We Never Talk: An Open Letter to Parents of Teenagers

I don’t see you much anymore. And when I do, it’s in passing, and mostly through car windows, waving to each other in the drop off or pick up line at school. I think fondly back to the days that we all used to walk in the gates together in the morning, holding small mittened hands, grimacing at each other sometimes, whispering that we’d been up all night with a child who had a cold but now felt better. I can instantly recall the feel of a heavy, hot body of a 5 year old curled up next to me in bed. I remember the end-of-year graduation celebration in kindergarten, sitting hunched on a tiny plastic chair, glancing around at the other adults whose children sailed alongside mine on a daily basis. We watched a slideshow of our children, and it did not take long for tears to fill my eyes. That feels like yesterday.   

Now, when I catch a glimpse of you, I see those same kids next to you in the passenger seat. In the passenger seat! Why does nobody remark on what a huge transition that is, to look over and see a child beside you, rather than staring back in the rearview mirror from their car seat? This seems to be one of the most essential perspective shifts of parenting, a metaphor whose meaning I can’t duck. They’re next to us now, shoulder-to-shoulder. They’re moving to their place at the front of the line, and that necessitates that we step back. All of which is exactly as it should be, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. I know you understand this, that you’re experiencing some version of this in your own family.

When I do see you in person, it’s usually at a sporting event. We’ve stood next to each other on sidelines and in hockey rinks, at races and matches. The days of yelling, “wrong way!” as our little kids trundled down a field with a soccer ball towards their own goal are long gone. Now, our children are tall and grown and fast and skilled. On hockey skates, most of them are taller than we are.  

Meeting your eyes, I recognize a certain look in them. It’s a combination of relief—we are sleeping at night, we can pop out when we need to and leave them alone, they have been dressing and feeding and wiping themselves for years at this point—and a shocked sense of being here, the parents of almost-adults, already. There is a lot of joy, because physically the parenting feels lighter, but that comes with a commensurate amount of anxiety. It’s as though the space left by sippy cups, early reader books, and multiplication tables has been filled with fears about social media, SATs, and body image.  

I used to scoff, years ago, whenever people told me that my children would need me more when they were older. How was that possible, I’d ask? They’re sucking on my body every three hours. How could they need me more than this? And yet it’s so true. We are needed even as we let go, and as they let go of us. These are the push and pull years, when we can encounter four versions of our own child by breakfast.

I feel my teenager’s gaze on me all the time, and the intensity with which she watches me contributes to my stress. I want to live up to her expectations. I wish she’d miss some moments of impatience or anger, those times when I’m not my best self, but she never does. It’s better, I tell myself, that she cares and that she’s watching, since I know parents whose children seem to have disengaged entirely. But that doesn’t mean it’s not challenging, having my words and actions, whether instinctive or thought-out, under the microscope of her attention. She observes the way I live my life with such scrutiny, it can be hard not to second guess myself. When I notice myself filling with anxiety, I try to remember all the many milestones behind us, each of them a small hallelujah, and feel grateful for the independence I see her achieving.

When you and I notice each other, whether at school or sports, in person or through the car window, we don’t often say much, and yet all of this passes between us. The loss and the welcome, the relief and the fear, the deep love, the surprising bewilderment. All that’s already gone animates every day of parenting for me now. It seems like as soon as I gotten my feet underneath me as a mother, the years of having children living at home are more than half over. It’s such a cliché but also such a sharp, slicing truth: it goes so fast.

Dear fellow parents, please know my head and heart are filled with so many of the same thoughts I see on your face. It’s hard to imagine saying all of these things out loud. We barely have time for a brief wave from behind our wheels, let alone a chat, but even if we sat down to talk, it’s more than I could say to you—this experience feels so intimate and personal. I’m aware of you next to me on this same path every day, but the fact is that most of us don’t know each other all that well. And yet, I often experience a feeling of solidarity so powerful it almost overwhelms me.

I’m thankful that our children are sharing their middle school years, that it’s your friendly face I see reflecting my own complicated feelings back at me, and your kind eyes who meet mine on a bad day. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must turn to greet the newly tall, graceful young woman who is my daughter as she folds herself into the passenger seat, and drive home.