No, really. I did. Which would lead anyone to the understandable conclusions that I’m a horrible person/daughter, I had an abysmal childhood, and I hate my mother. None of which is actually true. Considering the fact that we’re really nothing alike, my mother and I get along pretty well, and for the most part, we always have.
Here’s how it happened: A couple of years ago on Mother’s Day, a few glasses of wine prompted my mother—who, in the best of times, has never been big on boundaries—to ask my sister and me to grade her on her parenting. I asked her repeatedly if she really wanted to go there, and she insisted. So I told her–if we’re talking about my adulthood, and especially the years since she’s been a grandmother, then she gets a solid A. But when it came to my teenage years, I gave her a flat-out F. Because my delivery lacked drama and clearly wasn’t meant to hurt her, she reacted in kind. We had a discussion about those years, how ill-equipped she was to cope with that kind of stress, and how she had basically left me, her fourth teenager, to my own devices a lot of the time except for when she was screaming at me.
My sons were about four and eight at the time that I had this conversation with my mother, and I was positive I was going to do a better job with them as teenagers. I convinced myself of this, you see, because the main difference between my mother and me is the way we think. I’m more intuitive, a deep diver, a classic overthinker. I read a lot and I talk things through with my husband and my friends. Those could only be extraordinarily helpful qualities to help me through the dreaded adolescent phase, right?
Granted, I haven’t been at it for very long—my older son just turned 13 a few months ago—but if the current state of what things with him have been like for the past few months is any indication, it could be a very trying next few years. It’s not that he’s a terrible kid. Most of his moodiness and iffy judgment and decision-making are pretty garden-variety. It’s more my handling of it all that’s been the unpleasant surprise. My hurt. My drama. My taking it personally. And yes, my screaming. And by that, I mean–SCREAMING.
The very things I judged my mother for, and gave her an F for, I am now fully guilty of myself, and then some.
In the introduction of the famous teen parenting book “Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!”, author Michael Bradley states that “your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2 a.m. feedings… Your zenith will occur in the face of withering blast of frightening rage from your adolescent, in allowing no rage from yourself in response.”
Ah-ha. Allowing no rage from myself in response? You mean no yelling, “Screw you, then!” when he rudely refuses (yet again) a suggestion to help with his crippling time-management deficit? You mean no more telling him he’s a “bad family member” for his current (and age-appropriate) lack of enthusiasm for family outings? You mean really just walking into another room when I want to strangle him, not telling him I want to strangle him before I do so?
Yes, I’m hanging my head as I type. But I like to think there’s hope for me yet. I certainly have more resources available to me than my mother would have thought to draw from in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In those days, mothers really didn’t engage in in-depth conversations about parenting with each other. Ironically, my son’s personality also makes me feel hopeful. Unlike many boys his age, he’s honest and intuitive, which I hope will be helpful traits in the long run. And then there’s my own self-awareness. I know I want to do better—not just better than my mother, but better than myself. I want to be proud of myself instead of beat myself up about the way I handle the many, constant, unexpected flare-ups that mark the adolescent years.
As for my mother, well, she did make a lot of mistakes. But to her credit, she readily admits to them and says she would do many things differently. What she offers as an explanation for much of her parenting is as simple as it is profound: not just that you do the best you can, but that you do the best you can on any given day. Which on some days, isn’t much (see my “Screw you, then!” moment for proof). My mother was tired. She worked full-time because she had to. And by the time I was a teenager, she had been a mother for some 30 years.
So with each bad-mom moment I have with my son, I adjust the F I gave her. Oh, she had her F moments, for sure. But so have I. Just as she has had her A, B, C and D moments. As have I.
At this very moment, I give myself a C-/D+ for adolescent parenting. But I hope I can turn things around so that as grown men, my sons will report differently–not that I’ll be the one asking.
Liz is a freelance writer in Massachusetts who spent many years in the trenches as a stay-at-home mom. Currently she writes for several news sites and is the site editor for an online magazine about New England living. She is certain her talent and penchant for writing and editing can be traced to transcribing foreign press stories with Hayley as a college student.