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The A to Z's of Teenagers: F Is for Family

Photograph by Getty Images

Like all mothers, I have two families: the one I happened into and the one I made happen. I had nothing to do with the former (I simply arrived on the scene) and everything to do with the latter.

The family I was born into had, let me kindly say ... issues. No, not stuff-me-in-a-closet-and-feed-me-dog-food issues (in which case I would already have written my memoir). Not even prosaic daddy-is-an-alcoholic issues. I envied friends from families with definable issues. Definable issues are great. People write books and maintain extensive websites about definable issues. Support groups offer support for definable-issue families.

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But suppose you grow up in a family with no marquee calamity; an outwardly functional family where, gee, for reasons neither understood nor articulated, no one really likes each other very much. A family where you'd almost always rather be anywhere else than with your family.

I understood this dynamic, with some sophistication, from about age 8. That's when, one Sunday night eating dinner out with my parents and toddler brother, I noticed a family sitting nearby. They were leaning in toward each other across the table, chatting and smiling. The father reached over to pat the mother's hand. The kids shoulder-bumped and guffawed about something. I thought: Wait a second ... Is this the way families act? Is this what it looks like to be a family? It was a revelation. And an insight that colored the rest of my time under my parents' roof.

I was scared to create my own family.

When I left for college ... when I started working ... when I met the right guy ... when we decided to get married ... I was scared to create my own family. Suppose it turned out like the one I came from? Suppose I was not capable of doing better? Where were my role models?

Turns out, you don't need role models. You don't need instructions. You just need a dose of courage, an open heart and a deep-seated respect for the uniqueness (quirkiness, more than occasional obstreperousness) of the little humans you help create. Teenagers put those fine principles to the test. Do they ever. Teenage girls, especially, test the limits with their crazy-making ability to morph from angel to devil, from "I-love-you-soooooo-much, mommy" to door-slamming snark.

Although I have failed many of these tests, apparently I've passed enough of them so that—to my great and everlasting surprise—my children appear to enjoy spending time with me. I mean, when they don't have to. I mean when it's actually their choice.

I've taken both my boys on extended trips. Last summer, Lizzie and I spent two weeks together hiking, sleeping in the same room and (the potential show-stopper) sharing the same small bathroom. Did we enjoy each other's company every minute of every day? Hardly. But on the plane home, she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder.

When our family is out together at a restaurant, we're the ones laughing.

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