I’ve been trying to get to work this morning. The key word is “trying.” I have been up since 5:30 a.m., doing laundry, making school lunches, getting a healthy-on-the-go breakfast ready for the girls, doing my nails and all the other myriad things moms have to do. I have makeup on one eye, hair gel on my fingers and am trying to do a last few things before running out the door to get to work early. My youngest throws her backpack over her shoulder and is heading through the living room toward the front door, toaster waffles in hand, when the little maple syrup cup spills on the carpet.
Instead of getting out the door on time, I am on my knees with a sponge, with maple syrup and hair gel and carpet lint all over my hands, watching my manicure smudge and the minutes tick by, knowing I’ll have to say at work: Um, sorry, it was the kids and the carpet and…
Raising adolescent girls is a challenge when all the pieces are in place, when all the parties are vested in the outcome. Raising teens in a single-parent household is a bit more difficult. For one thing, there are the hours between school and when I get home from work that are unsupervised; these are, in fact, leaps of faith that there is no drug dealing or knife throwing going on in my little house while I’m not there.
As a stay-at-home mom, I didn’t used to worry about the empty after-school hours because I was there, at home. My eldest was pretty well behaved, only telling a few fibs in her high school days, and she was a terrible liar anyway, with a blush and a smile and shifty eyes that gave her away no matter how hard she tried.
But as a single parent now, I sometimes feel as if the giant boulder has already rolled down the hill back over me, and I have to chase after it before I can even start that uphill climb again. My middle daughter calls me from home to tell me she’s broken a dish (another one, and don’t even ask how it happened). She asks where the vacuum cleaner is. I tell her to use a broom, for crying out loud. I ask her to do the dishes and when I get home, the sink is still full and the dishwasher just gurgling through the rinse cycle. What happened to doing the dishes, I ask.
”Oh, the dishes weren’t really clean so I ran them through again,” she says earnestly, her attention to quality control and the greater good almost as impressive as her end-run around the job of emptying and refilling the dishwasher.
Getting all the chores done is never-ending, as in every household. The fact is that our lives are busier than ever, with tutoring, sleepovers, yard work, social engagements, other-parent visitation schedules and the odd scheduling quirk like my middle daughter’s desire to be on the JROTC Raiders team, which meets three times a week at 6 a.m. (guess who drives her to school in the dark?). The dishwasher stays full of clean dishes, the mountain of unfolded laundry on my bed gets shoved over to one side and all of a sudden it’s Sunday at 10 p.m. and my daughters remember they have no clothes to wear.
Fortunately I have a co-conspirator, my sweetie, who is also doing the job of single-parenting, and we rely on each other for backup and moral support. My two girls and my sweetie’s daughter are a dynamic trio, who, like sisters or wolf cubs, scrap and bat and gnaw at each other. Last night two of them were in the bathroom, dyeing each other’s hair green for St. Patrick’s Day. They borrow each other’s clothes, texting each other, sleep together and drape themselves across one another in front of the TV and computer, practically chew each other’s food in the way that only adolescent girls can do. It works for me most of the time.
But the dark side of parenting sometimes rears its head. I had an event to cover a week ago and we were out for just a couple of hours. Our three, who are ages 12, 13 and 14, stayed home with a pizza and a movie. We got home at 10:30 and all was well, peaceful, nay, familial. But the next day, a resident of the apartment complex next door came over to tell me, “You got some wild girls there. They were over there screaming and running around last night!”
Wild girls – the idea is like a cold dagger in my heart. After all I’ve done to ensure their safety, their good manners, their reputations – how did it come to pass that I have wild girls? The locks open and the guilt rushes in like water; mother-guilt, Catholic guilt, for what I have done, for what I have failed to do, and what else are they up to, what is the next thing my neighbors, or their parole officer, will reveal to me?
All I want in the world for them is safety, well-being, for them to make it out of high school, then through at least a couple of years of college without any major accidents, traumas or disasters. I want no juvenile records, no visits to rehab and no pregnancies. I want no ropes made of bedsheets dangling from the upstairs ledge. I want no Romeos playing guitar or tossing rocks at windows.
Why can’t I have two or three nice girls who sit properly in their chairs and attend to their own knitting, who look forward to a long summer of sewing their own clothes and scrubbing my floors, and who don’t talk back, only open their mouths to ask how they can help next, in between curing leprosy and balancing the national budget? But no, we have wild girls, it seems, who will soon be wearing leather miniskirts, straddling motorcycles, talking back to teachers and selling heroin to babies.
I go to a class for parents of teens and when I told my tale of woe – I have wild girls! – to the group, they all laughed and said: Um, hey, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? Is it really so bad? How do you make the leap from your girls getting excited and expressing their emotions to them selling heroin on the street?
How indeed? I think as a single parent I am acutely aware of the perceptions that people have of us, we who parent alone, and want to be doubly sure that I don’t fail. In a nutshell, it’s that same old societal pressure that’s always been hanging over our heads – gotta play Mozart in the cradle or they will be mathematically inept. Gotta put the kids into soccer, violin and French lessons by the time they’re four or else they’ll fail to get ahead. Gotta choose a career by the time they’re 12 or they’ll never get into the right college.
When I actually step back and look at the big picture, I see three beautiful, articulate, creative, empowered young women who know what they want and what they don’t want; they’re not afraid to express themselves and, in fact, demand the right to do so.
When I give it a clear-eyed review, I realize that the girls are just acting like teenagers, with no evil intentions (or not many). And I’m thinking that, considering the alternative – repressed, afraid, bullied, tongue-tied like I was at their age, that it’s good to be a wild girl.
Just don’t tell the neighbors.
(Note: This was originally published in 2005; my “sweetie” is now my Mr. Husband, and the wild girls have all grown up to lead happy, fulfilled lives. They’re still wild, but in a good way.)