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The Collateral Damage of a Teenager

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Gayle’s middle and youngest daughters, 14 and 17, are easygoing and placid. They may have their moments of testiness, but they usually speak with affection when they’re around their mother. And then there’s Mae, a lovely, long-stem rose like her sisters, but the air around her vibrates, as if she already has intimations about the difficulties of adult life.

“Am I peeling?” she asks one morning in her family kitchen. She’s wearing a tank top; she also sports a discreet stud in her nose. She shows her mom her back.

Her mother answers that she isn’t.

Mae was always different. Gayle could see she was an anxious kid, even at 5. In fifth grade, Mae was having trouble with her best friend, Calliope, and there was little that Gayle could do to ease her anguish. “Mae would have this thing where Calliope was mad at her; she didn’t know why,” recalls Gayle. “So she’d follow her around and say, ‘What did I do?’ And I’d have to say, ‘Do not do that.’ ” Just the memory of it makes her cringe.

Then, in eighth grade, Mae started cutting herself. Gayle didn’t know anyone else whose child struggled with the same problem, though she’d heard and read plenty about it. So she did what she could: She found her daughter a therapist; she learned to listen and, when appropriate, offer advice. And her daughter got better. Looking at Mae now, you see a pretty, thoughtful kid who’s gotten herself almost a full ride through a great university.

But looking at Mae, one also sees what Adam Phillips means when he writes that happiness is an unfair thing to ask of a child. The expectation casts children “as antidepressants,” he notes, and renders parents “more dependent on their children than their children are on them.”

Just as important, Mae is a good example of why producing happy children may not be fair to ask of parents. It’s a beautiful goal—one I’ll readily admit to having myself—but no less than Benjamin Spock, the cuddly pediatrician who dominated the child-rearing-advice market after World War II, pointed out that raising happy children is an elusive aim compared to the more concrete aims of parenting in the past: creating children competent in certain kinds of work; creating morally responsible citizens who will fulfill a prescribed set of community obligations.

Those bygone goals are probably more constructive, not to mention more achievable. Not all children will grow up to be happy, in spite of their parents’ most valiant efforts, and all children are unhappy somewhere along the way. There are crude limits to how much parents can do to shield their children from the sharper and less forgiving parts of life—which, as adolescents, they stumble on far more regularly. “Sane parenting,” Phillips writes, “always involves a growing sense of how little, as well as how much, one can protect one’s child from; of just how little a life can be programmed.”

To this day, Mae feels things more deeply than her peers. And Gayle does not blame herself for this as much as another parent might. “It’s not that I feel inadequate as a mother,” she says. “I feel the inadequacy as a human to solve any other human’s problems.” But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When I ask if she’s learned how to better cope with having an anxious child over the years, she answers immediately: “No.”

And yet how proud Gayle is of Mae! How amazed, how full of admiration! As we are chatting in her kitchen, I mention Erik Erikson to Gayle, wondering if she’s ever heard of him. She says the name sounds familiar, but no, not really. Mae, who’s been silently lingering at the counter, leaves the room, goes upstairs, and retrieves a copy of a book by Erikson, which she’s been reading for psych class. She plunks it down in front of her mother. Then she quietly leaves the room again.

Gayle smiles at me.

“That’s the kind of thing you live for,” she says. “You want them to be better than you. You want them to be smarter and do more things and know more things.” She picks up the book and scans both its front and back cover. She’s already mentioned to me that she loves Mae’s writing, loves her mind. “Gosh. I didn’t read this when I was 20.”

And that’s just it. In spite of our mistakes, here they are, thoughtful and accomplished human beings, gesticulating with our mannerisms and standing at our height.

Back at Samantha’s house a few days earlier, there came a moment when she wondered aloud whether she hadn’t focused enough on Wesley when he was small. “I just remember when Calliope was little,” she said. “Wesley was always being awakened from a nap and scooped up in a car seat and put some place. His standards were so much lower, in terms of his demands. And I thought, I wonder if I’ve done this to him. I don’t know how you feel, Wesley …”

She then looked directly at her son—so talented, so perceptive, and Lord, such a pain in the ass sometimes. Yet it wasn’t a look of desperation to validate her choices. She seemed genuinely to want to know.

He looked back at her, then uncertainly into the middle distance. Several seconds ticked by, then several more.

“Start speaking when you’re ready,” said Samantha. But it wasn’t Wesley who needed the extra time. It was she. “I just feel like having kids is the greatest thing I ever did, and I …” Her voice caught, and she started to cry. “I’m so proud of them. I love them so much. Last night, I was remembering when Calliope was a baby and being like, Oh my God, that’s so gone.” Her kids, startled by this frank display of emotion, looked at one another and themselves started to well up. “And then I thought, Well, someday maybe she’ll have a baby too …” Samantha wiped her nose.

Wesley still said nothing. Calliope, almost never at a loss for words, said nothing either. She put one hand over her mouth. With the other, she laced her mother’s fingers in her own.


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