Faith Gong: Parenting teens in middle age: Here be dragons

My fourth child turns ten in June, which means that I have been writing this column for over a decade; this is my 299th column. 

Back when I first pitched this column to John McCright, my patient and kind editor, I envisioned writing from the perspective of a mother with young children who had recently moved to Vermont and was experiencing all the quirky joys of this unique state for the first time. That’s what I was back in 2012. That’s not what I am anymore.

My husband and I are no longer particularly young; we’re middle-aged, closer to 50 than to 40. Our five children still live at home, and since our son was born in 2019 we do have one child who qualifies as young — but we also have two teenagers and a tween. And while there are definitely still new Vermont experiences to be had, we tend to stick to the same familiar, comfortable, large-family-friendly activities. 

I’ve noticed lately that it’s more challenging to decide what to write about. The seasons come and go. The garden is planted, grows, and dies. Chicks and ducklings arrive, and sometimes they die. We go to the lake, to the apple orchard, to the Christmas tree farm, to the ski slopes. We drive the kids to school and activities; we cheer at their games and performances. Every so often the cycle is disrupted by a tornado, a pandemic, a seriously ill child. Then the machine creaks back into motion. I’ve written about all these things.

It’s not that there aren’t soaring joys and crushing tragedies. Life hasn’t become dull and predictable. Rather, at this stage of life, I’m discovering that there are more and more things that we don’t talk about. That we can’t talk about. That we won’t talk about. 

The question, “How are you doing?” has always been a tricky one. Throughout my life, my default response — like most people — has been, “Good!” (Aside from some years around college when it seemed more socially acceptable to say, “Tired. Stressed.”)

Lately, “How are you doing?” paralyzes me. It’s the most predictable question in the world, but I freeze up like a deer in headlights whenever someone lobs this generic inquiry at me. 

“Good!” has become a woefully inadequate answer, if not downright dishonest. I’ve lived too long and I’m too tired to perpetuate the myth that everything is, “Good, thanks!” But do you really want to know how I’m doing? Can I be honest? Dare I plumb the depths of my current reality? Here be dragons. 

How are you doing? 

Well, to start with, middle age is strange. I never really thought about my age in my 20s and 30s; each year seemed much like another. But now each year feels weightier. I’m increasingly aware of how each year brings me closer to death. I wonder about death more than ever before — not in a fearful way, but more out of curiosity. How much longer do I have left? When will my body start to give out on me, and in what ways? 

I suppose I’d agree with those who say that they feel more confident in their 40s, although I’m not sure if it’s confidence or resignation. I’m beginning to accept that all the options in the world are no longer open to me, that I’ve made some choices I can’t undo. On the other hand, I don’t feel particularly wise and settled. I read a book recently by the poet Maggie Smith, in which she suggests that we carry all our former selves inside us, like nesting dolls. Many days, I feel more like my 16-year-old or 25-year-old self. I’m not free of the old doubts and insecurities, they’ve just shifted focus slightly: When should I stop dyeing my hair? Is that a new wrinkle, or am I just tired? How will I be remembered after I die — and when does one look into getting burial plots? Am I ruining my children? 

That’s a big thing we don’t talk about: the children. There is perhaps nothing lonelier than parenting teenagers. It’s exhausting work, demanding a constant stream of decisions and responses to issues that have potentially serious and lasting consequences. But we can’t — or we don’t — talk about it in the same way we used to discuss potty-training or sleep schedules, because the kids are older and deserve their privacy. Or maybe we’re just embarrassed. These years are not pretty, but we don’t want to sound whiny or ungrateful. We wanted these children; we love these children. We don’t want to appear overwhelmed — we’ve got this! We don’t want to be the ones warning new parents, darkly, “Just wait until they’re teenagers…” We hated that when we were new parents. 

How are you doing? 

Well, I’m trying to locate the narrow dirt path of parenting that winds between the weeds of over-permissiveness and the brush of authoritarianism, that tiny sweet spot where I’m on top of things but give my children appropriate autonomy. That place exists, doesn’t it? But most of the time I swing between extremes, biting my tongue until I can’t stand it any longer and crack down. 

How much can we weigh in on what they watch/read/listen to, their friends, their use of time, what they wear? (Will someone please explain how crop tops are back in style, and when they’ll go away?) Only yesterday they were playing with dolls and foam swords; suddenly they’re facing choices about sex, substances, gender identity. We thought we had more time. Did we tell them the important things? Did they listen? Is it too late? 

On top of all this, there’s the internet. Those of us who grew up without the internet are now parenting children who’ve never known an offline world, and many of us are starting to feel a rising panic that things may have gotten out of hand. We read alarming studies — so many studies! — about the dire effects of social media on adolescents’ mental and emotional health. We see the young people in our homes acting like addicts, staring slack-jawed at their screens whenever possible, always asking for more access, hacking into and subverting our parental controls. Should we be the luddites who refuse our children smartphones and Snapchat? Is it too late to stuff this genie back into the bottle? 

“The internet can be a useful tool,” we tell each other, reasonably. “We want to teach our kids how to navigate it responsibly.” But I’m starting to wonder whether that’s even possible anymore. The internet landscape is a terrifying place in which to allow my children to romp, and it is not neutral — it wants their full attention. Here be dragons. 

When I started writing this column a decade ago, it was because I thought I had something to say that nobody else was saying about moving to a small town in Vermont with a passel of young children. Now I’m trying to articulate the things we tiptoe around and obscure with vague words and knowing looks about being a middle-aged parent of teens. 

So, how are you doing? 

I’m reckoning with my own mortality and my children’s morality. What can I control and what do I need to let go? What have I not said enough, and what have I said too much? People seem to get through this; we’ll get through this, won’t we?  

Can I talk about it? Dare we talk about it? It’s unlikely to solve anything, but perhaps we’ll feel a little less ashamed and alone.

I’m good, thanks for asking. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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