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A Mom by the Book
By Adair Lara
When Adair Lara's daughter Morgan turned 13, she was transformed, seemingly overnight, from a sweet, loving child into a secretive, moody teenager who would neither listen nor take direction. For the next five years, Lara, her son Patrick, her ex-husband Jim, and her new husband Bill shared a roller-coaster ride in which Morgan incarnated the chaos principle in torn jeans and dyed hair. Lara has just published a memoir, Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, which recounts how mother, daughter, and family survived. An excerpt follows.
I knew what kind of teenager my daughter Morgan would be: Outgoing, devoted to her mom. Then pulling out of the drive, an Ivy League scarf wrapped around her neck, waving a tearful goodbye as she went off to college.
She would be a good kid because I was a good mom, and had worked so hard to make her a fine person. It was part of my identity.
Then Morgan turned 13. Not only was I not the mother of a good kid. I was the mother of a kid who seemed to be methodically working her way down a list of teenage transgressions: Cheated in school, check. Sneaked out, check. Screamed, yelled, sulked, was mean to her little brother, check.
She burst into tears when I said hiring a hall for her birthday was out of the question, and did it again when I said no to her getting her own apartment. If I was the factory, this was my product. And a shoddy piece of work it looked to be.
I thought if I just knew more, knew better how to handle 13-year-old Morgan, then she would be reasonable and happy. I bought half a dozen books on raising teenagers and sat with them out on the front steps, doing what I had done all my life when at a loss: reading, thumbing through books.
The manual Between Parent and Child said you're supposed to mirror your children's feelings back to them. When a kid comes home depressed because he didn't get the babysitting job he wanted, the father is supposed to say something like, "You must feel really disappointed."
I cringed, reading this. If I said, "Morgan, I hear that you are angry," she'd say, "Mom, I hear that you've been reading your parenting books again."
But when I tried it, it worked. One Sunday morning, Patrick complained that Morgan wouldn't let him borrow the black basketball that had come with her Nike watch.
"You always borrow my clothes and my basketball, and you never appreciate it," she screamed at him. "I don't want you to borrow anything of mine again, ever." She grabbed the ball from him and headed for her room.
Instead of saying, "Oh, Morgan, you know you never use the basketball yourself," as I usually would, I said, "Patrick, Morgan needs to know that you appreciate it when she lends you her things."
Both kids seemed to hold their breath for a minute. Then Patrick gave his sister a token shove and went off without the ball, but she smiled at me. And actually put her dirty plate in the sink.
Encouraged, I went back to my books, going through the advice with a yellow highlighter while my work piled up next to my computer. "The more she loves you, the worse the rebellion as she struggles for independence," said one book. "The more she feels loved, the freer she'll feel to be obnoxious."
Morgan must have felt loved to death, I thought.
"It is with girls, not with boys, that parents experience the supreme disruption of adolescence," said a book called Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Cheryl and Me to the Mall? "Sweet cooperative daughters turn, often rather suddenly, into hysterical, shrieking monsters."
This, too, was cheerful reading. How could her
metamorphosis into a Gorgon-headed changeling be my fault -- or her fault -- if I could read it in a book?
One book advised me to separate incidents into Her Problem and My Problem. My problems included keeping her safe, providing for her needs, and making sure she felt loved even when we couldn't stand her.
One night I knew she had a Spanish test the next day, but she'd been on the phone for hours. I was snapping pencils at my desk, so I asked her to get off the phone.
"I don't like to see you on it," I said.
She said, "That's your problem, Mom. Deal with it."
And she hadn't even read the book.
I learned that good moms are firm. Good moms say, "No, you may not take 10 minutes out of your homework period to watch MTV. No, you cannot stay at school for song girl tryouts even though that's suddenly always been your dream and tryouts are today only and you hate me, I'm a peeface."
Between Parent and Teenager said never make blanket statements to your kids, telling them they always do this, or they never do that. I marked the passage for her dad to read.
"This is typical of you, Jim," I said in a yellow Post-it. "You always do this."
When I wasn't reading books, I was listening to anyone and everyone.
"All you have to teach her, you have already taught her," a woman in the line at the bank told me, patting my arm, when I started gabbling to her about the hell child I had at home. I tried desperately to remember something, anything that I had taught her, besides an appreciation for red licorice and all the words to "Last Kiss."
All the advice I was getting was good. The trouble was that the person -- me -- who was trying to take in all the advice was a harried, nervous, shivering wreck. Morgan was the tornado, and I was the trailer park in her path.
One morning I barged into her room as she was getting ready for school. The day before, she had hung up on me and come home 15 minutes late. Wanting to take the advice of the book and not wanting another unpleasant evening, I said nothing. We all had Bill's baked chicken together, and I let her spend two hours on the phone even though I knew she had algebra homework.
I was fine. She was fine. Until the next morning.
"You left your wet towels on the floor in my room when you were in there swiping my black sweater this morning," I snapped, and then caught myself.
"It's hard to remember everything when you're rushing around in the morning," I said.
I tried to go on. But what came out instead was: "And you didn't get your algebra done last night."
Morgan blinked in surprise. Hurt, she left for school again without saying goodbye. I heard the door slam.
Books tell you what teenagers are going to do. What they don't tell you is how you will feel. If our home life had been a novel, Morgan would be the man whose feelings had turned cold, and I would be the spurned girlfriend waiting by the phone, the one as much in love as ever.
And I was scared. It was the worst period of my life to calmly and humorously put parenting advice into practice, to laugh when my heart was cracking. I was like a friend I knew with a back injury, who toward the end would lie face-down on her hospital bed, her gown hiked up in back, and scream if the doctor touched her back, even when he did it with a feather.
All the time now, I found myself screaming at feathers.
Not having control was an awful feeling. When she talked on the phone for hours, and I knew she had a math test the next day, I was not enraged because she was in danger of not knowing any math. I was enraged because she wasn't minding me, because she was standing in my house and not doing what I wanted her to do.
Sometimes the books advised me to use humor. "Don't give them the reactions they're after," they said.
It struck me that my sense of humor had been the first thing to go. Where was the mom who used to drop on all fours? All of a sudden, parenting had become deadly serious.
One night she'd been on the phone for two hours, dressed in ragged cutoffs and a tank top, lying atop her cluttered bed like a shipwrecked passenger on a raft.
"I did not tell anybody that sophomores could kiss my ass," I heard her say heatedly. "I do NOT want a hug," she said next. Then: "I like you as a friend," she said. "I want you to respect my boundaries."
I picked up the extension.
"If you don't get off the phone, I'm going to sing 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree' into it," I said.
And we did, Bill and I, warbling off key into the phone, "Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tre-e-ee," while the dog barked crazily. Morgan laughed--and got off the phone. *
Adair Lara is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and the author of five books, including Welcome to Earth, Mom and The Best of Adair Lara. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous national magazines, including Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, and Parenting. Lara and husband Bill can frequently be found sipping espresso on the bench in front of Martha & Brothers Coffee on 24th Street. Daughter Morgan has just graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Excerpt from Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: A Mother, a Daughter, and an Adolescence Survived (Broadway Books) and photo (by Deborah Feingold) reprinted by permission of Adair Lara.
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