Being a parent is like having the hardest job in the world, with the most observant, demanding, and judgmental boss — your kid. Well, I should clarify…being the parent of a teenager. Sometimes, I feel like an actor on a stage and my every action, reaction, expression carries it with the implicit message: this is how you do things. The scariest part to me is not that your teenager might disagree with you, but that they might subconsciously internalize your message and carry it with them for a lifetime, withstanding even the most expensive therapy. Now that is frightening. Though less daunting, it’s not a walk in the park when they disagree with you, either. Every time Billy Bob says something, I’m always wondering what judgment underlies her comment. A few days ago, she mentioned that we eat out most nights. Immediately, I was like, “What? I cook three to four times a week. You’re delusional, child.” And then, as my mind raced, I thought, “Well, shit, maybe that’s not a lot. Is that not enough? Am I feeding her garbage?”
Teenagers resemble narcissists in a variety of ways, I’ve found. The obvious one is that they think the world revolves around them. The less obvious is that they are extremely good at drawing out your guilt. Their questions are the worst. Yesterday, after hauling my ass to and back from New Haven, cooking a four-course dinner, and clearing the table, I was on my way upstairs when Billy Bob stopped me. “Are you going to build the sofa table and bookshelf and set up the projector?” she asked. And, even though all I wanted was to retire to the study and play video games, I grabbed a hammer and headed for the basement. Yes, I felt guilty, but I didn’t do it just because I felt guilty about putting it off. I also did it because everything I do is an example to her. I did it because I have to teach her how to get things done around the house, even while working or studying full-time. I did it because setting up furniture while Billy Bob does her homework on our new couch is better family time than sitting in front of a computer screen.
Raising teenagers is a truly altruistic task. Everything you do for them is for their future benefit and for the benefit of those around them. I think it’s hilarious how teenagers think you give them chores or ask them to clean their rooms solely to antagonize them. Ha ha. It is way easier and less work for me to just clean Billy Bob’s room myself than to constantly nag her. But what happens when you clean up after your kid for 18 years? They turn into a lazy slob whose spouse divorces them for leaving dishes in the sink. What I worry about the most is making sure that Billy Bob grows up to be able to have intimate, healthy relationships with others. So many grown-ups, me included, struggle with that. And those problems stem from your relationship with your parents and their relationship with each other. Since Billy Bob joined us, I’ve felt the scrutiny on my relationship with Dan. From the simplest things like her asking why Dan drives most of the time (answer: I don’t like highways and the law school commute is enough driving for me) to more difficult things like figuring out what is the optimal amount of PDA, I’m always acutely aware that we are teaching her about romantic relationships with every interaction we have.
Recently, we’ve been watching Mad Men as a family. It’s not necessarily age-appropriate for a 14-year-old, but given that Billy Bob has already watched the whole thing and says it’s her favorite show, we wanted to take the opportunity to gauge what she thinks about the characters. She often asks me who my favorite characters are (so far: that kick-ass gay guy cut Peggy’s hair and Joan) Once, she asked if all men were bored of their wives. I chuckled at that one — I didn’t really think she believed that. We discuss themes like sex, marriage, family, and sexism, but only when it comes up naturally. Sometimes, I tell anecdotal stories from my past. I commented that Jane bothered me because she reminded me of my immature, pretentious 20-year-old self. Billy Bob asked if I slept with married men, and I laughed and said no. Thank God I never made that mistake, or else I’d have to lie to her now!
You might ask yourself why I signed up for this job, since I wasn’t the one who brought Billy Bob into this world. That’s an easy answer — parenting is hard, but it is honestly such a privilege. You get to shape and mold someone to be a happier, better person. You can make or break their future marriage. You can save or cost them years in therapy. Every time I look at the court order that grants me legal and physical custody of Billy Bob, I am struck with a sense of gravity. This is one of the most important things I will ever do. Plus, there’s the added perk of learning how to co-parent with Dan many years before we take on the ultimate taskmaster, the screaming newborn. How do I get out of that job?