For the past several years, we have been the proud owner of a teenage girl. My lovely stepdaughter Gabrielle is now 16 and a half, and busy applying to the Governor’s Scholar Program, taking her ACT and learning how to drive. Except for the driving lessons (which are a whole other column), everything is going rather smoothly.
And by smoothly I mean smoothly in the world of the teenage girl. For it has been in the last several years that I’ve been reminded just how rocky and unpredictable that world can be.
Take, for example, last Tuesday. Gabrielle was set to meet with one of the people who has agreed to recommend her for Governor’s Scholar, a family friend who is high up in hospital administration. I suggested to Gabrielle that she go over the questions our friend will have to answer for the application so she can help her respond to them.
Gabrielle went upstairs in a wildly good mood, expecting, I’m sure, to bang out the answers in a matter of seconds. She returned to the kitchen 10 minutes later with stormy eyes that threatened rain.
“I can’t ask someone to do this for me. It’s too much work.”
“Well, she agreed to do it, even after she saw the questions.”
Gabrielle paused, blinking very fast.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I just …”
And then? Downpour.
Turns out, Gabrielle herself didn’t know how to answer the questions and was immediately verklempt. Mostly, they had to do with her strengths and weaknesses, but one was a question about leadership. “List examples in which you’ve shown you are a leader in the community,” it essentially asked.
“I have no idea how I’m a leader. I’m not a leader. I’m never going to get in,” Gabrielle sobbed, all the while telling us that she had no idea why she was so upset.
And that, in essence, is what it’s like to be a teenage girl: Your life is a hurricane of emotions that can make landfall at any time. It can be a perfectly sunny day, one spent in a cabana on the beach, with a lovely waiter bringing you tropical offerings like passion fruit and cracked coconuts. You feel happiness so brightly that you absolutely must have sunglasses. And you feel fabulous in those sunglasses. So fabulous you must, you must, look at yourself in the mirror while you talk to your friends so you can be reminded not just of the fabulousness of your eyewear, but of your pretty face. Isn’t it interesting how the center of one of your eyebrows lifts in a sassy, steep slope (10 percent grade) while the other just dutifully arches? You call it your devil eyebrow, but you secretly love it, and your friends tell you they love it too, though they are also looking at mirrors and pointing out the minutiae of their faces, which you enthusiastically support.
And then all of a sudden the sky darkens and the waves start to whitecap. Or maybe you’re having a particularly dark day and the water goes so far as to recede altogether from the beach, exposing ocean floor, reef and fish. And then it hits. Sadness and anger descend, along with frustration so intense you feel like it might be a relief to just pull off your head or separate yourself from a limb so you don’t feel so absolutely and completely at odds with yourself.
Mayhem ensues, mostly in the form of bawling and then, finally, blotchy with grief, you start to feel calmer. You start to think about how you have been a leader in the community, albeit maybe not an obvious one. You pick up your pen and you start to make notes. The impossible questions suddenly have answers. And you know what else? They’re good ones.
As a father witnessing it all, I have complete sympathy for my husband, who half the time has no idea how to respond, other than with, “Can you come back downstairs when you’ve calmed down a bit?” But as women, we have memories of what all of this felt like. We’ve also likely had recent reminders, either through pregnancy hormones, the arrival of menopause or, in my case, taking fertility drugs. Oh but it’s a terrible feeling not to feel in control of yourself. At one point, I found myself sobbing in the arms of my husband’s ex-wife, who is a lovely woman but in no way even kind of responsible for providing me solace.
As for Gabrielle, we can’t possibly be more lucky — last Tuesday is as extreme as the storms get. She really is just such a good girl. And as all four of her parents ride these highs and lows with her, I remind myself that in a few years, when she’s off to college, we’ll long for the rollercoaster.