It seems odd to embrace a job with an inverse relationship between experience and positive reinforcement: the longer you do it, the more people tell you that you’re bad at it — but that’s exactly what happens for many of us when we are parenting teenagers.
After spending two decades of my life as a parent, I was surprised at how many conflicting emotions swirled around me on the day of my daughter’s graduation from high school. I was thrilled that the school put in a lot of extra effort to arrange a drive-up graduation ceremony in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. My daughter got to hear her name called as she walked across a stage, picked up a diploma, posed for pictures in front of multiple backdrops, and got back in our car, so we could drive away as instructed. The school administrators had to spend more than six hours in the parking lot welcoming hundreds of cars assigned a designated time to pull into a line of vehicles to wait our turn to see our child experience a revised version of the traditional pomp and circumstance. We moved through the line of cars in about 15 minutes, and she spent less than five minutes walking through the stations. It all went by so fast, I couldn’t help but experience a sense of disappointment at the anti-climactic nature of the event.
I was surprised by that emotion, and the tinge of sadness I felt as the professional photographer snapped a photo of me and my daughter in front of giant balloons spelling out “2020.” It’s a strange feeling to get choked up thinking about her moving on to the next phase of her independence, even though we have been so excited for so long to see her embrace new educational and social experiences at a college far from home, at the same time my husband and I have been looking forward to devoting more time to work projects we are passionate about.
Part of the reason for all of these conflicting emotions may be due to the constant push and pull of parenting a teenager. My daughter didn’t want to attend the drive-up graduation ceremony. She said she did it as a favor for us. She also says she doesn’t like doing family activities anymore. She doesn’t like our rules. She doesn’t want to play board games with her brother and father and me. She insists she would prefer to spend all her time with her friends. This is not a surprise, nor is it something I take personally. I have grown accustomed to such attitudes from her for many months. But I was caught off guard that her disinterest in being with family, combined with the drive-up ceremony that seemed to be done in the blink of an eye, would leave me feeling numb on a day I have been eagerly anticipating for a while.
I seemed to be the only one feeling this way. The cap and gown was off by the time we got home, and we barely snapped a few pictures before everyone scattered to do their own thing — my husband went back to work, my son resumed his video game, my dad and stepmom drove back home. No meal. No hanging out. No reflection. My daughter was in her car and on her way to her friend’s house within a few minutes.
I wasn’t feeling mad or sad or upset, but I realized I felt a sense of dissociation. I knew I had to deal with this unusual mood, so I confronted it by taking a nice long walk through a nearby park. The more I walked around and thought about the ups and downs of this crazy journey of parenthood, the better I felt.
I realized it’s okay to be disappointed when a big event turns out differently than expected, just like we have to snap out of it when a little annoyance gets blown out of proportion and turns into a huge conflict. Many of us confront these issues in our own way, but I think the best way to deal with such transitions is simple acceptance of our own feelings — even those that are different from everyone else’s and take us by surprise.
So embrace those strange pangs of emotion that may creep up on you from time to time during your parenting journey and remember that you are doing the best job you possibly can — no matter what others or your own self-judgment is telling you. And enjoy all the big and little moments with your kids — because one day they’ll be all grown up.