It’s a warm evening in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, and six mothers, all connected through the usual ties (work, kids, community groups), are clustered around a kitchen table, discussing their adolescents. Beth, a public-school teacher and the youngest of the lot, mentions that her 15-year-old, Carl, has lately “been using his intelligence for evil.”
The women all stop talking and look at her.
“Instead of getting good grades, he figures out how to get around the administrator,” she says, referring to the software she’d installed to regulate his computer use. “And then I see, like, three inputs for ‘Russian whore.’ ”
Or so I thought she said when I first transcribed the tape. When I followed up with Beth sometime later, she informed me that I’d misheard: It was “three-input Russian whore.”
At any rate, Samantha, who also teaches at a public school, dives in at this moment with the force of a cannonball. “Take the freaking computer, Beth!” she cries. “Take it!”
“He has to use it. They turn things in online.”
“Put a desktop in the kitchen,” suggests Deirdre, the hostess of the evening.
“That’s what we did,” says Beth. “We put it in the living room.”
“But if he flunks out of school, Beth,” says Samantha, “what’s going to happen?”
“He’s not going to flunk out.” Then she pauses and considers. “Though when I called his therapist and said, ‘I found hours’ worth of porn on his computer,’ the therapist had no idea.”
“Yeah, but I’ve had that too,” says Gayle, a substitute teacher, quite suddenly. She has, until now, said little. All heads swing her way. “Mae”—her daughter and the best friend of Samantha’s oldest, Calliope—“was in therapy and spent a year’s worth of my money not talking to the therapist about the real issue, which is that she was cutting herself.”
Samantha finally gives in. She puts her elbows on the table, bows her head, and rests her brow in her hands. “Everyone’s in the same club,” she says. “Everyone has the same stories.” She looks up at the group. “I mean, please. I have police stories.”
Police stories? All along, as Samantha’s friends had been speaking, I’d been under the impression that she’d been spared these misadventures and was even a tad scandalized by them. Yet it turned out to be the opposite. She’d been identifying from the start.
When prospective mothers and fathers imagine the joys of parenthood, they seldom imagine the adolescent years, which Nora Ephron famously opined could only be survived by acquiring a dog (“so that someone in the house is happy to see you”). Gone are the first smiles and cheerful games of catch. They’ve been replaced by 5 a.m. hockey practices, renewed adventures in trigonometry (secant, cosecant, what the—?), and middle-of-the-night requests for rides home. And these are the hardships generated by the good adolescents.
But here’s the truth of the matter. The children of these women at Deirdre’s table? Also the good adolescents. Almost all attend either fine universities or competitive public high schools; all have well-developed interests and talents. All, in person, come across as self-confident and considerate. These aren’t the kids who flunk out, run away, or get expelled.
Yet their parents are still going half-mad. Which raises a question: Is it possible that adolescence is most difficult—and sometimes a crisis—not for teenagers as much as for the adults who raise them? That adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?
Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on puberty, thinks there’s a strong case to be made for this idea. “It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids,” he says. “Most adolescents seem to be going through life in a very pleasant haze.” Which isn’t to say that most adolescents don’t suffer occasionally, or that some don’t struggle terribly. They do. But they also go through other intense experiences: crushes, flirtations with risk, experiments with personal identity. It’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them. “It’s when I talk to the parents that I notice something,” says Steinberg. “If you look at the narrative, it’s ‘My teenager who’s driving me crazy.’ ”
In the 2014 edition of his best-known textbook, Adolescence, Steinberg debunks the myth of the querulous teen with even more vigor. “The hormonal changes of puberty,” he writes, “have only a modest direct effect on adolescent behavior; rebellion during adolescence is atypical, not normal.”
For parents, however, the picture is a good deal more complicated. In 1994, Steinberg published Crossing Paths, one of the few extensive accounts of how parents weather the transition of their firstborns into puberty, based on a longitudinal study he conducted of more than 200 families. Forty percent of his sample suffered a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence. Respondents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; increases in physical symptoms of distress. It may be tempting to dismiss these findings as by-products of midlife rather than the presence of teenagers in the house. But Steinberg’s results don’t seem to suggest it. “We were much better able to predict what an adult was going through psychologically,” he writes, “by looking at his or her child’s development than by knowing the adult’s age.”
A parent’s experience of his or her children’s adolescence can be exacerbated by any number of factors. One is being divorced. (Married parents have a much easier time as their kids enter puberty.) Another is having a child of the same sex. (The conflicts between mothers and daughters are especially intense.) Steinberg has also found that adolescence is especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby, to absorb their attention. It’s as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.
All children, of course, have the potential to unmask problems parents hadn’t recognized or consciously acknowledged for years. Yet adolescent children seem to have this effect on their mothers and fathers far more than, say, children of 6. So one has to ask: Why?
There are many explanations, obviously. But perhaps the most basic, and ultimately gratifying, is historical: Adolescence is a modern idea. Yes, it’s a physiologically distinct phenomenon, too, accompanied by discernible biological changes. But it was “discovered” in the middle of the Progressive Era (in 1904, specifically, by the educator Stanley Hall), which happened to be the same moment the nation was passing myriad laws to protect its young. For the first time, parents were obliged to shelter and support older children, rather than rely on them as wage earners. And what they concluded, after observing these kids for extended periods of time at close range, is that their teenagers were going through a terrible period of “storm and stress.” How else could parents explain all the chaos and restlessness they were witnessing?
But it could simply be that the advent of the modern childhood, a fully protected childhood, is especially problematic for parents as their children get older. Keeping teenagers sheltered and regimented while they’re biologically evolving into adults and pining for autonomy can have exhausting consequences. The contemporary home becomes a place of perpetual liminal tension, with everyone trying to work out whether adolescents are grown-ups or kids. Sometimes the father thinks the answer is one thing while the mother thinks the answer is another; sometimes the parents agree but the child does not. Whatever the answer—and it is usually not obvious—the question generates stress, and it’s often the parents, rather than the children, who suffer most.
Though she is wearing her workout clothes, you can still make out the hippie that Samantha once was—she’s got a gorgeous gray mane of hair, which she has just let loose from her ponytail following her run. We are sitting in her kitchen in Ditmas Park. Samantha and her husband, who also teaches in the city public schools, had had the good sense to buy a place here nineteen years ago, when the getting was still cheap by city standards ($234,500) and the neighborhood more diverse. Samantha is African-American. Bruce is “the whitest guy ever,” according to Calliope, their daughter. Calliope is a fierce beauty, now 20 years old and home from college for the summer. She joins us at the kitchen table.
“Which bagel?” asks Samantha.
Calliope looks at her with a combination of irritation and affection. “Um, do you know me?” (As in: How many times have I eaten bagels with you?)
Samantha rolls her eyes, grabs one, begins to slice.
Calliope’s family started calling her “Alpha,” as in “Alpha girl,” when she was still in high school and was, to put it mildly, very certain about what she wanted. Perhaps because they both have forceful personalities, Samantha and her daughter clashed a lot while Calliope was still living at home. At Deirdre’s house, Samantha had recounted one particularly harrowing fight between the two of them, though she never mentioned what started it. Today I ask. Samantha isn’t even certain she remembers. But Wesley, her 16-year-old son, does—he’s joined us at the table—and leaps right in.
“Well, Calliope had a high-school essay due the next day, and a college essay due in a month. So you”—he looks at his mother—“wanted her to work on the college essay, but you”—now he looks at his sister—“wanted to work on the essay due the next day. So you basically said, ‘Mom, back off, I need to do this essay tonight.’ ” He tells this story with admirable evenhandedness. “And you”—Wesley looks at his mother again—“were trying to emphasize your point that the college essay needed to be done.”
Samantha waits. But that’s it, apparently.
“You just went back and forth like that for a long time,” says Wesley. “And then Dad stepped in.”
Samantha looks puzzled. “That’s so stupid. Why would I not want her to do her essay for the next day?”
Wesley again responds with tact. “Well,” he says, “in hindsight, you can understand her perspective. But at the time, you wanted to be heard.”
This argument, like so many arguments, wasn’t about much. It was what roiled beneath the surface that had clearly upset Samantha. She had ideas about her daughter’s priorities, but her daughter had different ideas, and Samantha could feel her authority slipping away. She could also detect a hint of mockery in Calliope’s replies. Samantha hates being mocked.
“The cursing doesn’t bother me,” she says. “It’s the tone.”
“Or when we say ‘relax,’ ” says Calliope. “Or ‘chill.’ ”
Samantha springs up from her chair. “Yes! Oh my God.” She starts pacing. “It’s so minimizing. Like, ‘You’re not important.’ ”
The conventional wisdom about parenting adolescents is that it’s a repeat of the toddler years, dominated by a cranky, hungry, rapidly growing child who’s precocious and selfish by turns. But in many ways the struggles that mothers and fathers face when their children hit puberty are the opposite. When children are small, all parents crave is a little time and space for themselves; now they find themselves wishing their children liked their company more and would at least treat them with respect, if adoration is too much to ask.
What makes this transition even harder is how starkly it contrasts with the reasonably tranquil period that preceded it. The Blackwell Handbook of Adolescence goes so far as to say that adolescence “is second only to infancy” in terms of the upheaval it generates, destabilizing dynamics, rituals, and a well-maintained hierarchy that’d been in place throughout most of elementary school. After years of feeling needed by their children—and experiencing their children’s love as almost inseparable from that need—mothers and fathers now find it impossible to get their kids’ attention.
I ran across a remarkably meticulous study from 1996 that managed to quantify the decline in time adolescents spend with their families. It followed 220 working- and middle-class children from the Chicago suburbs, once when they were in grades five through eight, and again when they were in grades nine through twelve. At each interval, the researchers spent a week paging these kids at random, asking them to identify what they were doing. What they found, 16,477 beeps later, was that between fifth and twelfth grades, the proportion of waking hours that children spent with their families dropped from 35 to 14 percent.
It takes a lot of ego strength for a parent to withstand this separation. It means ceding some power to your children, for one thing—decisions that were once under your purview move to theirs—and it means receding somewhat, accepting that they’ve recast their lives without you, or your goals, at the center. “The adolescent,” writes Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, “is somebody who is trying to get himself kidnapped from a cult.” Parents go from their kids’ protectors to their jailers, and they are then told repeatedly what a drag this is.
Indeed, one of the most striking measures of how critical kids are of their parents at this stage can be found in Ellen Galinsky’s Ask the Children, an inspired survey of over 1,000 kids in grades three through twelve. At one point, Galinsky asked her interviewees to grade their parents. In almost every category, seventh- to twelfth-graders rated their parents considerably less favorably than did younger children.
Ingratitude is already one of the biggest heartaches of child-rearing. (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Right?) While not all researchers agree that adolescents fight more than younger children, almost all concur that they fight with more vehemence and skill, arguing most intensely with their parents between eighth and tenth grades.
Nancy Darling, an Oberlin psychologist, offers a nuanced analysis of what, precisely, makes the adolescent struggle for autonomy so contentious. Most kids, she notes, have no objections when their parents try to enforce moral standards or societal conventions. Don’t hit, be kind, clean up, ask to be excused—all this is considered fair game. The same goes for issues of safety: Kids don’t consider it a boundary violation if they’re told to wear seat belts. What children object to are attempts to regulate more personal preferences, matters of taste: the music they listen to, the entertainments they pursue, the company they keep. When children are young, these personal preferences don’t tend to cause parents too much anxiety because they’re mostly benign. Barney? Annoying, but unobjectionable. That little boy across the way? A little rowdy, but a decent kid.
The problem, says Darling, is that during adolescence questions of preference start to bleed into questions of morality and safety, and it often becomes impossible to discern where the line is: That kid you’re hanging out with? I don’t like how he drives or the stuff he’s introducing you to. Those games you’re playing? I don’t like all the violence and disgusting messages they’re sending about women. Maybe more poignantly, being your teenager’s protector has the convenient advantage of keeping your child close, just as he or she is trying to pull away.
As Wesley was assessing the conflicts between his sister and his mother, I thought I could discern his self-appointed role within the family. He was the peacemaker and the diplomat, the kid who made a scrupulous point of not making waves.
Yet it was Wesley, sensitive Wesley, so tactful and talented in ways that would make any parent flush with pride (he plays drums and piano and guitar, all with equal dexterity), who got dragged home by the police at 4 a.m. He and his friend had been out “egging”—tossing eggs at windows of homes in the neighborhood.
At first, he’d merely wait until his parents were sleeping and the fans were running loudly. After a while, though, his methods became more sophisticated. “I started to hop off the roof,” he explains with serene matter-of-factness. “And then it was impossible for you to track me.”
“Wait.” Samantha does a classic double take. “What roof?”
“The roof. I would climb out my window and hop off the roof. And then climb back up when I got home.”
Samantha stares at him, saying nothing.
Teenagers may strike us as precocious grown-ups one minute, but only one minute later we realize that they are not. Their forays into independence can tip easily into baffling excess.
This conduct has distinct neuronal underpinnings. In the last twenty years, researchers have discovered that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs so much of our higher executive function—including the ability to reason and control our impulses—is still undergoing structural changes during adolescence. Complicating matters, dopamine, the hormone that signals pleasure, is never so explosively active in human beings as it is during puberty, which means teenagers assign a greater value to the reward they get from taking risks than adults do.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that adolescents might be more disposed toward risk. Human beings need incentives to leave the family nest. Leaving home is dangerous. But here’s a historical point to consider: Maybe adolescents would be less inclined to jump off roofs and other manners of silliness if they had more positive and interesting ways to express their risk-taking selves. That was the argument the anthropologist Margaret Mead made in the sixties: The sheltered lives of modern adolescents were robbing them of an improvisational “as-if” period during which they could safely experiment with who they’d ultimately become. (Without romanticizing life in the past, the historian Steven Mintz notes that Eli Whitney opened his own nail factory before going to Yale at 16, and Herman Melville dropped out of school at 12 to work “in his uncle’s bank, as a clerk in a hat store, as a teacher, a farm laborer, and a cabin boy on a whaling ship—all before the age of 20.”)
Today’s middle-class teenagers have little need to face dangerous situations. So instead they create them—all while living with their parents. Unfortunately, this often means using whatever tools they can find in the family garage, a number of which aren’t always forgiving: cars, motorcycles, high-performance snowboards. Jay Giedd, who researches the teen brain at the National Institute of Mental Health, once put it very well: “These Stone Age tendencies are now interacting with modern marvels, [which] can sometimes not just be amusing anecdotes, but can really lead to more lasting effects.”
More often than not, of course, they remain anecdotes. Most parents intuit this, remembering their own reckless high jinks as teenagers (and their own parents’ worry and disapproval). Still, it is extremely difficult for parents to observe this behavior at close proximity and not try to do something about it. Steinberg likens adolescents to cars with powerful accelerators and weak brakes. “And then parents are going to get into tussles with their teenagers,” says Steinberg, “because they’re going to try to be the brakes.” It’s dicey business, being someone’s prefrontal cortex by proxy. Yet modern culture tells us that that’s one of the primary responsibilities of being a parent of a teen.
“There was a recent issue where we strongly disagreed,” Kate is saying, “and I was right.”
Her husband, Lee, a man in his mid-fifties with longish gray hair, gives her a baffled look. “I don’t even know what issue you’re referring to.”
“The party at Paul’s.”
Lee sucks in his breath. “But that’s where—”
“Let me talk, okay? I feel strongly about this.”
Lee stifles his frustration and yields the floor.
It’s a tense moment. Kate and Lee have been together for 22 years, and their marriage is solid. But when their son and daughter entered adolescence, Kate noticed a certain transformation in their marital dynamics. “There’s a lot more discord between us,” she had said at Deirdre’s table, “having teenagers around.”
This morning, Kate and Lee are talking about that discord, or at least trying. It’s hard.
“If the kids go to a party at somebody’s house,” Kate resumes, “I want to know that there’s going to be a parent present. And this time I let it slip a little bit. And the kid lied—he told his parents he’d be sleeping at somebody’s house, but instead he invited everybody over in his grade, and the police showed up.”
So what, I ask, was Kate and Lee’s argument about?
“Whether he should have been allowed to go,” says Kate. “Lee didn’t think it was as big a deal.”
“Which remains my view,” Lee says.
“It shouldn’t,” Kate replies. “If we left the house, and there was a party, and the police came, and our house was trashed, that would have been a nightmare. I don’t want my kid to be party to that.”
If adolescents are more combative, less amenable to direction, and underwhelmed by adult company, it stands to reason that the tension from these new developments would spill over into their parents’ marriages. This strife is by no means preordained (indeed, if your marriage has survived into your first child’s adolescence, it’s more durable than most). But overall, researchers have concluded that marital-satisfaction levels do drop once a couple’s firstborn child enters puberty. A 2007 survey published in the Journal of Marriage and Family went so far as to track the “growth spurt[s], growth of body hair, and skin changes” of the children of its 188 participating families—as well as the voice changes in boys and the first menses in girls—in order to see if marital love and satisfaction levels dropped even more precipitously as these changes occurred. They did.
Andrew Christensen, a UCLA professor who both does research on couples therapy and has a clinical practice, gives a perfect example of the kind of more subtle conflict he sees among parents of adolescents: “Inevitably we see ourselves in our kids. And then we see our partner acting toward our child the way our partner acts toward us.”
Projection is now possible. Identification is now possible. Which means that competitiveness, envy, disgust—all can rear their heads. These aren’t feelings evoked by younger children. They’re brought on by other adults.
Mistaking teenagers for adults can be especially problematic in high-conflict relationships. As children develop the capacity to reason and empathize, it’s increasingly tempting for their parents to recruit them in their arguments, which only aggravates the situation: Now you’re dragging Charlie into this? In one intriguing study, teenage girls felt more pressure to side with their mothers if their parents were still married, while teenage boys felt more pressure to do so if their parents were divorced—suggesting, perhaps, that teenage sons feel compelled to step in as their mothers’ protectors if their fathers are no longer at home. In another, fathers experienced a significant dip in marital satisfaction once their teenagers began to date, especially if those teenagers were sons, suggesting they were jealous, or at least nostalgic for a time of open-ended possibilities.
As children become adolescents, their parents’ arguments also increasingly revolve around who the child is, or is becoming. These arguments can be especially tense if the child screws up. “One parent is the softie, and the other’s the disciplinarian,” says Christensen. “That comes up a lot, and it’s a very big challenge. Dad sharing his recollections with drugs and alcohol, but Mom remembering something bad happening. And then they divide over it.”
This is the kind of argument that Kate and Lee seem to have a good deal. She said as much at Deirdre’s kitchen table, in fact: “I’m really strict with the kids, so he’s totally not. We just had a fight about it today.”
This gender divide is suggested by data too. In a recent sample of nearly 3,200 parents of 10-to-18-year-olds, a disproportionate share of mothers said that the task of discipline fell to them alone (31 percent, versus 9 percent of fathers). Mothers also reported setting more limits for their adolescents: They were 10 percent more likely to restrict video-game use and 11 percent more likely to restrict what types of activities their kids did online.
For the last decade or so, says Darling, research has also shown that adolescent girls and boys direct more verbal abuse at their mothers than at their fathers, and mothers are more likely to quarrel with their adolescent children.
These fraught dynamics may explain why mothers, contrary to conventional wisdom, tend to suffer less than fathers once their children have left the home. Kate readily admits her relationship with her daughter improved once she went off to college. As Steinberg puts it: “Women’s personal crises at midlife do not come from launching their adolescents but from living with them.”
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.”
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.
Excerpted from All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior, to be published on January 28 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. © 2014 by Jennifer Senior. All rights reserved. The parents and teenagers in this excerpt are referred to with pseudonyms.