By Jocelyn Pihlaja
She’s doing her nightly thing: listening to music, checking Instagram, chipping away at homework. When a favorite song comes on, the volume goes up. When a new text comes in, her fingers tap. When a page of Spanish is memorized, I hear it flip.
I’m standing eight feet away, folding laundry. She has no idea I’m engaging in one of my most-successful strategies for parenting a teenager. From where she sits, I’m pairing socks, folding sheets, making stacks of shirts. From where I stand, I’m conveniently nearby in case my 14-year-old cares to share.
Fourteen is not an age that responds well to direct questions. If I ask, “So how was your day? Anything up in your world?” she’s apt to stare silently at me for a beat and then bend her head over her backpack and start rustling around, in search of an important pencil. If she’s in a chatty mood, she might allow, “What would be up in my world? I’m 14. I went to school. Now I’m home.”
Her terse answers let me appreciate that the girl who was once labeled a “no-bullshit baby,” the toddler whose steady gaze withered cajoling adults into silence, is growing up true to self. Even more, her unwillingness to let conversations with her parents become interviews is, in its I-Will-Shut-You-Down fashion, somehow charming. Indeed, while teenagers may strike adults as close-lipped or stubbornly removed, there’s another way to view it. If I flip the dynamic and consider being greeted at the door with “How was your day? Anything new happen? Learn anything interesting? What’s up with your friends? Are you hungry? Do you have anything due tomorrow?”–the whole scenario makes me screamy because FOR THE LOVE OF BIEBER, A LITTLE SPACE, PLEASE.
Teenagers are cats, not dogs. I get that.
Thus, my laundry-folding strategy is feline. I’m not in the room because of her. I don’t need to look at or talk to her. I’m just there, doing my thing. I can take or leave her.
Naturally, my indifference is attractive. Like a prickly Siamese, she crawls—figuratively—into my lap, kneading her paws and claws into my thigh before settling in. I keep my back to her, and she offers, “I love this new song,” turning it up.
Still not looking at her, I ask, “Is it off a new album?” She tells me about tour dates and opening acts. On the heels of that, she tells me how her friend Amy stumbled across a really great cover of this one awesome song on YouTube.
“Can I hear it?” I dare.
Nothing would give her more pleasure, in fact. While the cover of the really awesome song plays, she tells me something corny her geometry teacher said. Still not looking at her, still folding clothes, I do not ask a question; instead I note, “I really liked Mrs. Peterson when we went to the open house at the start of the school year. She seemed like someone I would have enjoyed as an English teacher–in touch, in love with books, down-to-earth…”
And with that, my kitten becomes a puppy. The light inside her flips on, and she bounces in her chair. “Oh my God, that reminds me of something that happened in English! It was so funny!”
Now that she’s in dog mode, I can pet her. Turning, looking at her, I give her my full attention and demand, “Do tell.”
Sitting with one foot tucked under her, spinning around in the desk chair, she recaps, “When we were reading Romeo and Juliet out loud today, there was this moment at the ball when a couple of the characters announced they were going off into another room to have some drinks. After we read that part, a boy in my class goes, ‘My mom calls that book group.’”
I hoot. She giggles. We repeat her classmate’s line and agree: that’s hilarious.
Apparently, Mrs. Peterson thought so, too. After snorting with laughter, she told the wise-cracking student, “I don’t know your mom, but I think I like her.”
And then. My teenager, who sometimes can’t be bothered to say “Fine” when asked about her day, makes mine.
She tells me, “When he said that about his mom, I immediately thought of you, too. In a good way.”
Flattered to have been a thought in my 14-year-old’s mind, I acknowledge, “I sure do love to go into a room with friends and have some drinks.”
“I know. I mean, you’re not a crazy lady who has to drink all the time, but you’re a lady who is crazy for her drinks.”
With that subtle, accurate parsing of her mother’s controlled but passionate love of a cocktail, my girl confirms it: between her observational skills and her ability to make connections, she’d make one hell of an English major.
Actually, she’d make one hell of an anything.
Even though she’s currently in the feline teenage years, all of her everything is there, inside her, ripening. Sometimes I know what’s in there. Many days, I don’t.
However, no matter how much or little she feels like sharing, one thing is certain: tumbling around with her music and her friends and her skiing and her running and her homework and her classmates and her love of travel and her passion for chocolate, I am there too.
And being there is one of the greatest honors of my life.
Jocelyn Pihlaja is a community college English instructor in Northern Minnesota who loves teenagers and wine in equal measure. You can read more of her work at omightycrisis.com and follow her on Twitter @Jocelyn41.