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Janice Harper

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Raising a Zen Teenager: The Opposite of Me

Posted: 08/09/11 01:37 PM ET

When the Huffington Post invited me to write on the topic of parenting, I thought it must be some kind of cosmic joke, as if I'd been asked to teach a class on parallel parking or advise the foolhardy on how to manage money. Those who can do, those who can't, offer unsolicited advice. But I'm game for anything, and as any parent knows, just because you have no clue what you're doing doesn't mean you won't get away with it just as long as you use the right tone. So I ran to my daughter and blurted, "I'm going to be writing about parenting for the Huffington Post! Quick, do something clever and precocious!" She slowly turned from her makeup mirror where she now lives, stared at me like I'd announced I was entering a beauty pageant at the age of 53 and said, "Like change my name?"

I suggested that I could always drop by the courthouse and change her name to Pugsley but she knew that going there would require parallel parking so it wasn't going to happen. Of course, I thought having a child was never going to happen either, much less ending up with a teenager, and as a single mom at that. But it did and here I am, an aging woman with an aging child, middle age meets adolescence. No scarier collision of hormones under one roof can be imagined, unless it involves testosterone and thank God for now it doesn't.

To make matters even weirder, we have entered these precarious life stages just when our lives came crashing from the heights of the American Dream to the sorry cellars of despair. After unexpectedly losing my job and finding none around the corner, we sold our beautiful enormous home, crossed the country and downsized to an apartment on the shores of Puget Sound where I was to discover that finding work past fifty is like trying to find a veal burger at a PETA convention. It's not likely to happen, and you're bound to get clobbered and starve in the meantime. But who needs food when real life resembles the apocalypse and you've got a thirteen year old in need of the latest hot new lip gloss? "Be Here Now."

"Be Here Now" is the mantra of teens, even if they think the phrase means "You Have Five Seconds to Get in Here and Explain this Mess Before I Embarrass You in Public." Teenagers have an intuitive grasp of Zen. The future is this weekend and the past is where their parents came from. All that matters is what is in front of them that moment, be it a mirror, computer monitor, a texting screen or television. And who does suffering better, a Buddhist monk or teenager deprived of an overpriced commodity that everybody else's parents bought them joyfully? While a Buddhist will tell you everything in life is uncertain and nothing permanent, a teenager will demonstrate it by changing moods and interests as rapidly as Lady Gaga changes her fiberglass clothes.

As for middle-aged moms, we tend toward the anti-Zen. The past is that state of perfection we once lived in, where our little children were adorable and never caused us any trouble, romantic love perfumed the air and every kiss we shared had passion. The future is when all our dreams and nightmares will come true and thus brings us constant stress to justify our bad behaviors. Scream at the kids? It's so they'll have sense enough to turn off the lights and throw out empty milk cartons when they are grown up and have kids of their own, they will thank us later. Spend the vacation money on an ounce of youth serum made from up-cycled fetal cells and the spleen of Cleopatra? Who needs a week in Paris when Netflix brings it straight to us and we can have the best skin in the nursing home and rest assured we won't decay until we're half past dead? As for impermanence, it's the last thing a middle aged mom is about to embrace; if it doesn't promise to last us for the rest of our increasingly brief lifespan, whether it is a new car, a kitchen appliance or an instant love we plucked off the internet, we'll just find one that does. Only that which makes us certain makes us stronger (or at least keeps us from losing our marbles).

Throw the Zen teen and the anti-Zen Mom together and you don't get yin and yang, you get freaky friday seven days of the week. I thought parenthood was something I could handle long before I really had to prove it, because I just assumed I'd have a kid exactly like myself which is to say, a bad influence that no one should be allowed to play with. Knowing all my problems in adulthood must naturally be the fault of my own parents, I just figured I'd make an inventory of everything they ever did wrong and I'd do the opposite. But alas, I ended up with one of those kids who is charming and delightful and gets straight A's and helps blind people cross the street. She can't imagine breaking any rules, going a day without running five miles and doing a hundred push-ups, or writing her thank you cards before she risks procrastinating. She's only cussed once in her life, when she was four and there was nothing she felt like eating in the fridge, and she tells me she loves me every other hour.

Who can live with such perfection? It's like sharing a jail cell with Martha Stewart. Just when you're ready to beat them up, they'll organize your desk and teach you how to throw an upper cut that will take your opponent by surprise. Eventually you accept you're co-dependent and stuck living with a goody two shoes. You sneak outside to misbehave, hide your candy in the sock drawer and wait for them to make the slightest misstep.

Didn't eat all her tofu? A lecture on starving children in Japan. Stayed up till 2 a.m. cleaning up her bedroom? Take away her Windex. Washed the darks in hot water and didn't clean the lint screen? I'll write it up for HuffPost.

"HuffPo?" Pugsley snickers, "That sounds like something against the law. Psst! Hey, guys, let's skip school and go huff some po!" She chuckles at her clever wit and returns to texting grandma. There's no intimidating this kid.

I consider sneaking out back to huff some po with the retirees, but think better of it and demand she pay attention. "Listen to me!" I order, shaking a faded black t-shirt in the air as if I had found it washed with whites and she was really going to get it. She rolls her eyes and gazes upward to my fuming face, then smiles like a perky girl scout. "Can I do your eye makeup?" she queries, and before I can answer, she's got me sitting on a stool while she takes a crease brush to my eyelids as I mutter something ornery about what the hell's a crease brush and that's no way to spend your money.

When she's done, over half a century of gloomy eyes suddenly "pop" and I'm ready for some lipstick. "Come on, let's go downtown and shop for handbags!" I declare, leaping to my feet, ready to be wild. "We can't afford handbags," Pugsley wisely counsels, washing her makeup brushes so she doesn't catch my cooties, "and you already have enough. Let's just make some popcorn and watch something clean and wholesome on TV." I sigh and sulk and plead, but there's no changing her mind. We must stay within our budget and not pollute our minds with Desperate Housewives. "Alright," I concede, "but first I have to take some homemade muffins to the retirees." She lets me go, and I sneak out back wondering who might be up for huffing some po while plotting how to spend her college fund on some nip and tuck and a trip to the Seychelles without her ever knowing. Be there then, I calculate, counting down the years. Only a few more to go and I can do anything I want. Just as long as I'm absolutely certain that she won't catch me doing it because, after all, parenthood lasts a lifetime.