Moms help girls navigate adolescence

Mothers and daughters thread their way carefully through adolescence, braving misunderstandings and feelings of isolation to emerge with stronger, often more loving relationships.

Adolescence began calmly for A.C. Williams's daughter, Mae. But when the teenager turned 14, her behavior changed radically.

"She was secretive, she thought I was nosy, and said I didn't know anything," Ms. Williams says. After graduating from an alternative high school, her daughter moved away to work. Then, at 18, she returned home, pregnant.

"It was not an easy time," says Williams, of Clovis, Calif. Compounding the challenge was her own isolation. She was divorced from Mae's father. Like many parents, she was also reluctant to burden friends with her problems. For mothers in particular, guilt and shame can create a conspiracy of silence during periods of youthful rebellion.

Now that silence may be ending. Two books to be published later this month, "Ophelia's Mom" by Nina Shandler (Crown, $24), and "Surviving Ophelia" by Cheryl Dellasega (Perseus, $25), seek to bring mothers of teenage girls out of the shadows.

The books mark the latest stage in a burgeoning "Ophelia movement." It began eight years ago when Mary Pipher turned a national spotlight on adolescent girls in her bestselling book, "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Teenage Girls." Her title refers to Polonius's doomed daughter, Ophelia, who was in love with Hamlet. Ms. Pipher criticizes what she sees as a "look-obsessed, media-saturated, 'girl-poisoning' culture."

Two years ago, Sara Shandler, a college student, published a sequel of sorts, "Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self," giving girls their own voice. It, too, rose on the bestseller charts.

Now, her mother, Nina, and separately, Ms. Dellasega, are focusing on the mothers. As women like Williams give voice to maternal fears and hopes, sharing not only problems but solutions, they encourage other mothers to reach out to one another. In the process, they also show the redemptive power of patience, constancy, faith, and abiding love.

If mothers are to feel comfortable talking to one another, Nina Shandler says, they must stop feeling ashamed of their children's difficulties. Noting that mothers often remain silent because they do not want their daughters to be judged, she says: "Self-disclosure can turn to gossip so easily. That's where there has to be change, so we have compassion for one another and for one another's children."Unlike women of earlier generations, who shared child-rearing tips and comfort across back fences as they hung laundry to dry, many mothers today face a dual pressure: to raise "perfect" children and to maintain successful careers.

"Everybody is hesitant to talk about problems, because they want to paint that rosy-cozy picture of a wonderful family life all the time," says Marianne Forman of East Lansing, Mich., the mother of four daughters. Yet, in her role as a middle-school teacher, she meets many parents, and knows that public images of perfection often contradict private realities.

"The parents who talk to me feel utterly alone," Ms. Forman says. "When kids are struggling, it just breaks your heart. You don't know what to do. You want them to feel loved and secure."

Talking to other parents offers a way to learn the strategies they use to connect with their teenagers or to solve problems.

The alternative - ignoring problems - can be perilous, warns author Dellasega.

She cautions parents against "playing ostrich," adopting a proverbial head-in-the-sand approach and hoping that challenges will simply go away.

At the same time, she empathizes with any mother who might have to listen over lunch as friends talk about Ivy League schools for their children, while she wonders if her own troubled or underachieving daughter will even graduate from high school.

She advocates greater candor among mothers, so they will feel accepted when they bring up topics that are not all oriented to the "perfect" child. Many parents, Dellasega finds, want to discuss questions such as: How do you handle it when your child is experimenting with marijuana? How do you deal with a peer group you don't like? What do you do when you think your daughter is having sex?

Why this emphasis on mothers and not fathers?

While Dellasega is quick to praise fathers for their supportive roles in daughters' lives, she points out that their relationship is different.

"Mothers identify so strongly with their daughters," she says. "The kind of things our daughters go through, we've gone through."

Shandler offers another reason for focusing on mothers: Daughters may not push their fathers away with the same vehemence that they sometimes push their mothers away. She calls the father-daughter bond a "much subtler" relationship.

Even so, people sometimes teasingly suggest that her husband should write a book for fathers called "Polonius Speaks." Some women also tell Shandler that their husbands, rather than being sympathetic, blame them for their daughters' difficulties.

On the subject of men, Shandler's daughter Sara acknowledges that adolescent boys face serious issues, too. Still, she says, "It's hard to imagine a book called 'Hamlet Speaks.' "

Further evidence of a growing "Ophelia movement" comes from Erie, Pa. There, a four-year-old organization called the Ophelia Project seeks to increase parental and community support for teenage girls. It also encourages volunteers to extend programs to boys. With 300 paying members and a national team of 150 volunteers, the group outlines an ambitious goal: to change the culture.

According to founder Sue Wellman, too many children are growing up without adults in their lives, and are exposed to "terrible values" that supercede parents' own values.

"I personally don't know parents who tell their daughters that their bodies are fat and that they don't look good," she says. "Yet girls hate their bodies."

Adding to the problem is what Ms. Wellman calls the secretive culture in which adolescents live. Adults do not know what teenagers are doing, she charges. Parents have to be willing to pick up on clues when something is wrong, and they have to listen to what's really happening.

Wellman describes her own daughter's adolescence as "extremely traumatic" because of an eating disorder and depression. Wellman remembers "just praying and praying and praying when she was sick that something good would come out of this."

It did. In college, her daughter agreed to get help in a rehabilitation program. Those efforts succeeded, and she now works with girls' issues as part of the Ophelia Project.

For Sara Shandler, who

will be a senior in college this fall, reading her mother's book has given her a sobering new perspective on her own adolescence. "I don't think I really realized what impact my actions had on her life," she says. She also recognizes that "my mom is a person and not just my mom."

When Sara autographs copies of her own book, "Ophelia Speaks," she often writes these words of encouragement for teenagers and mothers: "It gets better .... I promise."

To mothers she offers this reassurance: "Sometimes there is nothing else you can do. Some of those things happen, whether or not you're there."

Sara's own mother, Nina, remains optimistic about mother-daughter relationships. During interviews with mothers for her book, she often felt unconditional love pouring out.

Whatever sieges a family goes through during adolescence, Shandler offers a reminder that underpinning everything is an ongoing relationship between the two generations that will survive.

"We just have to tune into that connection until it returns with greater sweetness," she says. "Most women find it does come back with great sweetness."

She remembers her older daughter once telling her, "Mom, you have more influence than you think." Giving children messages of self-respect does sink in on a day-to-day basis, Shandler says. It also gives them strength to face temptations and make decisions. "You have to know how to embrace them with love, even when you need to back off or they need to push you away."

Similar optimism prevails for Dellasega. As she interviewed women for her book and listened to their experiences, she became "impressed by how often things turned out OK." A daughter might not be a prom queen or might not go to college on a full scholarship, but accepting those realities can help to ease tension in the family.

What else can

help? Forman urges parents to be patient, and to try to remember what it felt like to be an adolescent. She also suggests spending "alone time" with each child, sons as well as daughters. That can be as simple as going out for a bagel and hot chocolate on Wednesdays after school. She also places notes in her children's lunch boxes and on their pillows.

Writing is high on Dellasega's list of hints as well. Letters between mothers and daughters can offer a helpful way of communicating if face-to-face conversations prove difficult.

Wellman, too, emphasizes the importance of family time. Parents are not spending enough time with their children, she finds, and are not providing enough wholesome alternatives to the prevailing culture around them.

Keeping what Shandler calls "an open line of communication" about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and sex can also help. Teenagers might not use that open line, but knowing it is there is important.

For Judy Pohl of Laurel, Md., one goal has always been to give her four daughters "an acceptance of who they are." Although she does not always like what they do, she listens and helps them to consider other viewpoints and other options.

Although Ms. Pohl and her oldest daughter remained quite close through high school, her daughter's college years proved difficult. She got involved in things Pohl did not approve of. "She was pulling away from things that were important to me," Pohl says. "Faith was one. It really caused a rift at the time."

But patience and love prevailed. Today she describes her daughters, who range in age from 18 to 26, as "basically all good girls. They've turned out wonderful."

To other mothers facing challenges, Pohl says, "The big thing is to know that you're not alone. It's not just you, and it's not just her."

Williams's story, too, has a happy ending. During her daughter Mae's pregnancy, the two became close again. Williams turned to prayer, and Mae returned to church after a long absence.

Her baby daughter, born four years ago, "is the most beautiful child we could ask for," Williams says. Mae is now married and expecting another baby.

"Never, never give up on your child," Williams says. "Someone out there has been through it and can help you. Love your children unconditionally. You just have to tell to tell them you love them, no matter what."

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