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No longer the hero but still the mom

Nothing is straightforward when a parent talks with an adolescent. They suspiciously question everything.

By Nell Musolf / September 15, 2008

David Olius/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Newscom

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There is a line uttered by Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest" that has come to resonate in my mind almost daily since the moment my oldest son entered adolescence. Faye/Joan remarks, after yet another argument with her strong-willed daughter, "Why must everything be an argument?" While I certainly don't condone any of Miss Crawford's parenting techniques, I do find myself wondering the same thing whenever I find myself embroiled in a senseless, heated conversation with one of my two teenage sons.

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Nothing, it seems, is straightforward when one is talking with an adolescent. No instructions, suggestions, harmless comments are without (to my children) sinister implications. If I tell one son to wear a coat, he'll ask "why?" in a suspicious tone that seems to suggest that what I'm really suggesting is that he wear one of my dresses to school. When I respond that he should wear a coat because it's 20 degrees outside and snowing, the coat goes on but not without a loud sigh, as if somehow I'm responsible for the weather.

When I ask my other son how he's doing in math or science or orchestra, he immediately becomes defensive. "Who have you been talking to?" he'll question. "Did you e-mail my teacher again?"

Now a less trusting mother might think her children are hiding something. I don't because, having e-mailed all their teachers, I know that they have nothing to hide. They simply no longer want to share the mundane details of their daily lives with me – their boring, intrusive, incredibly nosy mother – and they certainly aren't interested in my opinion or thoughts on anything – from what color it might be nice to paint their rooms to how the political race is shaping up.

This role reversal, from being the center of your children's universe to becoming a far-flung satellite, is not easy to take and is something that all new mothers should be warned about, preferably before they ever contemplate becoming pregnant.

Separation starts at birth, but it's such a slow process for a long, long time. When kids are small and gaze up at you adoringly in spite of the fact that you're not wearing any makeup and your hair looks like a Halloween fright wig, it's amazingly easy to convince yourself that you'll always be brilliant and beautiful to them.

When my younger son was learning to write, he used to pen (all right, Crayola) me little notes along the lines of: Nell – Sun, Moon, Stars – I love you! This is the same child who now refuses to believe me when I make factual statements such as, "Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States." ("Are you sure about that, Mom?" he asks.) Adolescence arrived in our household with a boom and a shudder after 11 or 12 years of what was basically a mutual admiration society between our children and my husband and me.

While I know it's perfectly natural for them to doubt that I still know everything, it hurts when they don't bother hiding their impatience with their father and me. In their eyes, we're lost in some middle-age rut, beyond redemption, which might well be true, but for some reason their stark assessment of us is more painful to me than all those AARP advertisements we've been inundated with.

"You don't know how it is anymore," my oldest son tells me. He's right; I don't know how it is anymore, but I have a vague idea and, frankly, it scares the daylights out of me. Which is why I will continue to tell my children how it's going to be as long as they're living in our house, in spite of the fact that, yes, apparently everything must be an argument.

While I doubt they'll ever thank me, someday they might understand their father and me a little more – probably many years from now, after they're married, and their own bundles of joy are suddenly doubting them from sunrise to sunset.

That is definitely something to look forward to.

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