I have a fourteen year old daughter, to go along with my sixteen year-old son, who is now recovering from his second bone marrow transplant. I think and talk and spend enough time on the son’s medical condition that I prefer just to ignore when it doesn’t require my immediate attention. So this is not about that. It’s about the more mundane, but impossibly frustrating task of parenting teenagers.
My son’s travel through puberty was mostly benign. Not so, my daughter’s.
Don’t get me wrong. Fourteen year old boys are ridiculously stupid, unable to make the barest of connections between causes and effects, a truth hammered home early one spring morning about a year and a half ago when my son was preparing to depart on a church trip over spring break. He was to bring snacks and soft drinks for his own consumption during the trip–stuff he wanted to eat in addition to the regular meals they’d be served. So he had a six-pack of 20 oz. cokes in plastic bottles packed into his goodie bag (in the South, every kind of soft drink is called a “coke”, but these happened to actually be Coca Colas). I was drinking coffee in the kitchen when he ambled in and got several sheets of paper towels and returned to his room. I thought to myself, “Hmm”. Then he returned a few minutes later for a few more paper towels than he’d gotten the last time.
So I asked him, “What’re all the paper towels for?”
He replied, “One of the cokes is spilling.”
My curiosity piqued, I followed him back into his room. Sure enough, there was a coke spill on the floor around his bag. And every time he’d wipe up the spill, more coke would magically appear on the floor.
I continued my inquiries, “Do you know which coke bottle is spilling?”
He looked at me like I was from Mars, apparently never having contemplated the spill might have an identifiable source, other than just generally the six-pack of cokes in his bag. I told him that he might want to get the coke that was spilling out of the bag before he tried mopping up anymore of the spill.
“Oh, yeah, okay.” He mumbled.
Incredible. My bright child of two years ago had been transformed into a mumbling idiot by a conspiracy of dunce hormones. When he was twelve, there is no way he’d been so stupid as to not understand it does little good to clean a spill without also shutting off the source of the spill. Even BP gets that. But that’s what hormones pointing your every thought in the direction of procreation does to you. Mind you, this kid wasn’t a moron. He’d never made anything but “A”s in school. Yet the hormonal imbalances flowing through his body made their way into his brain, obliterating any kernel of common sense he might ever have had.
But my son’s wretched stumblings through puberty and into young adulthood were nothing compared to my daughter’s.
She has become what can only be described as a bitch. Indeed. The “B” word, which is fast gaining on the “N” word in taboo value. Maybe that’s why I like it. She is moody and temperamental and selfish, thinking and acting as if the world, including of course the rest of her immediate family, exists for her benefit alone. She seems bent on proving Copernicus wrong. The earth doesn’t really revolve around the sun. It revolves around her.
So, after putting up with her gnarly attitude for a few moments too long at the dinner table, I said as much the other night. Yep. I called my daughter a bitch, specifically, I said, “You can be such a bitch.” Now, I know I am headed straight to parent hell for saying it, but it was true, and she needed to hear it. Like a James McMurtry song, I didn’t mean to say it, but I meant what I said.
I thought she might have learned her lesson about a month ago when she had incurred my wrath with her defiant attitude. She and her Mom had been arguing over what she was to wear to school. (Every day is a huge drama over clothes. She wants to dress like a round-heeled slut. I and her Mom prefer she not advertise what she shouldn’t be selling.) After her and her Mom’s argument devolved into a screaming match, I stepped in. I don’t really like stepping in. I prefer to sort of remain in the shadows, avoiding conflict until it can no longer be ignored. But things were getting out of hand. So I stepped in and told her that what her Mom had decided was final and I didn’t want to hear another word about it. She gave me that sneering leer that said she held nothing but contempt for me, and start babbling some more about how unfair it all was. I told her again to shut up. She said, “Make me”. At that point, I was across the room from her, but moved to stand right in front of her, i.e., within striking distance, when she threw down the gauntlet, taunting me again to make her shut up. So I slapped her. Across the face. Not hard. Not even hard enough to leave a hand print. Just hard enough to humiliate her. Apparently it wasn’t enough. Only a month later, she came back for more. But this time, I didn’t slap, except with words. The young woman is going to learn, one way or another, that I am not a man to be trifled with. I don’t want to be this way, but I have to do what I have to do.
I really never should have had children. I didn’t want them. It was my wife that wanted them. I was just went along with her decision to get pregnant. I was in law school at the time, freshman year. She was working. While I was paying my own way through school with loans and savings and a bit of help from the new GI bill, she was the one with the job and the money. I was in no position to object.
But what I really mean is that I wouldn’t have had children if I had known that doing so meant buying into this transparently shallow, vapidly materialistic culture in which we live. But that’s where I am. Raising them so they can become Apple acolytes and pop-culture aficionados and waste thousands of dollars on a college degree (notice I didn’t say “education”) so they can grow up working at some administrative job that tasks their brains so little until they spend most of their work day trolling the internet for porn or better paying jobs. I would never have wanted children unless I could have somehow freed myself and them of the tentacles of the American culture of consumerism. Perhaps I could have been a missionary. Or an international journalist. Something, anything, so that my kids didn’t grow up worshiping the American god of consumerism. Surely there are better gods to worship. We all worship something. But as St. Augustine said, it’s like a living death to worship (love) things that can’t be possessed without the fear of losing. Which sadly, pretty much sums up what is going on these days in America.
Because I didn’t really want them, I never adopted the hyper-parenting mode (e.g., I don’t check their grades at school on-line; I don’t intercede in their squabbles with other kids; I don’t petition for their inclusion on sports teams; I don’t try to be a pillar of the community such that my stature will enhance theirs, etc.) so prevalent in the culture today. I don’t live vicariously through their exploits. I treat them as much like burdens as I do blessings, unlike most parents in America, who, when they aren’t worshiping their possessions, worship their kids. False gods abound.
My refusal to hyper-parent puts them at a distinct disadvantage socially. Too bad for them. If they and their mother (whose only restraint against her instinct for hyper-parenting is me) wish to make their way in this corrupt fraud of a society, they’ll have to do so on their own. I do, however, facilitate many of their activities inclining them towards acceptance by society, but only as an incident to my duty to provide the necessities of life–food, clothing, shelter, etc. It’s nearly impossible to prevent a little overlap. For myself, I try to live in the world in which I find myself, but not of it. I live an almost ascetic lifestyle, while they immerse themselves in the culture. I maybe should have been Amish given my outlook on society, except that I have no problem with exploiting technological innovations, such as make this weblog possible.
I happened to like the kids when they were children. I’m just a big kid myself. But now that they’re teenagers, not so much. And they’re rapidly catching on to my rejection of society, and what it would mean for them socially if they were to adopt such an attitude. In other words, they’re rejecting my views on things. That’s fine. It’s a normal part of growing up. But I hope my daughter doesn’t forget that it isn’t the nameless, faceless herd of pop culture that helps her sort through the near-daily assaults by the universe of man on her view that the world should be logical. I hope my son remembers it wasn’t the larger society that stayed up late at night in the hospital, consoling him when he was afraid that if he didn’t survive the transplant, he might not go to heaven because he’d looked at porn on the internet, and even masturbated on occasion. (I’ve never been particularly religious, but am what my wife calls “deeply spiritual”.) I told him that heaven would be practically empty if masturbation caused people to go to hell. I also told him that I and probably every post-pubescent man alive has masturbated at least once or more. Even St. Augustine pleaded with the Lord to “Make me chaste, but just not yet.”
Even though I didn’t specifically want them, now that they’re here, I’ve tried to raise them honestly. Which is to say, I try be real around them. They know me better than I’ve let anyone on earth know me, warts and all. When the subject of drug usage amongst high school students came up, I told them explicitly about my time as a pothead in my sophomore year of high school, and how I gave it up when I actually made my first “B” on a semester report because of it. When the subject of US policies leading to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came up, I told them honestly how I felt about the history of US imperialistic military adventures, including the one in which I participated. (i.e, that my life and the lives of my comrades in arms is worth more than securing a cheap supply of oil for American soccer moms in their SUV’s). When the subject of our Judeo-Christian heritage arises, I’ve explained the logical inconsistency at the core of the theology–that if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present, and good in all times and circumstances as the preacher claims, then why is there still evil in the world? I know honesty in the face of dogma won’t get me any parent of the year awards, but all I really hope for them is that they learn how to think–how to understand the difference between fact and opinion; between dogma and truth. If my honesty helps them along in that endeavor, so much the better.
And I curse. Or, how we say it down here, “cuss”. I’ve cussed since as long as I can remember. One of my first real whippings was for cussing out a next-door neighbor girl, about the same age as me, in the first grade. The years in the military only nurtured my natural tendency to swear. As anyone who’s served will tell you, the “F” word is the most versatile word in the english language, and especially in the serviceman’s vernacular. It can be (and was) used in virtually every sentence, sometimes several times in the same sentence, employed as a noun, adjective, adverb, and in its naughtiest form, a verb. It took a while after the kids started talking before I toned down my language. Now I try not to be so creative as I once was, but with only modest, and temporal, successes. The spirit is willing but the tongue is weak. It was hardly the first time that my daughter had heard me using the “B” word when I accused her of being one. I regularly use it to refer to our female dog, just because it’s fun and legal in that context. In fact, were it not for the cussing’s I give to the dog (to which she just wags her tail and smiles), the kids would get way more than their recommended daily exposure. I’m hardly perfect. In fact, the only thing about me that approaches perfection is my imperfection.
So, as I tell her when one of my imperfections bubbles to the surface, my daughter now has yet another thing to one day tell her therapist. Alternatively, I’ve given her the number for DHR (Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, that, among other things, runs the foster care program) in case she’d like to petition for a change. But she seems to have taken it all in stride. She was actually grinning by the end of dinner. I knew it was because of the satisfaction she felt at having made me mad enough until I lost my religion. She’s a provocateur like that, pushing people to see how far they’ll go. Since my control faltered, she thinks she won. As either of my teenagers might say, “Yeah, whatever”.