It’s an interesting phenomenon that when a couple has a baby, everyone warns them about the impending sleepless nights, possible colic, bottle versus breastfeeding, appropriate car seats and more. However, not one of those well-meaning friends or relatives ever warns them about what comes next. Not next as in babyfood jars, learning to walk or picking a preschool, but next as in when their child takes those first, running, driving, risk-taking steps into adulthood.
After those adorable babies have grown into cherubic toddlers, precocious preschoolers, gifted gradeschoolers and complicated tweens, they become teenagers. Unfortunately for parents, there is no What to Expect When You Have Teenagers. Teens do not come with a manual. Parents are often left to their own devices to navigate these new and often turbulent waters.
How simple were the days when we didn’t sleep because we had to get up to feed the baby? Even when that baby was colicky, a swaddle and a snuggle often did the trick. With teens, things are not so simple. When we had to check on our infants in their cribs to make sure they were okay, we never thought about life 17 years down the road. Our babies would be driving and we would again not be sleeping, this time because we were waiting for them to get home.
It’s that waiting that is tough. The state-imposed 11 p.m. curfew for new drivers is great for parents. Unfortunately, teenagers hate it and let us know they hate it in subtle, yet effective ways. Our 17-year-old daughter continues to walk in the door at exactly 11 p.m. Every night. For those of you with new drivers, you understand the stress of those final 20 minutes. “Will she make it home by 11?” “If he is late, what is the appropriate punishment?” Then, 10 minutes later you send your child a text. “Better be home in 10” but, of course, you hope your child doesn’t reply because they are driving. Then, at 10:55, you have a moment of panic. “Wait, they didn’t respond, what if something happened?” Finally, at 11 on the dot, you hear the car pull into the driveway and the chirp of the car door being locked, and you breathe a sigh of relief.
Of course, with the later teenage years also comes college, and everything that implies. From PSATs to SATs or ACTs, to college selections, visits, decisions and more, the student’s stress level slowly but surely starts to build, fueled by society’s expectations. As teenagers get more stressed, life with teenagers gets more interesting. “Throwing shade” (defined by the Urban Dictionary as “talking trash about a friend or acquaintance, or publicly denouncing or disrespecting”) starts to become the norm and it often takes a genius—or a parent—to figure out that the teen isn’t really angry but, rather, anxious about all the impending changes to his or her life. The hard part is determining how to handle the shade. Address, ignore or deflect? Always a fun time in any home and, in a home with four teenagers and a tween, extremely challenging.
At this point, those well-meaning friends and relatives from your child’s baby years re-enter the picture, this time to weigh in on your teen’s future. Where were they when you needed advice on how to navigate the last few years? Probably spending time making lists of which schools your then-12-year-old should apply to, for no other reason than these schools are considered “good schools” or the student excelled at a certain subject in middle school.
Of course, our children have their own ideas about where to apply to college and, sometimes, there is no changing their minds no matter how right we know we are. Our rising senior refuses to consider a certain school because it’s “too close to home,” and our rising junior won’t even entertain the idea of visiting yet a different NJ school because it’s “in New Jersey.” At least our incoming high school freshman still thinks we know what we’re talking about. For now, at least.
The best part of the college process? College visits. For me, at least, they have proven so far to be true one-on-one bonding opportunities. In a family of seven, that’s no small feat. I cherished every second of the time spent with our 19-year-old as we visited numerous schools in NJ, NY and PA, knowing that soon he would be heading off to college or Israel. I am excited as I begin this process with our daughter, and look forward to repeating it with our son next year.
During this process, many of us are also dealing with the decision about the gap year. For some it is not a decision but rather a given. Either way, the options seem endless. For our son, the decision went literally down to the wire and, ultimately, was life changing. His year at Bar-Ilan University was the best year of his life. He will tell you that. For me, it was the most stressful. However, when I see how it has enhanced his life, I cannot help but be thrilled and proud. And here’s a secret that no one tells you about that gap year. It makes sending your child off to college a breeze. He was already away for a year, and he was in Israel. Binghamton, NY just moved around the corner.
So now, rather than being mired in diapers, baby food and carpools, life has become all about driving, college and Israel. We have said goodbye to JKHA lower school as our youngest is starting middle school. We will have three in high school and one in college. This year promises to be a year of trips back and forth to Binghamton, drivers’ permits, PSATs, SATs, college applications and decisions about both college and Israel. We have entered uncharted waters, and it is both scary and exciting.
Before we get to all that, though, we need to somehow get our eldest packed and ready to leave for college. Over these last two weeks my husband and I have tried and tried to get our son to start packing. “You have a free night,” we’d say, “let’s at least look at the packing list.” “What if we just go through your clothes to see if there’s anything you need?” Somehow he always had something else to do. “I’m going out with friends,” he’d say, or “Remember, I have an overnight tonight.” (He is a counselor this summer.) “We’ll do it later” became his mantra. Time was passing, and my own stress level was rising, although he was having a great time ignoring everything that needed to get done. It was time to take matters into my own hands and at least get him the basics, so I did a little shopping. Now I can cross toiletries and dorm supplies off the list.
At this point it looks like we will be packing quickly before and after Shabbat, as we are leaving early on Sunday morning. Hopefully he has whatever he needs but, as I mentioned, Binghamton is right around the corner.
Life with teenagers is stressful, but exciting. Every day is a new challenge, and there is no way to know what is coming next. Just because you already went through a certain age with one child, do not expect that age to be the same for any of your other children. We all know that every child is different; at no time is that more apparent than as we watch them struggle or breeze through the teen years. No one gets through fully unscathed, certainly not the parents. Like the first year of your child’s life, the teen years come with many sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days. Find a way to muddle through because, even sleep deprived, you will find that these years are some of the best you will share with your child, and all too fleeting. It’s true, there is no manual for raising a teenager but, maybe, you don’t really need one. Maybe it’s okay that those well-meaning friends and relatives didn’t advise you about what to expect during the teenage years. Maybe you should sit back and just enjoy life with your teen. Who needs to sleep, anyway?
Jill Kirsch is the senior editor at The Jewish Link but, for the purposes of this article, she is the mother of five children ages 10 to 19. And she hasn’t slept much since 1997.