When you become a parent, you discover a whole new world of scary. Things that seemed innocent and benign before you had kids suddenly turn into drooling death machines bent on killing your child:
Anything smaller than your baby's fist
Toys made in China
You get the gist of it, right? It's like becoming a parent gives you a pair of scare-vision goggles that you can't take off.
And then, something marvelous and amazing happens: your baby grows up. He learns to go down stairs by himself and doesn't cartwheel down to his demise on the wood landing. She eats honey and she doesn't fade away from botulism. They play with the cheap ass toys from China in the church nursery and don't develop symptoms of lead poisoning.
Next thing you know, you are the proud parent of a teenager. Time to relax, right?
Now, the drooling death machines are bigger. And scarier. And oh so real:
Those other teenager's parents
ACTs and grades and college and perhaps scariest of all,
Filling out the FAFSA form.
The day you wake up and realize you have a teenager is kind of like that day you walked out of the hospital with your first newborn baby and NOBODY STOPPED YOU. It's scary and exciting and you don't know if you're going to be any good at it, but since nobody is stopping you, you just do it.
If you've read my blog for a while you know what happened to my first teenager. If you haven't read about Charlie, and what we went through, you can get a feel for it by reading this post. Charlie wasn't your typical teenager in a lot of ways, but in most ways, he was. I had no clue about how to raise a teen; I went by a mish-mash of instinct, watching my friends, and John Hughes movies. And despite all of my trying, something bad happened. My baby got hurt.
After that, I watched my other kids like a big nervous hawk. As they became teenagers I worried and fretted and obsessed. Trying to be SuperMom, I alternate between being overly protective and trying to give them their freedom. I talk to them, when it seems like the right time (and sometimes when it seems like the opposite of the right time) about peer pressure. About parties and friends and drugs and booze. I try to answer their questions honestly, and try to not scare them or make it seem like these things are mysterious and fun like an R-rated movie that everyone else has seen because their parents are cool.
I guess I have an advantage, of sorts...their older brother is a living, breathing "After School Special" about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. After all, how many kids get to see their limp, unconscious sibling being whisked away into an ambulance? How many kids have had police at the front door and watched their mom try to reason with a swaying 6-foot tall kid who so very clearly wasn't in any condition to be reasoned with? Until you have lived with a child like this, you don't know how it feels, and describing it is next to impossible. The fear, the shame, the anger. And the regret..oh, the regret is a doozy. You blame yourself for not seeing, not knowing what was happening right under your nose. You kick yourself, spit on yourself and call yourself a bad parent, a failure. You blame. Blame yourself, blame your ex-husband, blame that kid who called your boy a weirdo back in third grade. The "if onlys" and "what ifs" haunt you.*
But, just like that day you carried your newborn out of the hospital, you don't stop. You keep going on because that's what a parent does. And if you have other kids, you take what you've learned and you stick it in that battered parenting tool box we all lug around.
You talk, you listen, and you absolutely never, ever give up. Then, if you're lucky..you get a call in the middle of the night. A call that doesn't suck.
A couple of weekends ago, Henry (my 15 year old ninth grader) asked me if he could go to a party. Well..technically he told me he was going...which in 15 year-old-speak kind of qualifies as asking. Because they tell you with a question mark at the end. So, he told me he was going. I asked him the standards: where was it, were there going to be parents there, who he was going with, how they were getting there, yada yada yada. He provided good answers to all of them, and so he went with my blessings. My nervous, bug-eyed blessings.
My cell phone bleeped a little past midnight. I don't sleep heavy anymore, haven't in years, so I picked it up almost immediately. It was Henry.
His voice was shaky, I could tell he was scared.
"Mom?" he asked. Even though I am now a veteran of these kinds of calls, let me tell you: there is no getting used to that initial heart-pounding fear. None. I answered him, cautiously:
"Henry? What's going on?"
His words spilled out of the phone and swirled around my sleepy head..jumbled and confused and yet, so clear. So very clear: "Mom we were at this party and someone was drinking and smoking and the cops came and they told us to call our parents and one of them is standing right here and mom I'm so sorry!"
"Are you okay, Henry?" And as I asked this question I was already out of bed, slippers on my feet and part of my brain trying to remember where I had left my purse and car keys.
"I'm fine, mom. Really I'm fine. And so are my friends." and then his voice dropped, to a hushed confessional volume: "I'm scared, mom."
He then told me that the policeman wanted to speak to me. Again, not the first time I've talked to a faceless officer in the wee hours of the night. I mustered up as much courage as one is able to find at 12:15 a.m.
"Ma'am? Is this Henry's mother?" he asked.
"Yes, this is she. What's going on?" pleaseohplease don't let me sound like a loser...
"I just wanted to let you know that your son and his friends weren't involved in the drinking tonight. We have all of them right here, they're fine. They have a ride coming to get them. And ma'am?" he paused. This is where the boom comes, I thought to myself. This is where they tell you they found something on him or that they've decided you are the worst parent they've come across in their 25 years on the beat. But he continued:
"I just wanted to tell you what a good kid you have. When I talked to him, and told him to call you, he started to cry..I asked him why he was crying and you know what he said?"
And now there were tears on my cheeks as I shook my head in the dark bedroom. "No..please tell me, what did he say?"
"He said he was scared that you won't trust him anymore, ma'am. You should be proud of him, ya know. You've done a good job raising him."
I've done a good job of raising him, he said.
I thanked the officer, got back on the phone with Henry and figured out the ride situation, and then I said to him:
"I'm proud of you, Henry. Really proud. I love you."
The phone call, in its entirety, lasted maybe 5 minutes. But it's one I will never forget. And with any luck, Henry won't forget it, either. I think both of us learned something, in the middle of the night call that didn't suck.
Parenting teenagers is hard, and sometimes you really have to squint to see progress. Fortunately, there are times where you CAN see it..times you can't miss it. I saw it pretty clearly that night.
And so I continue on this path of raising teenagers, grateful for each learning experience that comes my way. Grateful for each night there is no call, and grateful to see my kids in the morning even if they're tired and crabby and still don't know how to close a door behind them or wipe pee off a toilet seat. Nobody is stopping me, after all...I'm just doing the best I can.
* I need to stress, and I mean all-caps STRESS that Charlie is no longer that kid I described up there. We went through hellish times and yes, they were awful. But today, Charlie is doing really well. He's in school, he's working, he's thinking about the future and what kind of mark he wants to make on this world. I think he's an awesome son, and I'm proud of him. I love him, too. So, so much.