Here’s what may be most powerful about adolescence, from a parent’s perspective: It forces them to contemplate themselves as much as they contemplate their own children. Toddlers and elementary-school children may cause us to take stock of our choices, too, of course. But it’s adolescents, usually, who stir up our most self-critical feelings. It’s adolescents who make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us. It’s adolescents who reflect back at us, in proto-adult form, the sum total of our parenting decisions and make us wonder whether we’ve done things right.
As part of his study of the parents of adolescents, Steinberg asked his participants to fill out a “midlife rumination scale,” which included this item: “I find myself wishing I had the opportunity to start afresh and do things over, knowing what I do now.” Nearly two thirds of the women reported frequently feeling this way. So did more than half the men.
When he wrote up the results for Crossing Paths, Steinberg made a crucial distinction about this question. He noted that the survey item didn’t ask participants whether they wanted to be teenagers again. That’s the clichéd wisdom—that what adults truly crave in midlife is the raucousness and freedom of their youth. What Steinberg realized, in follow-up interviews with his subjects, was that they didn’t want a second adolescence at all. “What they want,” Steinberg writes, “is a second adulthood.” Their children’s adolescence, he found, was often cause for extensive inventory taking, which can lead to feelings of pride and accomplishment, but also feelings of doubt and regret.
Erik Erikson, one of the most innovative psychoanalysts of the twentieth century, wrote about these moments of existential review in his work on the human life cycle. He famously argued that all of us go through eight stages of development, each marked by a specific conflict. In early adulthood, for instance, he argues that we must learn how to love rather than vanish in a mist of narcissism and self-protection. In mid-adulthood, he says, we must figure out how to lead productive lives and leave something for future generations rather than succumb to inertia (“generativity versus stagnation,” he calls it). And following that, the challenge becomes learning how to make peace with the experiences we’ve had and the various choices we’ve made rather than capitulate to bitterness (“integrity versus despair and disgust”).
Some modern researchers believe that these adult stages are overstated, even fanciful inventions. But the parents of adolescents often circle back to strikingly similar themes—especially “integrity versus despair and disgust.” They talk about looking backward and integrating the choices they’ve made into a narrative they can live with. In Erikson’s words: “It is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle and of the people who have become significant to it as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions.”
Women may be especially susceptible to these moments of self-reckoning. According to the 2010 Current Population Survey, 22 percent of all parents of 12-to-17-year-olds are now 50 or over, and 46 percent of them are 45 and over. What this means, biologically speaking, is that a substantial number of today’s mothers of adolescents are either in perimenopause or in menopause itself. Many women pass through this stage with little turmoil, just as many adolescents pass through puberty with little ado. But others struggle with melancholy and irritability, seeing in their condition the mirror opposite of their teenagers’, whose fertile years are just beginning. (One well-designed recent study found that the risk of depression during perimenopause doubles; another found it quadruples.)
But regret is hardly confined to women, and it shows up in all kinds of strange dress. Michael, Beth’s ex-husband and the father of Carl, tells me that when his kids are giving him grief, his mind loops back to the days when he and his ex-wife were hammering out the terms of their divorce and he failed to press her for joint custody. He now feels he’s paid a price for it, especially with his older daughter, Sarah. “My relationship with her has always been fractured,” he says. “We’ve never been totally comfortable together.” And when his son, Carl, is feeling cruel, or angry, or even merely defensive, “he’ll say, ‘Sarah doesn’t want to see you; she doesn’t like you,’ ” says Michael. “It’s like having an argument with one of your friends who’s being vicious. He’s made me cry before.”
For Gayle, it’s having chosen to suspend her career for as long as she did. When she first made that decision, it made perfect emotional sense. But recently, she’s had to reckon with its financial consequences. She recalls one of the road trips she took with Mae in her junior year, touring some of the schools in New York State’s university system. They quarreled bitterly. Mae thought the quality of some of them was so low that it was a waste of time to apply. “And I was saying, you’d better,” Gayle tells me. Those colleges were what she and her husband, who owns a small mail-order business, could realistically afford. “You raise children to think the world of possibilities is theirs,” Gayle says. “And we somehow think, Oh, we’ll make enough money. And then, all of a sudden, they’re 18, and it’s like, Oh, no, you can’t go to college there.”
On that road trip, Mae called her mother’s bluff. She assessed with a gimlet eye the limitations of the world around her and declared she didn’t like them. That was when Gayle realized that this story she’d so lovingly told was as much for her own benefit as it was for Mae’s. “We,” she tells me, “had been living in that dream world too.”