Listening to other people’s teens

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

I like to say a perk of living in a college town is you always know what an 18-year-old looks like. I’ve acclimated to body piercing, tattoos, and wild hair color or shaved heads. Mostly, though, it’s about the faces. Over time, they begin to look younger.

Life parenting tweens and teens centers upon the incremental and the mundane. My mother tells a story of a friend’s kid who did “nothing” all summer but lay on the couch and at the before-school annual physical the doctor noted the boy had grown four inches. My mother’s friend apparently felt quite sheepish about her complaint. Her son was doing something after all; he was growing. Often, I’m mired in frustrations—so many strewn dishes and towels, overly focused on my kids’ responsibilities and general politeness (or lack thereof) toward me. Aware of mood swings and hibernation, I know just how much television they can watch on a weekend, and how late they can sleep. But like the mom whose kid shot up over a summer, I miss the big story.

Recently I received a reframe. I attended a large reproductive justice conference on my former college campus. To organize this very conference was once upon a time my first post-college job. My eldest son is in college now; my next son, nearly 18-years-old, participated in the conference as an attendee and a presenter. It felt like “Back to the Future,” the way youth and age, history and the present merged and melded.

Friday night of the conference is always an abortion speak out, a tradition from pre-Roe days when women shared stories of illegal abortions as an act of civil disobedience. The rationale and content of these stories are of course, political—what happens to our bodies is about power and is how we’re treated by systems, familial or medical or legal, and whether we have access to this service. The power, though, is personal.

As stories spilled out, the rawness, the high stakes, the self-definition was so loud and strong and fragile. I was reminded of standing on that stage myself many times. How far removed my midlife self feels from the teen or twentysomething for whom abortion determined so much. An abortion just before my senior year of high school ended defined my politics. I understood from that pregnancy that my plans at the time—starting college, leaving home, and I hoped growing up—were contingent upon my ability to retain agency over my reproduction. Abortion, backwards as it sounds to some, became an affirmation to believe I could and would someday create the family of my choosing. And I did. The experience was also really confusing and overwhelming and sad and hard to process. It represented a microcosm of everything required of me to grow up.

All weekend, the stories and rooms filled with young people discussing their concerns reminded me that all the big feelings during adolescence and early adulthood come with big ideas. Sometimes, ideas outpace emotional maturation and lived experience and sometimes, lived experience outpaces big ideas.

I remembered, when I was telling my story about abortion many years ago, how emotion engulfed and overwhelmed me, a crashing sea. And then I flashed to a more recent memory: a couple of months ago, I photographed my three small nephews on a beach where I’d knelt down to photograph my own three small sons years earlier. I could practically feel how I loved my little boys to bursting back then, how fucking enamored with them I was, as my sister is with hers. I realized how I’m still completely awed and in love with them, yet now that they are teenagers it’s all more nuanced, more complex. I’m more certain now of our differences and distances.

The more I listened to the teenagers speak, the more I appreciated the sheer effort required to find your voice and use it. Young people must challenge the adult world that says, “We know more than you do.” While sometimes that’s true, it’s really not the truth. “The sex-education curriculum some of our high school teachers use and are clearly comfortable with does not answer our questions; it’s not terribly useful to us,” a high school junior explained. “The teachers need to ask us what information we need. We can tell them. It might mean they have to delve into territory they are less comfortable teaching or discussing, but that’s their job.” She was, of course, absolutely correct.

My kids challenge what adults have deemed status quo—to some degree intractable—fact. My kids have heard things I haven’t, or they’ve heard the same things I’ve heard but differently. The soft tots I knelt down to comfort loom above me now. It’s not height, though, it’s that they notice different things from me, they ask their own questions. They let their hearts pull them to places I didn’t dare imagine. 

As I listened and listened at the conference, I realized how easy it is for an adult not just to minimize the competence of a young person and the inevitable upheaval that characterizes that period in their lives, but to ignore it. No one makes up how seismic it is when living it, but adults often want to assign words like “phase.” The chance to remember myself at that age, in a way that I often don’t when I wrangle with my own teens, was so illuminating. It took others’ voices for me to acknowledge that what’s at stake reaches far beyond our shared household concerns. While every parent of a teen or young adult won’t head to a college campus for a conference and sit in the audience a while, I do recommend this: if you can somehow find a place to hear young people other than yours talk, the shift in perspective is well worth seeking out.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser’s work has recently appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Salon, and the Seal Press anthology The Good Mother Myth, and American Craft Magazine, amongst others. Find her on twitter @standshadows.

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