Our daughter was only a few days old when my husband worried out loud about what we’d do when someday boys came calling. I told him that in addition to sounding like a cliché, he had it all wrong. The real nightmare is what happens when boys don’t call.
Of course, neither of us could have known back then that by the time our daughter became a teenager we would live in a world where nobody picks up a phone to call anyone—ever. We also couldn’t foresee cyberbullying or nude selfies or any of the pitfalls teens face coming of age with the internet, but there were plenty of worries we did share culled from our own analog adolescent experiences. So we plotted how to be the kind of parents who could talk with our daughter about the things we could never talk about with our own well-meaning parents. Boys topped that list of things.
When I was 13 I was desperate for a boyfriend. I watched other, more confident girls pair up with boys in our class and I wanted in. I went so far as to make getting a boyfriend my New Year’s resolution, announcing my intention to my two best friends. With this kind of public accountability, I figured, I couldn’t do what I did in all of my other endeavors: slack off.
I set my sights on the shy boys: non-athletes, ones who were a little short, or chubby, who liked books and sported bad haircuts, long before nerdy was cool. But avoiding the popular boys turned out to be far from a safe bet. None of these overlooked boys looked over at me. I spent middle school alone with an anxious, aching heart.
As our daughter neared 13, I prepared to share my hard-earned wisdom about boys at that age—that they were a complete waste of time. Better, I wanted to tell her, to focus on something else. But then she started dating the most popular boy in her class, a boy named Max.
What this meant in practical terms is that he’d text her a word or two every few days and she’d respond with an emoji-laden paragraph that would be met with another few days of silence. All along they avoided speaking to each other at school. When dances rolled around they would meet on the floor for the obligatory couples’ slow dance and then retreat to separate corners.
While this “relationship” with Max was happening, there was another Max, her best friend Max, with whom she would exchange hundreds of texts a day. (Anyone with a teenager knows this is no exaggeration.) At night they would get on FaceTime and talk, or just do their homework, side by virtual side in companionable silence.
She was living in a romantic comedy. I was pretty sure I knew how this story ended, but I also knew that no teenager wants to be told by her mother that she’s dating the wrong boy or that she’s in love with her best friend.
On Valentine’s Day, in receipt of the message that he needed to step up his game, Boyfriend Max gave my daughter a pink teddy bear, just the kind of gesture I dreamed about when I made that New Year’s resolution all those years ago. Later that night I heard her and Best Friend Max laughing about how weird it was to think a teenager would want a teddy bear, especially one with a rattle in one foot and the words “Baby’s First Bear” embroidered across the other. She broke up with Boyfriend Max the next week.
Days later, at the bar mitzvah of a third boy named Max, when it was time for the slow dance portion of the evening, she found she had nobody with whom to take the floor. Cue the swoony romantic-comedy soundtrack: Best Friend Max stepped in. On their first Valentine’s Day as a couple, nearly one year later, he gave her a pair of glittery sneakers she wore until holes tore through their soles. They’re now high school juniors, almost 17, and they’re still together.
With all the handwringing we did, all the nightmare scenarios we entertained, we never considered that our daughter might spend her adolescence in a long-term, committed, and loving relationship. Again, all the insight I’d prepared to share from my own misadventures with boys in high school proved useless. (Don’t do anything just because you hear it’s what other girls are doing. Don’t get into a car with a boy you don’t know well, and think twice even with the ones you do. Oh, and when the cute arty boy tells you he has the keys to the school’s studio and asks if you want to see it, spoiler alert: He’s not really interested in showing you the silk screen machine.)
Instead she’s learned the lessons I didn’t get to until I was well into my 20s. How to prioritize somebody else without ceding too much of yourself. How to still make time for friends. How to support someone’s passions even when you don’t share them. How to fight. How to apologize when you’re wrong and forgive when you’re right. How to tolerate and even fit into someone else’s family.
But I worry—because worrying is the inescapable plight of the mother—that spending all these years with the same boyfriend has been too limiting. That for stability she has sacrificed the constant discovery that is so much a part of adolescence. And not only discovery, but turmoil: all those missteps, those bruised feelings, the rejection, the humiliation, the uncomfortable situations. Didn’t it all teach me something? I don’t mean to suggest that my daughter doesn’t struggle. Of course she does. There’s no avoiding difficult times when you are a teenager, but throughout her struggles she has had a tall and handsome boyfriend by her side, who also happens to be tirelessly supportive and with whom she can still spend hours and hours on FaceTime.
Now she finds herself facing another situation with which I have zero experience: what to do about the perfect high school boyfriend as you prepare to go to college. And again she does not need my advice. They have decided, after much discussion, that they don’t want to go to school together or even near to each other. They understand that it’s not a good idea to go off to college attached to someone else. I marvel at her maturity. Just as I didn’t know not to get into that car or go into that locked art studio, I never would have known that what I needed was change and space and a fresh start.
But there is one thing I’m pretty sure I do know that she does not. One area where I have experience and she has none. I believe that when the day comes for her to leave for college, the day that she and Max go their separate ways, I can finally be useful to her. I’ll be there to hold her and to tell her I know how much it hurts to say goodbye to someone you love.
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