The eldest of the seven children the Lord has put in our household to care for as sons and daughters will turn 15 years old in less than three weeks and, honestly, I’m scared to death.
I sit here, reading and re-reading parenting books — entirely skipping over the baby and toddler sections and heading straight for the chapters on adolescence, on how to love and guide someone who is no longer a child — looking to glean bits of wisdom for a journey that instills fear in the hearts of even those parents who have been raising their own child since the day of its birth.
She moved into our home with her two younger siblings exactly 4 months and 8 days after my husband and I were married. I was 23 and she was 13, although I very well might have felt like I was 13 while she may have felt 23. I will never forget the day we met her at the Honduras government’s Child Services office among dozens of other children — as Darwin and I walked up, not knowing the exact ages or genders of the sibling group of three that we would be meeting and possibly inviting to move in with us, I made eye contact with her and the Lord spoke to my heart, “She will be your daughter.” When I asked her age and she innocently answered, “13,” I literally almost passed out.
That raw fear, that trembling sense of awe I felt upon meeting her for the first time has accompanied me every single day since. Many young Honduran women — especially those in rural areas or those affected by poverty — get ‘married’ and/or pregnant by 11 or 12 years old, so to take in a 13-year-old girl who comes from a tragic childhood is to commit oneself to what promises to be a grueling uphill battle with possibly devastating results despite your best efforts.
A gripping sense of being unprepared, of even being the wrong person for the job, often threatens to spook me out of the gargantuan task before Darwin and me. I do puzzles with the younger ones, give piggy-back rides and console those who scrape their knees — but her? What do I do with a young woman who now wears the same bra size I do and who lends me a sanitary pad when I forget to go to the store to buy more?
She calls Darwin and me “Pa” and “Ma,” and we have plans to begin the legal adoption process with her and her siblings in June of next year once we hit our 3-year wedding anniversary and become legally capable of adoption, although she very well might be 17 or 18 by the time all the paperwork gets processed.
So I applied calamine lotion to her spots when she had chicken pox and help with fun hairdos for her different outings. We have long talks with her about decision-making, pray with her for her sexual purity, confront her on her sin as she does on ours, and we resolutely move on after asking for forgiveness and forgiving, trusting in God to work out the great redemption. She flirts with boys and thinks we don’t notice, and Darwin and I stay up late praying for her, discussing her growth, and grabbing at any scrap of wisdom the Lord tosses us on how to raise this young woman according to His will. She oftentimes asks me to put her to sleep at night, and there we have long conversations tinged with a maturity and openness that the younger ones don’t yet have. From there I sing lullabies and songs of praise and give a foot massage, stroking her hair as she drifts off to sleep, sending desperate prayers up to God that our imperfect, late-in-the-game efforts will be enough and that He’ll do the rest.
A couple weeks after she moved into our home in 2013 I was reading the Bible passage to her and her little sister at bedtime about when Jesus says that familial blood ties are not as important as those who, by obeying God, are united in one eternal family. She sat up in her top bunk and said that she wanted to join that family. We talked further, prayed together, and although we have never shared blood ties here on earth, she and I are now united by the blood of Christ and obedience to our Father.
So she plays on the girls’ basketball team I coach and is our faithful, enthusiastic participant in the various Bible studies and classes we teach. She fills the role of Darwin’s teaching assistant in the choirs and music lessons he directs and is even studying at a local university on Saturdays to learn English. She struggles to tell the truth in a culture of lies, fights with ego as I do, tries to make sense of her past, and accepts many changes around her as new siblings arrive and others go. She feels that Darwin and I don’t always understand her, and we put up with her frustrated glances and mood-swings. At times we have wild, joyful tickle fights as she chases us or we chase her around our front yard while on other occasions we endure her chilly silence, not knowing exactly how she is or what she’s struggling with. I desire to be her confidant, to share stories and feelings for hours on end as we both sit cross-legged on her bed, but in reality I don’t have the time to do so nor is that the role the Lord has given me to fill. Sometimes she and I are both in and out so much that a couple days pass before we really sit down and have a good conversation, but what she doesn’t know is that she’s always on my heart, never far from my thoughts and prayers.
On the airplane this June after having attended the wedding of a dear friend of mine who maintained sexually pure until the day of her wedding, I wrote through tears a letter to Dayana, recounting the beautiful details of the wedding and reminding her that I want to be able to rejoice with her, too, someday, as she walks in all white down the aisle to be wed to a man of God. Upon giving her the letter (bundled up with several others I had written her during the time I was away from home), she later told me that she, too, cried upon reading it and hopes by God’s grace that she may be able to walk in such a way.
So she faces adolescent temptations but still enjoys a wild go-around of hide-and-go-seek every once in a while, likes to wear ballet flats even though we live in the country, gets fed up on occasion with her younger siblings, and is in the beginning stages of searching out her identity in the adult realm, the specific purpose and path the Lord would have for her to take. We pay for her art classes, spend evenings hacking through her math homework assignments together, and invite her friends over for movies and popcorn. We laugh that we will be old women together one day, and Darwin and I remind her again of our expectations and hopes for her as God’s child. So I hug her goodnight and she says, “Thanks, Ma, for everything,” and in the depth of my heart I wonder if she means it or if she really resents us and is on the verge of self-destruction. I call my own mom asking desperately for parenting advice, and then, because the electricity has gone out once again, I talk with Dayana by flashlight about my own inadequacies, struggles and faith.
From my limited experience, parenting a teenager seems almost like learning how to cultivate a mentoring relationship with someone who is suddenly joining you and your husband as the third adult in the household. Strict bedtimes no longer seem realistic or necessary, and discipline that works for the younger ones just isn’t appropriate with her anymore. It is a season of learning all over again what it means to trust in God’s grace, to release our grip on control and, rather than turn our knuckles blue with worry or seek to control every move she makes for fear of her failure or humiliation (or ours), we entrust her to the Lord anew, recognizing that she was His all along.
A compelling excerpt from Mike Mason’s book The Mystery of Children in a chapter on adolescence:
Every once in a while in the midst of this darkness [the author’s teenage daughter’s struggles with adolescence], a dim light would flash and I’d hear the words, “This is a spiritual battle. Pray for her.” But prayer is the last thing anyone wants to do in a crisis. Sure, you pray, but it’s not where your main energy goes. Your main energy goes into worrying, fearing, plotting, strategizing. Your imagination paints lurid scenarios and your brain works overtime, spewing out plan after plan to stave off encroaching doom…Meanwhile there’s this gnat buzzing around your head, whispering, “Pray for her. She needs your prayers. I’m her Father. Give her up to Me. Trust Me and pray.” How hard this is! We don’t mind praying so long as we can keep on worrying too. We Christian parents would not be caught bowing down before a pagan shrine, but night after night we kneel and worry beside our children’s beds. We think we are praying, but we are not. There is nothing godly, virtuous, or even practical about worry. Worry is not prayer to God, it is prayer to the person we are worried about…We’re looking to our children to bestow grace upon us. Our peace of mind depends upon their every move…Finally, as a last resort, I let go of my guilt and shame long enough to pray for Heather. That New Year’s Eve I breathed a prayer I knew was right: a clean, clear, humble, bold prayer for the darkness around my daughter to be driven back and for God’s light to fill her heart.
One thought on “Sanitary Pads, Flirting and Ballet Flats: The Fear-Inspiring Task of Parenting a Teenager”
Love your honesty and hearing about your family, Jennifer! I pray that God will give you the grace to recognize at all times that she belongs to him and to be able to partner with him to raise her to become the woman he has called her to be. God’s grace is so great that it covers all our mistakes. I know she is blessed to be able to call you “Ma.” Thanks for sharing!