This article first appeared in the May/June 1996 issue.
JILL SITS WITH ME IN A TINY, SMOKY, PHILADELPHIA COFFEEHOUSE, sipping Earl Grey with extra sugar and eluding easy categorization. At 16, she has the pale corn-silk hair and luminous skin of a child, yet her persona is sophisticated, even a touch world weary. “I come here a lot,” she says, surveying the cramped, dark cafe festooned with African masks and layered with the scents of espresso and cigarette smoke. “I play a little poker with my friends and we go over what’s goin’ on with us. Analyze all the fine points.” She laughs, takes a long drag off her Camel, then stares at it. “I never thought I’d start smoking my grandma died of lung cancer.” She shrugs, and takes another drag.
Through the waning afternoon, Jill talks about her close friendships, her poetry writing and her involvement with her school orchestra. She also confides that she dropped acid at 13 and was sexually assaulted and nearly raped at 14. She does volunteer workwith her church youth group and also occasionally attends all-night, mixed-gender parties, where she drinks beer and smokes “a bowl or two” of marijuana. “But I am, like, totally a virgin,” Jill makes it clear, mostly because she is terrified of AIDS and other sex-linked diseases. “I wish I could live in an Anais Nin novel,” she smiles mischievously, “where everybody just has sex, sex, sex, and nobody worries about it.”
As I listen to Jill while assiduously taking notes, I feel the muscles in the back of my neck begin to constrict, then coil into a hard knot as she talks on about how drugs are sold and sampled in her school lunchroom, about girls who hide utility knives in their hair to protect themselves from attack, about routine sexual harassment in school corridors that is far nastier and more aggressive than anything I remember while growing up. I struggle to continue listening as a detached reporter, but it’s no use; I can hear her now only as a parent. I am thinking of my own 11-year-old daughter, only 3 months away from graduation from her cozy, sheltered elementary school, soon to enter this storm of hazards. How can I hope to protect her, give her what she needs to see her safely through this passage?
It is not, after all, as though I can relegate Jill’s life to some exotic category that renders it radically and reassuringly different …. from my own daughter’s. Jill attends a public high school that is known for its academic quality and attention to students’ needs; she describes her relationship with her parents as “good and pretty involved.” Nor can the risks that ring Jill’s daily life be represented as some kind of deviation from the general norm. Reporting last fell on a 10-year national study of adolescence, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development announced that rates of teen drug and alcohol use, unprotected sexual activity, violent victimization, delinquency, eating disorders and depression are now sufficiently widespread that “nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances.” These perils cut across all demographic lines: it is useless to pretend that raising a child in a two-parent household, or providing middle-class advantages or even, for that matter, fiercely loving one’s child will reliably protect a son or daughter from risk. I think again of Jill; If church youth groups aren’t a buffer, if involved parents aren’t protection enough, what is? I don’t know the answer, and I am afraid.
I am not alone in my fear and uncertainty. A few years ‘ ago, University of Illinois psychology professor Reed ‘ Larson began to ask parents for permission to interview their children for a study of , the challenges of early adolescence. “They said to me, ‘You think kids go through a lot? What about us? Do you have any idea how confusing and tough it is, now, to be a parent of a teenager?'” That scenario repeated itself so many times, says Larson, that he and his colleague Maryse Richards expanded their study to encompass parents’ experience. Their 1994 book on the findings, Divergent Realities, is a disquieting portrait of the pile-up of pressures now facing young teens and the ways in which today’s mothers and fathers try, yet frequently fail, to bolster their children through this increasingly perilous transition.
The reality is that parents are almost wholly without models for effective parenting in a world that none of us bargained for, an environment that seems to grow less protective of children and more hard-edged and malignant every day. “I’ve seen a real change just in the last 10 years,” says Janie Posner, a full-time mother of 7 children, ages 9 to 20. When her oldest child was a pre-teen, she recalls, numerous risks were present, but the environment still exuded a fundamental sense of goodness and optimism. Now, says Posner, “there’s a real sense of darkness out there, a kind of skull-and-crossbones energy. There is freedom without wisdom or respect. It’s much harder to feel you can go in and make a difference.”
Figuring out how to make that difference is still harder for the vast majority of parents who are employed an office or a factory away from their perpetually restless, easily bored adolescents. Numerous surveys confirm what worried parents already suspect: a growing proportion of teen involvement with alcohol, drugs and sex occurs between the increasingly unsupervised hours of 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. And the ringing accusations by newspaper editorials and political candidates notwithstanding, only a tiny minority of those parents are working to pay off their Rolexes and Land Rovers; most mothers and fathers use their paychecks to ensure their family’s economic survival. “Most parents are well aware that they need to reengage with their adolescents,” says Dana Becker, a clinical supervisor in family therapy at the Center on Adolescent Drug Abuse at Temple University. “But when you’ve got a single parent who works the 3-to-11 shift and her kid is out of control, what is that ‘more involvement’ supposed to look like?”
Once upon a time, parents relied heavily on each other for answers, trading bits of strategy and inspiration over cups of coffee at the kitchen table. That such invaluable frontline support is disappearing is only partly due to the stretched-thin daily lives of most parents; it is also because of the deeply silencing effects of shame. Mothers, in particular, have come to feel so guilty about working long hours away from their children that when their teens do encounter serious problems, they tend to blame themselves and face other parents with a kind of smiling, stonewalling silence about how their children are faring. “Everybody else has perfect kids,” says an Austin, Texas, legal secretary and mother of a 15-year-old girl whom she fears may be developing a drinking problem. “Everybody has good grades, they come home on time, they’re not giving you the lip. I’m always keeping an ear out, to see if another parent says anything, so I can say, ‘Well, God, me too!’ But nobody’s talking.”
What makes the increasingly unsupported and uncharted job of parenting teens still more harrowing is that, upon a child’s entry into adolescence, mothers and fathers often get torpedoed by their own vulnerabilities. While family therapists hardly need to be reminded of the domino effect of change within families, the extraordinary magnitude of the impact of adolescence on parents has only begun to be documented. In a recent three-year study of two hundred families whose oldest child was on the cusp of adolescence, Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg discovered that, over the course of this transition, forty percent of parents suffered a precipitous decline in mental health that was strongly linked to their child’s changing self. Many parents suffered painful, enduring feelings of rejection as they were roughly shoved off the pedestal by their young teens; others experienced a frightening sense of powerlessness in the face of an adolescent’s increasing intractability; still others, confronted by a son’s or daughter’s youth and seemingly limitless possibilities, found themselves engulfed by regrets about their own life choices.
Certain parental Achilles’ heels appear to be gender-linked. When Larson and Richards studied the nature of the encounters between young teens and their parents, they found that the roles fathers most frequently played leader, teacher, disciplinarian and motivator were often experienced as overbearing and alienating power plays by their adolescent children. Adding insult to injury, fathers in the study were typically so unskilled at decoding their teenager’s emotional cues that, when asked to guess their adolescent’s mood at any given moment, they did little better than chance almost always thinking their child was happier than he or she actually was. Consequently, says Larson, a hazardous perception gap frequently emerges between fathers and teens in which “fathers experience themselves as truly engaged and effective, while their adolescents feel unheard, misunderstood, angry at being steamrollered and, ultimately lose faith that their fathers can help them.”
Mothers, by contrast, are more apt to suffer from a kind of hyper-awareness of their young teens’ changing stance toward them. When Larson and Richards talked with fifth graders, for example, fully two-thirds reported feeling very close to their mothers and enjoying a kind of unambivalent pleasure in their company. By eighth grade, however, only a quarter of the kids reported feeling very close to their mothers. Meanwhile, the mothers typically continued to feel as warmly toward their children as ever, and many felt a wrenching sense of loss at this unilateral withdrawal of intimacy and companionship particularly when daughters began to stretch toward independence. “Because many women never got the mothering they needed when they were girls, the sensitivity around the loss of this relationship is especially acute,” says Elizabeth Debold, a developmental psychologist and co-founder of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. “So when a daughter starts to individuate, sometimes a mother can’t take it. To protect herself, she might forbid any open expression of conflict or she might simply distance.”
Backing off, it appears, is an increasingly powerful temptation for parents who are at once battered by their own parenting vulnerabilities, chronically pressed for time and feeling increasingly impotent in the face of the perils that litter their teenagers’ lives. In his just-completed survey of 20,000 families of adolescents spanning a range of sociocultural backgrounds, Steinberg found that a quarter of mothers and fathers seldom talked with their adolescents about the day’s events, were not sure how their teens spent their spare time and virtually never did anything with their adolescents for fun. Meanwhile, in the Larson and Richards study, the time parents expended for purely sociable chatting with their young teens free of instructions or exhortations averaged eight minutes per day for mothers and three minutes a day for fathers. “You’ve got all these pressures to disconnect, and on top of that a culture that says parents are supposed to pull away when a kid reaches adolescence,” says Debold. “So many images around adolescence are about flights, leavetakings, endings. There is very little support for parents who still want to nourish their children through this stage of life.”
But what happens when parents are determined to try anyway? For every mother or father of an adolescent who has given up, there are many more who continue to struggle to stay connected and effective, largely without encouragement, clear rules or useful models. For today’s parents, it would seem that the task of raising an adolescent requires something of a pathfinding spirit a willingness to improvise and sometimes make breathtaking leaps of faith in the absence of visible guideposts.
What follows is a report on some men and women who have wholly committed themselves to this effort, parents who have sought and received help from family therapists, but who have also charted their own courses, each fighting daunting odds to reach a struggling child. These are not traditional success stories: These parents have been baffled even stymied by the worlds their sons and daughters inhabit, and along the way have made costly mistakes. Nonetheless, each has managed to create a bond with his or her teenager that provides sustaining portions of both shelter and challenge. And in the persistent willingness of these parents to listen differently, confront their own limits and take the necessary measures to earn a child’s trust, they may help us enlarge our own vision of what it takes, today, to be a mother or a father.
WHEN YOU FIRST WALK INTO the Monagle family’s house, your attention is grabbed by the 53-inch, rear-projection TV that nearly overpowers the narrow living room, rendering Tim Allen’s grinning face as large as your own. “Just ignore it,” jokes Jack Monagle, an expansive, solidly built man who, with his wife, Teri, has raised three kids in this small brick rowhouse in northeast Philadelphia. Jack, 52, is solidly rooted in his mostly Irish-American, working-class neighborhood: he owns an auto body shop around the corner and played varsity football at the same Catholic high school from which his son, Mike, recently graduated.
Right off the bat, Jack wants to get one thing clear. “The book’s not written on Mike yet,” he says. He lets out a long, loud breath, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I’m still trying.”
He has been trying ever since that nightmarish, incomprehensible summer night, 2 years ago, when 16-year-old Mike went out drinking with his buddies, blew off his curfew and wound up hanging on the street, where he swaggered up to a lone kid waiting for a bus and began to beat him to a pulp. When the kid struggled to his feet and began to run away, Mike yelled to his friends to join in, and a pack of 10 beer-soaked, pot-buzzed boys chased the kid into a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, where, unfortunately for Mike, a cop was sipping a cup of coffee. On that night, Jack Monagle’s youngest son was arrested for aggravated assault and thrown into jail.
How could this have happened? Jack was bewildered; he and Teri had always been caring, attentive parents. From the moment Mike was born, in fact, Jack Monagle resolved not to be the kind of father his father had been: silent, brooding, withdrawn.
“My father never talked to me. Never” remembers Jack. His voice grows softer. “My senior year, when I made varsity football, it was one of the proudest things I ever did as a kid. Making that team! And my dad never came to a game. Not one” he repeats, staring at the floor as he speaks. “The only thing he ever did was let you know when you were doin’ wrong, with the belt. To the point where, when I turned 18, I just left. I wanted away from him. I hated him,” says Jack, his voice barely above a whisper. “My son was going to know I cared.”
He and Teri made sure, from the start, that the family did things together. They ate dinner as a family most nights, watched videos together on their mega-TV, piled everybody into the car for picnics and ball games. Nonetheless, when Mike turned 11, “suddenly, bam! He wanted to be gone,” recalls Jack. By age 13, the drinking had started. By age 16, his son was going through cases of beer with his pals every weekend. Jack knew that marijuana was also involved, maybe harder drugs as well, and he was worried.
So Jack began to make frequent trips upstairs to Mike’s bedroom, to talk with his son about his behavior. As he remembers it, Mike would mostly “just sit there and listen. Not say too much.” Nonetheless, Jack kept hoping he was getting through to his son until the next time Mike stumbled into the house at two or three or six in the morning, wasted. Grounding him seemed to have no effect. And on the horrible night that the phone call came about his son’s arrest, Jack still had no answers, only a growing sense of hopelessness and panic. He had tried to stay involved with Mike, he was different from his own father, why had this not been enough?
It was in court-ordered family therapy that Mike finally mustered the courage to tell Jack why. “I told him, ‘You scare the hell out of me,'” says Mike Monagle, now 18, a big, sweet-faced kid with buzz-cut blond hair, a tiny gold hoop in one ear and a voice so soft that one has to strain to catch his words. “I said to him, ‘Around you, I just freeze up.'”
Jack then heard Mike’s version of reality. How Jack wouldn’t walk, but fairly burst into Mike’s room after his son’s latest transgression, and rage at him about how he was screwing up his life. How, when Mike would try to speak, his father would shout him down, yell right over his attempts to explain his point of view. How, much of the time, Mike felt a confused mixture of anger, impotence and failure, and like a bitter disappointment to his father and to himself.
Jack remembers being astounded by his son’s portrayal of their encounters. “What my son didn’t get,” he says, “was that I was trying to show him I was there for him. Because I hated to see what he was in for, down the road.”
In therapy, Jack learned to more clearly identify those very feelings the anxiety and caring that lay just below his anger. It took time for him to simply be able to name and acknowledge these feelings; longer still before he could speak to his son from this softer, more tentative place. Jack still remembers the breakthrough session when he was able to turn to Mike and say: “Holy, Jeez, son, you don’t realize what’s inside of me. You don’t realize that when you’re out there carousing with your buddies, I’m here, my stomach a wreck, in knots, a million things goin’ through my mind. So by the time you walk in that door, I’m half outta my mind.”
By the time the family left therapy, Jack and Teri had also learned to more consistently enforce consequences for Mike’s curfew infractions and to address some of the issues in their marriage that they had managed to avoid by focusing so intently on their son’s behavior. Over the course of the next several months, Jack began to feel encouraged about his son’s life and prospects. While Mike was still drinking fairly heavily, he had quit smoking pot entirely and had graduated from high school with a C-plus average. The following fall, he enrolled in community college, something Jack had lobbied hard for. Then, just before Christmas, Jack stumbled upon a piece of his son’s life he knew nothing about.
“I’m talking to my brother one day, and out of the blue he says, ‘Hey, I hear Mike’s planning to quit school and join the Army.'” Jack shakes his head, incredulous. “I just sat there, like a bump. I was that shocked. And my brother goes on, ‘Yeah, the way he talked to me about it, it’s practically a done deal.’ And I say to my brother, ‘The way he talked to you about it? I’m puttin’ in all this effort to do better with my son, and he’s comin’ to you to say he’s quittin’ school?’
“And my brother says, ‘Who knows. Maybe he was scared to tell you.'”
Jack’s first impulse, he recalls, was to storm into the house and confront his son with his half-baked, clandestine plans. But he managed to stop himself, to slow down just long enough to feel how hurt he was by his son’s silence, and to think about what his brother had said. Maybe Mike was scared. But that was crazy; Jack knew for a fact that he hardly ever yelled and carried on the way he used to; what was there to be scared about? All he had done was encourage his kid to go to school. Was that such a crime? True, he had never actually asked Mike if he wanted to go; he had just assumed his son would want college. But didn’t everybody? Look at the economy, you’d have to be a jerk not to want school. A real jerk.
Jack stopped suddenly, stunned by the harshness of his own conclusion. Was that what he had been conveying to his son: Do it my way, or you’re a jerk? Had he convinced himself that, as long as he didn’t rant and yell, he could still run the whole show, run roughshod over whatever his son might be thinking or wanting? He wondered what it was that made it so hard for him to just shut up, get out of the way, give other people a little breathing room. He didn’t know for sure, but in that moment, he saw the future: “If I don’t start listening, I’m gonna lose him.”
The next conversation between Jack and his son is one that Mike has no trouble recalling. “My dad starts off by telling me he’s heard I’m leaving school, and I’m, like, ‘Oh God,'” he says. “And then he says he’s heard I might join the service, and, I’m thinking, ‘Just get me through this.’ But then I hear him say, ‘Okay, so fill me in.'”
Haltingly, Mike told his father that he had really wanted school to work out, but it hadn’t, he didn’t know why; that he actually hadn’t decided on the Army, it was just one idea he’d been kicking around; that the real problem was that he didn’t have a clue as to what he wanted to do with his life. He wished to hell that he did, felt stupid and ashamed that he didn’t, but there it was. When he finished, Mike says, he braced himself for the lecture. Instead, “My dad’s, like, ‘Okay, that’s fine. I have no problem with that.’ And I’m, like, what? This is comin’ from my dad?” Mike is shaking his head, grinning, as he speaks.
“And then he says to me, ‘I don’t care if you’re 30 and you still don’t know what you want to do. Don’t get all bent out of shape about it.’ And it was, like, a relief knowing it was okay that I didn’t have it all figured out yet. It was like a burden off me.” As the conversation continued, Jack made clear that if Mike decided against the service, he would need to get a job, but Mike also remembers that his father asked him what kind of work he might like to do. “It was kinda like we were buddies well, not exactly,” Mike muses, staring intently at a spot on the kitchen wall. “But it felt good. Like, you know, he loved me.”
Mike admits that he hasn’t told his father how meaningful that conversation was, and may never tell him. Over the last several months, however, he says he and his father have had a number of talks, “most of ’em real conversations,” and that a growing ease in their relationship “makes me want to hang around a little more than I used to.” Jack, for his part, is becoming increasingly conscious of wanting an even closer relationship with his son. “We’re talking more, but to be honest with you, I still don’t know much about the sensitive things in my son’s life,” he says wistfully. “The fears, those real inside thoughts I don’t know about those. And I would like to have that with him.”
Jack is the first to admit, however, that nothing in his experience or vision of fatherhood has prepared him for such intimacy. “Ideally I would like to say, ‘Let’s sit down, Mike, and let’s talk about what’s goin’ on with you. What are you thinking about when you’re hangin’ on the corner?’ But I feel funny doing it. Do women do that? Do women and their daughters sit down, like, for a half hour, and talk? Because you get into it, and it’s like men kissing,” he says, grimacing. “You know, it’s like, all right, that’s enough! Enough of that talk, let’s talk football. Yeah!” He laughs at himself.
Jack is silent for a moment, then says, “But I tell myself sometimes, it might be worth it to jump in there. Because I sit down with my friends now, the guys I grew up with, and we talk about how none of our fathers did that. Not one. Didn’t talk to us. Not a clue to where we were at.
“And all of us, every one, feel we missed something.”
WANT TO SEE WHAT I GOT FOR my birthday?” Without waiting for an answer, 18-year-old Tina Perez jumps up from the kitchen table and pulls down her gray sweatpants to her bikini line, revealing a large tattoo, an ornate sun-moon design in electric oranges and yellows. “It cost, like, $250, but my ex-boyfriend paid for it and it was definitely worth it.” Asked what made her decide to get a tattoo, she looks momentarily confused, then flashes an exuberant smile. “It’s just me” she says, striking an exaggerated model pose. “I’m very exploratory. I like trying new stuff.”
Watching Tina in action, it is easy to imagine how some boy would part with $250 of his hard-earned cash for her: she exudes a kind of non-stop, firecracker energy that is hard to resist. And even in her nondescript sweats and haphazard ponytail, she is frankly beautiful, with the smoky dark eyes and sensuous features of a young Sonia Braga. Nonetheless, the last several years have not been easy for Tina. Faced with a barrage of dislocating changes in her early teen years, as well as the convergent pressures of negotiating adolescence as a Latina and as a female, she came very close, in her words, “to a crash and burn.”
Tina’s mother, Rose, is a plump, straightforward woman of 38 who laughs easily and exudes an aura of home and welcome. The mother of two daughters, Tina and 20-year-old Marta, Rose works long hours as a secretary for the city controller’s office, but nonetheless considers her main job to be “the pillar of the house, the one who keeps everything from crumbling.” The Perez family badly needed that pillar. Nine years ago, when the family lived in Miami, Rose’s husband, Luis, was involved in an accident at work that left him permanently disabled as well as deeply depressed and embittered. In a wretched instant, Rose became at once the family’s economic mainstay, point person for her husband’s medical problems and emotional turmoil, and sole functioning parent of two girls on the brink of adolescence. Before the accumulating stresses overwhelmed her entirely, Rose decided to move her family to Philadelphia, where she could rely on the support of several siblings.
For Tina, who had just turned 13 when the family left Miami, the move was a traumatic rupture. “In my new school, there were only three kids who were Hispanic, and I was one of them,” she recalls, her face tight with remembered pain. “On the first day of eighth grade, I came to my classroom and there was a note taped to my desk: ‘Go back on the fuckin’ banana boat you came from.'” She reported the incident to the principal, but no action was taken. “It felt like me against the whole school.”
Tina wanted desperately to fit in, to figure out some way to compensate for whatever was wrong with her. And she ultimately decided, as do so many adolescent girls, that her body was the enemy. “You just look in the mirror and see yourself, like, three times bigger. Because, it’s like, you just have to be pretty, being a girl. And so I wouldn’t eat.” For several months, Tina subsisted on popcorn, water and diet pills, except on those occasions when “I’d just get too hungry and pig out on something. But then I’d make myself throw up.”
During this period, Rose was terrified for her daughter and would literally follow her around the house, begging her to understand that nobody was meant to look like those girls on TV, with their size-two dresses and pencil limbs. But in response, says Rose, “she would close right up. She’d start with the mouth and curse me out, and if I tried to hug her, she would cringe. I felt that the mother-daughter relationship was just cut off. I was devastated.” At one point, she recalls, Tina exploded at her: “You’re just talking all this junk because you’re such a fat pig, and no man would even look at you!” Rose was both deeply hurt and bewildered: The subject here was Tina, not Rose. Why was Tina bringing her into it?
By the end of Tina’s freshman year, she had begun to make friends and be noticed by several boys, and the extreme dieting began to abate. But now a new source of alarm emerged: Tina was drifting into a crowd of kids who habitually cut school, popped Xanax-and-Halcion cocktails during lunch hour, drank to get drunk. “Something was going on inside this girl, but I couldn’t get anywhere near it,” says Rose. When she tried to talk sense to her daughter, Tina would unleash a torrent of expletives. By this time, Luis had taken to slapping his daughter to subdue her; unbowed, Tina would hit and kick back. Frightened and near despair, Rose took Tina with her to a family therapist, praying for a well-marked road map back to order and sanity.
Instead, the therapist assigned Rose a deceptively simple initial task to make an effort to reconnect with her daughter. At first, she was baffled by the prescription: Wasn’t this what she had been trying to do all along? But as Rose talked in therapy about her experience of the last few years, she came to realize that she had sunk so much energy into keeping her depressed husband afloat that she had been reduced to merely monitoring or hectoring Tina. Moreover, Rose had come to feel so utterly rejected by her daughter that without being aware of it, she had largely withdrawn emotionally from her. As a start, their therapist suggested that the two of them spend some time alone something they hadn’t done since Tina was a small child.
So they began having regular breakfasts at a nearby diner, where, at first, Tina remained guarded and sullen, and Rose filled the silences with bright, anxious questions. But gradually, as Rose relaxed her expectations, Tina began to talk. “I told her how hunky-dory everything was when I was about 10, just runnin’ around being this little tomboy,” recalls Tina. “And then I got hit with the real world, and it was supposed to be great but it really sorta sucked, you know? And how part of me wanted to go back to being a little kid. But I couldn’t.”
Meanwhile, Luis, who at first had refused to participate in therapy, now joined the sessions. While he agreed to stop striking his daughter, he made few attempts to otherwise alter his generally authoritarian stance toward her. Still, by the time the family terminated therapy, Tina was unquestionably doing better the worst of her drinking and drug use had abated, and her relationship with her mother had become appreciatively more trusting. Nonetheless, there remained a reckless, who-gives-a-damn quality about her daughter that continued to disturb Rose.
Then one afternoon, as the two of them sat in the living room, Tina began to talk about what she thought drew her to excitement and clanger. “You can’t be brave and have nothing bad happen,” she explained to her mother, “but you have to be brave for something good to happen, too.” Then she looked up at Rose, and said in a small, clear voice, “The thing is, Mom, I don’t want to end up like you.”
Rose was genuinely shocked. What could her daughter mean? She had always tried hard to be a mother that her daughters could be proud of: a woman who juggled two mammoth responsibilities job and family. But Tina saw something else: a woman who had capitulated, sold her life down the river for marriage and a man, and now lived yoked to her husband’s dictates and whims, trapped and silenced. “Who puts up with him goin’ out till four in the morning, while you’re stuck here? Who’s always running to get his coffee and stuff, even though you’re the one with a job?” demanded Tina. And if escaping her mother’s fate meant going to the other extreme, edging toward a different sort of self-immolation, fine, she’d rather be a hellion than a doormat.
When Rose first heard her daughter’s accusations, she was tempted to shut down, inform her daughter that she was simply wrong, that she, Tina’s mother, was the pillar of this house, not the doormat. Yet Tina’s unvarnished charge kept reverberating: You sold your life. Rose was aware that she often felt irate about the general plight of women, other times outright furious at her husband, but rarely followed her feelings to any particular source. Had she really compromised so much? And if so, how had it happened?
Rose began to sift through a part of her life that she hadn’t thought about for many years her childhood in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in south Florida, her parents’ seventh child and the first to be born on the mainland. Was it because of that particular distinction, she wondered, that she had found it so hard, growing up, to understand her parents’ ways? “I started thinking about what a tomboy I’d been,” she recalls, smiling wistfully at the memory. “I was always trying to beat the boys in basketball, baseball, swimming, you name it. And when my mother would say no, get in the house, girls don’t do that, I would fuss and kick and yell, ‘This isn’t the island, this is America!’ And my mother would go slap!” Rose’s hand slices across the air. “Get that stupid attitude outta your head!”
And gradually, her protests diminished, then ceased altogether. By age 12 or 13, she had begun to spend most of her time inside the house, cooking and cleaning and ironing. Then, barely out of high school, Rose met and married her husband. When she shared with Luis her most cherished dream to go on to college he forbade it, and she accepted his right to determine her future. And now, says Rose, “I’m the Superwoman, the one who is never sick, never hurt, always strong, and on the edge of driving myself to a tizzy.” A woman that her daughter seemed to be fleeing from as though her very life depended on it.
Rose thought about all of this for a long time, about the kinds of messages both her culture and Anglo culture give to girls growing up, about what kind of messages she herself had absorbed and might now be unwittingly passing on to her daughter. She thought about how Tina seemed to vacillate between carefree wildness and wrenching self-doubt, but never seemed to position herself toward anything. She didn’t know exactly what her daughter needed to hear from her, so she began with a piece of her own truth. “Look, I have already made my choices,” she told Tina. “And I’ve made some mistakes. But I am not saying to you that this has to be your future. You can make your own life.” But to be in charge of it, she continued, Tina would need to make some plans to get more education, become self-supporting. “Whatever it is you want to do,” Rose promised her daughter, “I will support you 100 percent.”
Tina remembers that conversation equally well. The message she got from it was “don’t take crap from anybody,” she says with a grin, raising her fist in a power salute. Then, more quietly, she adds, “My mom was saying, you gotta respect yourself. And make your life happen.”
While this talk was followed by other, similarly forthright exchanges, they spurred no immediate shifts in Tina’s life direction. When she graduated high school last spring, she had made no plans for college. Instead, she planned to work in a local Gap store until she had saved enough money for some “really decent wheels,” which at the time seemed like power and freedom enough.
Then, last summer, Tina fell in love for the first time. After four months of idyllic togetherness with this new man, she agreed to have sex with him. Her party-girl reputation notwithstanding, this would be Tina’s first sexual experience, and her decision to be intimate was momentous. Two weeks later, “he called me with some cheesy excuse for why he couldn’t see me anymore. He had gotten what he wanted,” Tina says, her voice wobbling slightly. “The first day we broke up, I cut my hair off. ‘Cause I thought something was wrong with me, right? I stopped eating. I lost 12 pounds. And I cried all the time.” It all seemed like a disquieting replay of her freshman year, when she had tried to radically overhaul her body to stave off self-hate. Except this time, Tina was able to cut short her self-destructive slide.
“I told my mom about it, and she sat with me and said, ‘Well look, this sorta thing happens, but you’re still Tina,” she remembers, her eyes filling with tears. She blows her nose on a paper napkin, then sits up straighter in her chair. “This is gonna sound weird, but after a few weeks I woke up one morning and I decided, this sucks! I have to get my life together. I can’t revolve everything around a guy.” The following month she enrolled in a local community college, and also quit her Gap job to begin working part-time as a teacher’s aide, a job she located with Rose’s help. Working with fourth graders, she reports, “is way harder than I expected,” but she likes it, too, and is thinking about investigating the courses she’ll need to become an elementary schoolteacher. As for the trauma of her misplaced love and trust, she still has frequent bad moments even bad days but she is slowly gaining some perspective.
“It took something this hard,” says Tina, “to begin to get it. That it’s time for me to start depending on me.”
WHEN TIM COOPERMAN TALKS about skateboarding, his whole body gets involved. “It’s the best,” he enthuses, leaning way forward on his mother’s living room couch, a slow, happy smile spreading across his face. He is 17, with thoughtful dark eyes and the strong, square body of an athlete. “It’s like, you can have your own individuality, do it different from the next man and still be best friends, you know?” He looks up, his eyes full of pleasure. “You can go fast, there’s no rules. It’s freedom.”
As Tim talks, one is struck by the contradictions. He is built like the Terminator, yet his demeanor is exceptionally gentle and courteous, and he is eager to talk about his poetry writing, which he describes as mostly “stuff from the heart.” It is hard to imagine him as the boy who, his mother says, was once so violent and self-destructive that, for a time, she literally could not be in the same house with him.
“Believe it,” says 44-year-old Kate Cooperman, a trim, dark-haired woman whose composed bearing betrays little evidence of the massive personal disruptions she has sustained in recent years. Five years ago, she shared this house with her husband, Warren, and their two sons, Tim, then 12, and Jonathan, 7. All things considered, life was pretty good in their quiet, maple-shaded Philadelphia suburb, where both Kate and Warren were high school gym teachers. Then, one warm June evening, Warren walked out on Kate and the boys, leaving behind only a voice-mail box for further communication. Before she even had a chance to cope with her own shock and rage over her husband’s decampment, Tim began to come unglued.
“To say he was angry is an understatement,” says Kate, grimacing. “He began to punch holes in every wall of his bedroom. Then he would go down to the playroom and shoot hockey pucks so hard they would break the dry wall. Everywhere you looked in this house,” she says, “you saw how broken he was.”
Accompanying these explosions was a slow withdrawal from everything that Kate felt had sustained her son: friendships, his involvement in the community choir and, most baffling of all, the team sports at which he excelled. “Tim is really a great athlete, just a natural,” she says, pride edging her voice. “He gets the genes from both of us I was a gymnast and dancer all through high school, and Warren played minor-league baseball.” So when she watched her son quit, one-by-one, every sport he starred in hockey, soccer, baseball she was devastated.
The reason he was abandoning team sports, Tim informed his mother, was that he needed more time for the only activity that gave him any pleasure at all: skateboarding. From his standpoint, skateboarding was what saved his life during those despairing, rage-filled years. “I was freakin’ out all the time,” he says, holding out a pair of scarred hands for inspection. “Look, none of my knuckles are the same they all got so bruised and bloody.” He lived for the school dismissal bell, when he would “hop the train into the city and meet up with some buddies mostly black guys. They’re my best friends now. Then we’d skate the whole city in a herd, right in traffic. Just flowing with it and feeling good.”
But elsewhere, Tim’s moods were disturbingly unpredictable. On some days, says Kate, her son was still his affable, endearing younger self, and would show her the rap poems he was working on or regale her with stories about the latest antics of his friends. But on other days, he would erupt in a white fury for no apparent reason. After he had punched out every available wall and door in the house, he started in on the kids at school, once breaking his hand over a classmate’s head. By this time, Kate had sought the help of a therapist, who suggested that Tim, now 15, try lithium for a possible bipolar disorder. The medication calmed him somewhat, but after a few months, Tim refused to continue the regimen, and his rage and the accompanying violence resumed. Desperate, Kate began to punish her son’s transgressions by confiscating his skateboard, a tactic that, she now admits, “only made him go crazier.”
One evening, shortly after one of these impoundments, they began to argue over Tim’s unopened school-books a familiar scenario. But this time, something was different. “I saw this horrible, monstrous, Incredible Hulk look’ come over Tim’s face,” Kate recalls, hugging her shoulders as she speaks. “And then he came after me.” This had never happened before, and it was terrifying. “He was big, and he was strong and he was following me around the room, screaming, and then he pushed me up against a wall. And when I saw him lift his arm to hit me, I ducked and ran out.”
She returned to her house later that evening with Warren, who still lived nearby, and she remembers the next two hours as the most excruciating of her life. “I said to my son, ‘You are going to your father’s. You cannot live here anymore.'” In response, she says, Tim began to sob wildly, begging for another chance. “He was crying, ‘I won’t do it again! I promise, Mom! Please!’ I was dying inside, but I knew a line had been crossed. He had to know that he couldn’t abuse me, or any other woman, ever.” In the end, Warren had to bodily drag Tim out of Kate’s house.
For the next two months Kate cried every day, wracked with sadness and guilt over Tim’s banishment. Nonetheless, she tried to find ways to stay connected to him. While she knew that Tim could not move back anytime soon his continuing explosions at his father’s home precluded that she encouraged him to drop by her house for short visits, and they talked nearly every day on the phone. Then, as he neared the end of 10th grade, Tim dropped a new bombshell: he wanted to quit school. When Kate refused to sign the necessary papers, he escalated by failing subjects. Warren, who was preoccupied with a new girlfriend and rarely home, had instituted no curfew or rules about schoolwork; he believed it was up to Tim to decide his own scholastic future. Kate disagreed. Her son was only 16 and had been through hell; he still needed a parent in his life.
On her lunch hour, she began driving over to Tim’s high school, where she systematically met with each of his teachers. Her aim, she says, was “to give them a little bit of background on our situation so they could come from a place of compassion.” While not every teacher responded, one of them, a biology teacher, made Tim her special project, giving him extra attention in lab periods and showing him in numerous ways that he was smart and special. Gradually, Tim’s biology grades began to improve; slowly, other grades began to inch upward. As her son’s junior year progressed, Kate saw him become gradually more engaged with school again, and somewhat calmer as well.
But for all her caring and energetic advocacy, Kate knew that there remained a wedge between her and Tim, something that stopped her from giving him her wholehearted, unstinting acceptance. That barrier was skateboarding. In some ways, she could now acknowledge, she saw skateboarding as the enemy, the faintly disreputable sport that had usurped his involvement in the mainstream athletics she so valued. She was also frankly anxious about the perils of skateboard culture, the myriad risks of cruising on a 30-inch length of laminated wood through a traffic-snarled, violent city. The combined force of these antipathies hampered Kate’s capacity to unreservedly admire Tim’s abundant, even extraordinary, skating talent. “He would show me these amazing, complicated tricks, and I would say, ‘Great honey, but keep in mind, you can’t get a college scholarship on the strength of that.’ I was never able to just say, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful.'”
Then one evening Kate saw the movie, The Piano, and walked out thoroughly shaken. “I saw this woman ready to give up almost everything she possessed to play the piano,” she says, her voice edged with wonder. “It hit me hard. I saw how, when somebody has a passion, it’s not just a desire, it’s more like a force. And I thought, ‘That’s Tim.’ I thought about all the times he would break bones and get rushed to the emergency room, and how, the second he had healed, he would be right back on that skateboard.” She remembered, too, something the therapist had told her the year before, about her practice of confiscating Tim’s skateboard as punishment. “He told me, ‘That’s like cutting off a part of his body.'” Now she saw, with stark and perfect clarity, that “my son needed skateboarding, whether I liked it or not.”
And Kate began, then, the long-overdue process of letting go of her fantasy son, the boy who was “the high-school sports star, the classic big man on campus,” and of seeking out ways to appreciate the determined, ferociously independent boy Tim was. She knew she couldn’t pretend to embrace skateboarding itself, but, as a former athlete, she realized that she could genuinely admire her son’s disciplined focus on his sport. “I started trying to let him know how I really appreciated his dedication and persistence,” she says. She picks up a copy of the skateboarding magazine Slam from the coffee table and leafs through it to a full-page photo devoted to her son’s prowess. “Look, that’s him, in a national magazine,” she says, her eyes shining. “I keep this here to show off to everybody.”
Kate has felt rewarded, she says, by a gradual, growing sense of trust and closeness between her and her son, who now frequently spends whole evenings at her house, just to relax and talk. In recent months, their conversations have centered on his applications to college, where he’s thinking of studying journalism; his new girlfriend, an African-American dance student he thinks he may be in love with; even about sex, and his conviction that he’s not yet ready to be a father. And very recently, they have been discussing the possibility of Tim moving back to Kate’s house. Says Kate, “I would love it, but Tim has gotten used to so much freedom at his dad’s that neither of us is sure he could handle being back here, with my different expectations. We’ll see.”
Because she grasps now just how vital skateboarding is to her son, Kate no longer mentions, never even hints at, how frightened she remains of the rough-edged skating subculture Tim inhabits, especially for a boy with a longstanding reputation for talking with his fists. “I worry, too, because I’m an idiot,” Tim agrees. “If I get off the train and see four guys coming toward me, I’ll walk right through them instead of around them. And I’ll look each one in the eye.” Moreover, he admits, “I still go through some serious phases, where I get really angry and I want to punch something.” Nonetheless, he says, these episodes are less frequent, and less intense, than before. If anything, Tim believes, the pure experience of skateboarding, that wild, heart-bursting encounter with his own spirit as he rockets down pavement and soars through space, is what keeps him as steady and balanced as he generally now feels. “When I’m out there, I’m flying’ he says. He tries to suppress a smile, then gives up trying. “It makes me so happy, I can’t even describe it.”
WE NEED, MORE THAN EVER, THE fundamental hope offered by family journeys such as these, visions of a parent’s capacity to make a saving difference in an adolescent’s life. But beneath the sense of possibility imbuing these stories lies the subtler question of influence what was it, in the end, that made change possible? It seems clear, in each of these cases, that the progress of a struggling teen had less to do with the application of specific parenting techniques than with parents’ own patient, persistent efforts to construct relationships with their son or daughter that might provide genuine shelter.
There is nothing new, certainly, about the critical influence of a strong parent-child relationship on an adolescent’s adjustment and well being. Yet the concept of “maintaining the connection” has a kind of common-sense, pop-psych ring to it that can sometimes mask the intricacies of creating and nurturing such a bond. The efforts of these parents underscore some of what it does take: the harrowing balancing act required to lower traditional hierarchical barriers without forfeiting guidance; the anxiety-filled struggle to honor an adolescent’s growing autonomy; the sheer fortitude required to resist giving up in the face of repeated setbacks and rejection.
But what these parents were least prepared for and what ultimately presented the most arduous challenge was the necessity of facing down their own limits and vulnerabilities in order to earn a meaningful place in their adolescent’s life. These parents came to their teenager’s crises expecting to grapple only with a child’s difficulties; they discovered, in the process, an unclaimed piece of self that jeopardized their capacity to truly fathom their adolescent’s emotional world. In their willingness to stretch beyond themselves to reach a son or daughter, these parents became capable of much more than love. Each could now convey to a child: You can trust me with your deepest, most vital truths, and because of this I can I will hold you through this passage.
Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.