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Breaking the Code of Parental Silence

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Before I had my first baby, I wouldn't have believed that I'd want to talk about the contents of diapers with anyone. Digestion being babies' chief occupation, talk about poop we sure did. It helped to have friends equally in the throes: hours spent in discussion of diapers and burp cloths and how many wakeups per night. It helped to read about other parents' experiences, like Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions. The minutiae mattered; the camaraderie mattered even more.

My tiny little boy was "tongue-tied," which meant his tongue did not reach far enough forward to stimulate milk production. As a result I did not produce enough to sustain him. I desperately wanted to breastfeed. A couple of lactation consultants and a pediatric surgeon later, I found myself strapped to the breast pump eight times a day. The worst part, or at least a very close second to extreme sleep deprivation, was my isolation. My shame fed my isolation. Worried I wasn't mothering correctly due to my milk deficit I found it hard to talk to women with leaky breasts and an overabundance of milk. But I needed support. I needed to be reminded that milk production was not the definitive marker of my ability to parent well.

Fortunately, I had friends who did remind me of this and eventually, I became more confident in my not-so-milky parenting. It didn't take long for me to become a resource for other mothers in similar situations. My parenting peers were critical to my equanimity. That was the gigantic lesson learned, one that changed me as a parent, a friend--and a writer.

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Fast forward: my oldest kids are teens. All that support I felt passionately about, all that openness as a writer, it's in question. To talk about diapers or even breast pumps is one thing, it's fully another navigate adolescence. The stories and the issues, they belong, during these years, to your children. It becomes pretty difficult to say a whole lot about your parenting while you keep firm boundaries and respect their privacy. And, as any parent who has ever struggled with parenting will tell you, your own shame may factor in, as well.

And the stakes are higher.

Two years ago, writer and blogger Katie Granju first opened up about her eldest son's battle with addiction when she wrote from the hospital where he lay in a coma. She hadn't written about his struggle or her family's to help him, or his rehab experiences, until he'd relapsed and endured a beating and was left helpless at the scene--from which he never fully recovered. He died a month after the attack.

Granju wrote eloquently about her loss. She reaffirmed how important it is to cherish every moment. She expressed gratitude she'd continued to rub her adolescent boy's stinky feet. And she confessed that she did not believe her silence had helped her son nor protected him--and that it certainly hadn't helped her as a parent.

After her son's death, Granju took on the issue of teens and addiction with the establishment of Henry's Fund. The monies donated--many of the initial gifts came from her readers--defray rehab expenses for families that cannot afford adequate treatment for their children. She did not shy away from chronicling her grief, her dogged efforts to have his death receive a criminal investigation nor has she turned away, as a writer and parent, from the issue of addiction.

I have no dreaded issue on this scale. I do have four children. This rapids ride through adolescence in the role of parent will be mine four times over. There seems to be little smooth sailing here. Most weekdays begin with my repeated attempts to get my tenth grader up and out the door for the high school's first period at 7:30. Most weekdays begin with my roiling frustration that I cannot herd him there with the impressive force of my will.

I won't lie: I am not confident about my abilities (it's worse than the milk crisis of 1995, although I am not in tears every single day). I've had to suppress the impulse to warn parents of tiny infants that they'd inadvertently made a terrible mistake. Humor may be necessary to parents' emotional survival but joking aside, my goal is this: I want--as a parent, a friend, and a writer--to lift shrouded silences from how-to-parent-teens discussions. Access to the village required to raise the (teenage) children seems far too important to refuse because we're afraid to figure out what words we can use to find one another.