My new book, My Teenage Werewolf, would not have been possible — or necessary — without its main character. She is a henna-haired, cleavage-revealing, charming, alarming 21st-century teen, a feisty, moody, mercurial girl-woman who can go from sunny to sullen in the blink of an eye. Or, more accurately — and less of a cliché — in the slam of a door. She's sweet and profane, empathetic and cruel, chatty and secretive, a delightful arm-in-arm companion and a royal pain in the ass. Her name is Lizzie, and she is my daughter. My own, home-grown, in-house teenage werewolf.
I had to write about her and her generation of take-no-prisoners girls. I had to dive into the deep end of teen girl culture and try to navigate the stormy seas of our tumultuous relationship. It was the only way I could figure out how to survive her teenage years.
She was 12 when it started. Overnight, it seemed, I toppled from my throne. I ceased to be Mommy the Genius, Mommy the Wise and Beneficent, the font of all things cool and fun, the curer of all ills. That's how little girls look at their mothers. But at 12, my girl was no longer little. She was already full throttle into teendom and had mastered the vocabulary: deep sighs, exasperated eye-rolling, monosyllabic responses, snotty retorts and stony silences. Mom (that would be me) was now the enemy. All of a sudden, it seemed to me, Lizzie and I were sparring over everything, from food to friends to fashion, school work, chores, screen-time, bedtime, you name it. Most mornings we would eye each other warily, waiting to see who would cast the first stone. Days might go by without us engaging in a single civil conversation.
One afternoon on my way to pick up Lizzie from an after-school event, I bumped into the sister of a good friend of mine. She was mother of two girls in their late teens. I told her about the storms brewing in my household. She nodded and then gently placed her hand on my shoulder. "No one was ever purposely mean to me in my entire life," she told me, her voice catching a little, "until my daughters."
It didn't help me at all to discover (from other mothers, from frantic reading) that our stormy relationship was so common as to be prosaic, that the descent from mother-goddess to mother-demon was a predictable, well-documented narrative, as predictable as the descent from sweet little girl to moody, mercurial teen. The years after a daughter reaches puberty are, as every mother who's been through it knows, renowned for their drama and tumult. The mother-daughter bond, argue psychologists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, social learning theorists, and feminist scholars, is the most significant of all intergenerational connections, the earliest and most profound bond.There is no relationship quite as primal, as vitally important, or as deeply conflicted. Mother-daughter identities are enmeshed and interwoven yet need to be individual and distinct. No other relationship veers so sharply between intimacy and distance, between love and hate.
As a writer, I see life as stories, and I saw that Lizzie and I were at the beginning of one. It looked like a big one with an uncertain ending. I knew it was a story that every mother and daughter lived in their own way, that I was embarking on a journey both completely common and utterly unique. And I knew I had to do more than grit my teeth. The "this too shall pass" mantra was not going to work for me. I had had a distant relationship with my own mother, one that became downright icy during my teen years — and never really defrosted. I feared that history was about to repeat itself. And I was not about to let that happen.
I didn't fear — or want to stymie — Lizzie's right to question and separate and reject (just as I had as a difficult, mouthy, opinionated teen). That was all good, a natural, important part of her growth. What I feared was losing a deep, abiding connection, the connection I had lost with my own mother. And so I set myself a challenge: I would figure out who this girl I lived with really was and how to forge a lasting, loving bond between us — even in the midst of the sturm und drang of her teen years. To do this, I would immerse myself in her world. I would read everything I could, from gimmicky advice books to feminist treatises to neurological studies on the teen brain. I would interview teachers, doctors, therapists, coaches, camp counselors, teens and, of course, mothers, scores and scores of mothers. I would be part journalist, part cultural anthropologist. I would be Margaret Mead in middle school.
And that's what I did — what my changeling daughter allowed me to do — for 18 months. My Teenage Werewolf is the result of that dive into the deep end of 21st century teen girl culture. What I discovered about Lizzie's world was alternately shocking and reassuring. So much had changed since I was a teen — and so little. What I learned about mothering a teen girl helped me (okay, forced me) to confront, reevaluate, and understand my own conflicted relationship with my mother. And what Lizzie and I learned about each other… well, it changed us. And it is still changing us. The conversation that opened up between us during the writing of this book continues on our "dueling" (no blood yet) mother-daughter blog (www.myteenagewerewolf.com).
But after all this hard work and heavy lifting, I am still left pondering the question that every mother of every daughter asks herself at some point: What's the most difficult (challenging, confusing, tumultuous) time in a woman's life — when she's a teen or when her daughter is?
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Lauren Kessler is the author of five narrative nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lauren Kessler is the author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence