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When my four kids were born very close together in age — like stair steps — I didn’t exactly think ahead to what it would be like having three teens (and a tween!) in the house at one time. I had my hands full when they were babies, to be certain, but what I didn’t realize is that years later, I’d still have my hands full … just in a different way. Raising teens is a daily adventure. Like a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump’s mom might say: you never know what you’re gonna get. And I thought I’d have a general grasp of what to expect, but there are a few aspects that have taken me by surprise.

They’re STILL messy.

When they’re little, you deal with poop messes and smeared food and dumped LEGO buckets. So you naively figure that once they’re potty trained and able to feed themselves without incident, they’ll also get better at cleaning up after themselves. Right? WRONG. Personally, I didn’t take their teenage bedrooms — or wherever else in the house they spend time, for that matter — into account. Crumpled wrappers, snack remnants, and possibly every utensil in the house are scattered over every surface in their rooms, so much that I’m considering having “IF WE GET ROACHES IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT” engraved on my tombstone. They toss their laundry on the floor whether it’s clean or dirty (and I’m not about to smell it to find out). Chargers are tangled, beds are unmade, and evidence of extracurricular activities is strewn everywhere … and yes, that includes athletic cups. Gag.

… But they’re appallingly oblivious to those messes.

You would think that living in a literal garbage heap would start to wear on a person after a while, but no. They are happy as raccoons in a dumpster, blissfully unaware of how moldy and disgusting their surroundings may be. And though you have likely spent their entire lives reminding them where the trash can, dishwasher, and clothes hamper are located, it’s like their selective memory does not include any of these things. Go figure.

They’re fun and witty.

If anyone ever said toddlers were fun, they meant it in the most sarcastic way possible. (Have kids, they said! It’ll be fun, they said!) Dealing with a house full of little people was not my cup of tea, and though I admit there are definitely aspects I miss about them being that age, I spent much more time feeling overwhelmed than overjoyed. Now, though, I genuinely think my kids are fun. We laugh at the same things, and even though I’m still their parent first and foremost, we banter back and forth like friends. We can watch and enjoy the same movies and TV shows (even though I inwardly cringe at even the slightest indication of a sex scene), and my phone is constantly pinging with a stream of memes and TikToks. They have developed an actual sense of humor, and are fun to hang out with … well, most of the time.

That attitude, tho.

This is one thing people do warn you about, but it doesn’t fully absorb until it actually happens to you. Teenagers can go from regular human beings to snapping, snarling demons in the blink of an eye – with no warning, and for no reason. You wonder if all kids are this grumpy, or if you’re just a terrible parent who has raised a disrespectful monster (spoiler alert: it’s so not you). There are entire days when they’re just in a mood, and you feel like you’re walking on eggshells … starting with the moment you had the audacity to say “Good morning!”

You become a full-time chauffeur.

Teens develop an active social life long before they develop the capability to drive themselves to all the crap they constantly wanna do. And if you’ve got a “joiner” who wants to be in every club and sport, it’s even worse. When they’re not heading to some sort of practice or club meeting, they want to go to the movies, or the coffee shop, or the mall, or wherever else their friends are congregating. And guess what? They need a ride. Oh, and you’ve got to pick them up. Oh, and their friends need rides home. You couldn’t spend much more time on the road if you were driving a damn semi truck.

Feeding them is freaking expensive.

I’m not sure what a zoo shells out to feed a herd of elephants, but I’d be willing to bet it’s somewhere in the ball park of my current grocery bill. Gone are the days when they subsist only on air and the occasional Goldfish cracker; if your kid doesn’t eat, don’t worry, they’ll make up for it later. Like breakfast and after-breakfast snack and brunch and lunch and a bag of Takis and some ramen noodles and dinner and post-dinner-dinner and bedtime snack. Your cupboard will be full one moment and full-on Mother Hubbard the next.

The sleepless nights don’t end with infancy.

When you’re old enough to be the parent of a teen, you want to go to bed by like 9pm. This is directly at odds with your teens themselves, who want to stay out later and later. Even if they’re in a scenario you feel relatively safe about — like with a friend whose parents are taking them to a concert — you still can’t fully relax until you know they’re home and safe. Because they may be teenagers, but they’ll always be your babies.

You struggle with privacy vs. boundaries.

Your anxiety will want unfettered access to every text message, every Snapchat, their complete browser history (desktop and mobile, please), and for their bedroom door to be open at all times. Those horror stories you hear about human trafficking and cyberbullying are ever-present in your mind as your kids’ eyes are perpetually locked onto their screens. But your brain knows that logically, there has to be a line; they’re nearly-adult humans, after all, and everyone deserves some privacy. The trouble is walking the fine line between giving them enough privacy and still making sure they’re not engaging in any risky behavior online, and you struggle with keeping the balance. Constantly.

You have to let go.

Trust me, I get it. You spend over a decade being the absolute center of your kids’ universe, sometimes (OK, often) to the point of frustration. Like, can’t they ask anyone else for something for a change? But with the teenage years, something shifts, and you’re no longer the sun in their sky — just a planet in their orbit — and that’s a hard pill to swallow. When your function in their life isn’t to be their main source of comfort, it’s almost like you don’t know what to do with yourself. As much as you long for that feeling of being needed, it’s not the same … because what they need from you now seems to have basically reduced itself to groceries and a ride. (Oh, and $20, please Mom?)

They still need you, it’s just not cool to admit how much. But the biggest surprise of all is realizing how much you need them … and how much harder that makes it to relax your grip — just a little — on the hand you’ve been holding so tightly for so long.

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