This week marks a milestone in my mothering. I will officially enter a phase that I have both longed for and dreaded, sometimes for the same reasons. You see, my husband and I have spent the last decade and a half working with middle and high schoolers, and some of our best, happiest memories were made with a group of teens. I absolutely adore teenagers: I love their humor, their awkwardness, the way they make mountains out of the silliest molehills. I love seeing them test out their wings — even when they fall — and many times I have been lucky enough to watch them soar. I have loved every minute of helping teens grow and learn and laugh and love and fall and fail and flounder and get back up again.
And this week, I will become a mother of a teen.
As precious as this milestone is for me, it is even greater and more profound for my incredible daughter who is celebrating her 13th birthday. Of all the wonderful things I have gained from working with teens, I have always said the greatest gift is how my students prepared me for this age with my own children. And yet, as I sit here on the cusp of this brave new world, I can’t help but feel those first-day jitters: no matter how much we know, no matter how prepared we felt leading in, we’re crossing the threshold into a scene which could hold absolutely anything. The one advantage I think I do have is the perspective of having walked this journey with so many other students and their parents.
So as my amazing firstborn daughter finally enters her teenage years, here are a few things I want her to know:
My beautiful princess,
Welcome to being a teenager! You have looked forward to this day for as long as I can remember. It’s only natural, being surrounded by teens for your entire life, to want to be like them and enjoy the freedom and FUN you have grown up watching them have. You deserve every wonderful part!
You may hear people refer to adolescence as “the best years of your life,” and I hope you feel that way as you walk through the next few years. I pray you have supportive friends, inspiring teachers and mentors, empowering education, and exciting opportunities. Throughout all that this phase holds, I hope you laugh so much more than you cry (and probably do plenty of laughing-until-you-cry too) and truly enjoy all the incredible things this age has to offer. But I want you to know these are NOT the best years of your life. There won’t be any other stage that is quite like adolescence, but as you shoulder the weight of the drama and the heartbreak and the days that feel like this will never end, I want you to remember that this season will go even more quickly than it came, and your best days are ahead. No matter what you go through, tomorrow is always worth staying for.
And my dear one, you will go through so much.
Your dad and I have shared plenty of tales from our own youth and the crazy things we saw, did, and felt. You are so, so, so much smarter and wiser than we were!! But that won’t stop you from hurting. Baby, some days you will feel like you can’t go on. As much as I hate to see you suffer, and as much as I will try to protect and defend you whenever and wherever I can, I won’t wish you to sail through life without trials. You see, it’s the fire of tribulation that will refine you like gold. Painful pruning will allow you to flourish. The chisel may sting, and you will lose parts of yourself you thought you needed, but it is only to shape you into who you are meant to be. (Do you want some more metaphors? I’ve got plenty!) What I mean to say is that your pain will never need be wasted. You or I cannot choose what happens to you in this life, but you can choose how you read each situation, how you respond, how you grow through it, and how you use it to help someone else along the way.
Already you are so kind, compassionate, and thoughtful, eager to help others whenever you see a need. And yet, I want to remind you that not every precious life that passes through yours is meant to stay. Each human is unique, gifted, and worthy of love, but that doesn’t mean you have to be the one to affirm and love them forever. They are on their journeys and you are on yours; don’t forget where you end and they begin lest you lose yourself. Always be kind, but it’s okay to love someone from over there, it’s okay to walk away from toxic people, and it’s okay for relationships to evolve and change and even grow apart. Sometimes people will reject you, yes, but moving on is not always personal against you; it is simply personal for each of you. You get to decide which healthy relationships you keep and which unhealthy ones to which you say goodbye. And sometimes other people will be the ones who choose to walk away, and you need to know that you are valuable, important, and worthy anyway. Let them go, and go on your way.
I want you to feel that the world is your oyster, that you can do and be anything you set your mind to do and be.
Everything good in this life is worth fighting for, and fight you will. I pray you have grit, determination, and confidence to pursue your dreams. I want you to dream big! Dream of all the places you will travel, people you will meet, lessons you will learn, and changes you will make. Dream of the endless possibilities life has to offer! But I also want you to dream small: every big step in life is made up of thousands of tiny, forgettable, often very boring steps along the way. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Appreciate the little things: the everyday joys of a good meal, a kind word, a funny show, a cloud shaped like an elephant…or maybe a turtle…if you just turn your head a little to the left you can see it… Remember that a humble life is still a beautiful one, and you don’t have to change the whole world, you just need to change your world, then the rest will follow suit. Cultivating love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control — this is how, as my friend Meghan used to say, life is big in the little.
Take care of yourself, my precious girl, and in your quest to be kind to everyone you meet, don’t forget to be kind to yourself.
Give yourself grace when you make mistakes, fall short, or lose your way. It’s okay to take the long way home. Be proud of how far you have come, even when you have a ways yet to go. Love your body and appreciate all the ways it serves you: arms to hold a friend, legs to jump for joy, a middle to balance and hold you all together. It shouldn’t look like anyone else’s body, so don’t try and make it. Talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend: with gentleness, kindness, and love.
Most of all I want you to know that I love you, and you can always come home.
When you make mistakes, I don’t want you to think, “Oh man, my mom’s gonna kill me!” I want your first thought to be, “Oh man, I have to call my mom!” Because I will always be there. I don’t care where you are or what you’ve done, you can always call mom. When you are happy, I want to celebrate with you; when you are burdened, I want to help you bear the load; when you are angry, I want to listen and fume with you (and only try to diffuse you when it’s time). I honestly pray every day for the wisdom to know when to talk and when to listen, but lately I try to err on the side of listening, because I want you to know you are worthy of being heard. Your stories matter, your opinion matters, YOU matter. You will always have a safe place to land here with me and your dad. We love you to the moon and back.
In all the years we have worked with students, the one part dad and I never quite got used to was letting them go. Eventually those kids all grew up, aged out of our program, and moved on with their lives in one way or another. That never got easier. And yet this, maybe most of all, is the way student ministry has prepared me for parenthood: this is the last leg that we are sharing with you before you go off and begin your own life as an adult. In just 337 short weeks, you’ll be graduating high school and heading to college, or the workforce, or the military, or maybe a gap year to find yourself. Not too long from now, you’ll be making your own decisions, and that baby girl who took her first steps walking into her first birthday party will be looking inside herself to determine which steps to take next. I know that will be the hardest part, but I want you to have the confidence to know you can do it. You are the best thing to ever happen to me, and you’ll be the best thing that ever happens to you too. You are absolutely amazing.