April 6, 2013

Life with four teens can be rollercoaster


---- — I had planned on writing a humorous (well, hopefully humorous) column this week. My last few articles have been serious, so I thought I’d lighten up a bit. 

With anything I write, though, authenticity is my final litmus test. Right now, funny would not be honest for me. This has been a tough year for our family; in more than one way, for more than one of us. Life has thrown us some dark curveballs. So, I seek comfort in the only way I know: through sharing. 

This year (and only this year), four of our five children are teenagers. While that provides much hilarity, it also makes for a bumpy, twisty rollercoaster ride through the tunnel of ever-changing emotion. As parents, the riding is not the most terrifying part. The most terrifying part is the added torture of watching our children board the ride, alone and unprepared for life and love’s inextricable power. 

Do you remember the first time your toddler went on a carnival ride without you? The helpless feeling as an unknown attendant strapped your child into a seat, relegating you to the sidelines to feign bravery and channel confidence toward your offspring? Yeah. Something like that.

Remaining strong is tough enough, but remaining strong while deciphering what our teenage children need from us is a whole other animal. Beneath the withering accusations and hostility, what are they seeking? I often tell parents that when a teen’s declaration is impossibly painful, it is most likely a question: “You don’t love me” (“Do you love me?”),  “You and mom should get a divorce” (“Is our family falling apart?”), “You’d kick me out if I got pregnant” (“Will you stick by me even if I make a mistake?”). Teen speak. What are they really trying to say? More importantly, how do we respond? 

After 25 years of working with kids, you’d think I’d be better at this. But facing flesh of my flesh, I have a hard time recognizing the stark need cloaked in rejection. In my head, I liken the teen years to that scene in “Steel Magnolias” when the young female lead is going into diabetic shock. Confused and scared, she fights and slaps at her loved ones as they try to make her drink the juice that will restore her. Upon recovery, she realizes what she has done and weeps at the inadvertent hurt that she caused. The teen years might be a little like that — although the remedies are much less clear.

Right after I had given birth to our daughter, the doctor was cleaning me and helping me deliver the afterbirth. He was pushing and tugging on my body, and it was pretty painful. As our daughter lay in my arms, my friend noticed that each time I winced, the baby cried. As I relaxed, she would stop. That hasn’t changed. As our children hurt, we hurt. And as we hurt, somewhere underneath the resentful glances and back talk, they hurt for us. For a time — a moment or a century — that hurt becomes the pivot to our reaching out and turning from each other.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” and particularly the hospital scene where E.T. is dying and his earthling friend fades, symbiotically, beside him. My dear children, right or wrong, healthy or not, that is how your pain feels to me. It seems I will always have trouble separating my hurt from yours. I will always struggle with which battle is mine to fight and which is yours to wage alone. I know that in my despair, I will say and do exactly the wrong thing; often the thing I swore I never would. But, this life of yours? This roller-coaster ride? You won’t ride alone. I will always bear witness. That is love’s deal. That is love’s triumph.

Mary White is from the Malone area. She and her husband have five children, eight cats, two dogs and three guinea pigs. She has had the privilege of working with children and families (her own and other people’s) for more than 20 years. For more of her columns, visit