters, and that the statement “big kids, bigger problems” is a not a given. I’ll tell you what has worked for me, and why I love being where I am. And I don’t know the secret. But I’ll tell you what has worked for me, because I truly have the relationship with my daughters that I always dreamed of having. 1. I dealt with my own issues. Truly, the best thing I ever did as a parent was take care of my own mental health, understand my own story, and process my family-of-origin wounds. (I believe we all have them on some level.) I spent money on therapy. I read more books on boundaries, knowing Jesus, healthy communication and healing than I did on parenting. The greatest thing I gave my girls is a healthy mom capable of healthy relationships with their dad and others. (I made a LOT of mistakes on the way, but I learned from them.) 2. I paid a lot of attention to them when they were little. Better than that, I was attuned to them, which is different. The Christian relationship book How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovitch influenced me greatly. It taught me about attachment theory and comfort. Being attuned to a child means meeting their needs based on careful observation of their emotional and physical needs, not on my own mood or perception. Many of us make the mistake of giving our kids what we would have wanted as children. Instead, I worked to give the kids what they needed. And they needed very different things than I did, and than each other did. Again, dealing with own issues is what made me able to do this; to be attuned to others, you have to also be attuned to yourself. 3. I kept paying attention to them when they were 10-12 years old. My friend, mentor and Bible teacher Bob Egbert gave me the best parenting advice ever. She told me to really lean into listening to my girls when they were pre-adolescent. It was a critical time to build their trust before the hormones really kicked in. In this stage, Talking So Your Kids Will Listen and Listening So Your Kids Will Talk, was a great resource. I learned how to help them problem-solve, rather than problem solving for them. They still talk to me. It’s my favorite achievement as a mother. 4. Don’t take teenage differentiation personally. This is the most difficult part of parenting for me, because most of the time me and my kids like each other, and when we don’t, I hate it. But they are supposed to look at me critically and discern what kind of a woman they want to be. Parts of what I model as femininity and adulthood are not going to be embraced by my girls. Currently, they both want a very different path than I took; they aren’t sure they want to get married, they “probably” don’t want kids (and they want to adopt, not bear their children if they have them), they want to work full-time if they have kids (my youngest wants to marry a stay-at-home dad so she can work as a vet).
And meanwhile, one of my girls has a mouth on her (I won’t say which one), which she uses to point out every way I am hypocritical and judgmental of other women. It’s obnoxious. I have to ask her to leave the room often, and it’s appropriate for me to do so. But also, she’s often right. So, I put boundaries on the way she expresses herself, but I don’t disregard her opinion. In fact, it was this girl who told me she didn’t like it when I was drinking alcohol, and I actually quit for good partially in response to her feedback. I’m coming up on one year sober. 5. Stop believing that kids growing up is a tragedy, or that your best years as a mom were when they couldn’t talk back. I mourn their life stages passing like only a mother can. But I more than equally rejoice in them, too. And stop believing all the cultural curses that it’s going to be so awful. It doesn’t have to be. It’s Momplicated is another great book to read if you’re parenting girls. Debbie Alsdolf writes about what women most need from their moms, among them, the blessing to individuate, grow and leave home. When we let our kids leave in a healthy way, they are so much more likely to voluntarily have authentic relationships with us as adults! (Or so I’m hoping, as my oldest goes off to college in one year.) No one prepared me for how good this was going to be. Few people spoke blessings over me that I could have a beautiful relationship with my daughters, especially in these years. So, I give this blessing to you, especially you in the early years. It’s not all down hill from here. You can look forward to the future years of mothering, and keep looking up for help.