When Your Teen Turns Full Mona Lisa
When Krishna’s mother looked into his mouth, she saw the universe. Staring down into the screaming maw of my newborn, I’d have been happy with just a small LED display telling me what was wrong. Babybaby, are you hungry? Tired? In pain? Bored? Experienced mothers, mine included, promised that I would be able to decode the decibel levels. Weeks passed. I could tell the mewl from the squawk, the howl from the squeal, but by GoogleTranslate, it was all shriek to me.
So when the vocabulary came (and it came early) it was a relief and a delight. “Mummy, I have a pain in my head!” Hurrah! “My tummy is funny.” Yay! “Mummy, I just threw up.” Yowza! Words, words, we would have words. Words for making jokes and negotiation and discussing what to have for dinner. I was going to be great at Motherhood (with words).
But 13 and half years later we’re back to square one. My lovely, loquacious daughter has turned into an inscrutable teen. Last week, she gave me a look that was impossible to read. On the literal face of it, I’d hazard a “Mom, you’re so uncool!” Except how could that be? I was The Coolest mom till last Monday. Maybe even The Best Mom Ever—so chilled out. Her friends found me funny. I sent them extra treats in her tiffin box. Hadn’t we agreed to skip that whole teenage rebellion shindig? It’s so cliché.
And yet, here are the first trumpets of a coming battle. Only silent. Like dog whistles.
Me: “What’s up?”
“You look angry.”
“Are you tired?”
(I make an absolutely hilarious joke.)
And just like that, I didn’t know what to do.
I take the obvious next maternal step and beset myself with worry and self-doubt. Maybe I should restock my wardrobe according to my age, not the ambient temperature in Bombay? Maybe I shouldn’t mention that Taylor Swift wrote a thing about feminism. Should we go buy lipstick we can share? Should I not state my preference for Harry over Zayn?
I start fantasizing about an LED display again. I also remember I swore I’d never forget what it was like to be a teenager and then I forgot. All I remember of my early teen years is feeling quite invisible and my mother often ending conversations with a curt, “Don’t give me that Mona Lisa.” And wham, that’s what it is. My daughter is genetically predisposed to give me That Mona Lisa: Half-smile, half-sneer, all confusing.
As a parent, once I’d re-read This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin, I became slightly obsessed with trying to figure out what my children, in the future, would believe was a serious parenting failure. But no matter what it was, I reassured myself, words would be our safety net. All relationships flounder without productive, efficient, honest communication. If we kept talking, we were going to be fine.
When I find myself in times of trouble, I Google. “What are teenagers stressed about?” I type. Then I call my 13-year-old. She slumps next to me, and I read the Google results out aloud to her. Body image? “No.” Peer pressure? Stare. Your education? Shrug. Not Having A Boyfriend? “MUM!” Okay, okay … what about The Future? And ka-ching! I get a nod. For the next two minutes I just coo at her. “Awww, widdle baby worrying about the future. You shouldn’t worry about the future. That’s only for big people. Not widdle 13-year-olds.” She is a mix of giggly embarrassment and arch bemusement. But I could cry with relief.
I know those worries. Twenty-seven years after I was a 13-year-old, I remember almost nothing except what it was to worry about the big, scary, amorphous future. Light-headed from that weird combination of elation and responsibility the promise of ultimate independence brings, around 13 you realize the usual questions suddenly need real answers. Like, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” And your astronaut-rock star-mechanic answer doesn’t work anymore. Nope. You’re looking down the barrel of a big exam, then choosing streams in college, then more big exams. You have to have a plan. And then a Plan B. It’s enough to turn anyone full Mona Lisa.
With my daughter (for now) we have words. I may need a megaphone on some days, I may need Morse. With yours it may be going for a run, or standing and yelling at errant motorists together, or reading the same book, or having a secret Whatsapp group for two. Remember those baby website newsletters with monthly updates on our infants’ milestones? Well, our babies are still changing every day. Maybe they traded colic for Kanye or diapers for Doc Martens, but most won’t take too badly to consistent, constant reaching out.
At least for now. But honestly, I’m still hoping Science is working on that LED display.