Growing Up Is Hard To Do (When You’re Already Over 40)


The most surprising thing about raising teenagers is that they’re not the biggest problem.

I am.

Everyone warned me that this will be the toughest segment of parenthood. Naturally, I assumed that all I had to do was to continue being my natural, charming self, and I’d be able to handle the teen years with aplomb.

Problem is, my natural, charming self has high-tailed it for the hills and been replaced by this paranoid, hand-wringing, confused old fart who struggles to understand this illogical, shocking, fast-moving new world in which I find myself: Adolescent Island. One of these things is not like the other, and it’s me.

Funny, nobody warned me about that.

The kids continue to change and grow in many ways, of course. But from all the horror stories I’ve heard from well-meaning parents, I had assumed that on my kids’ thirteenth birthdays they’d wake up demanding a carton of Marlboros and a gift card to Prison Biker Tattoo & Espresso. I thought they’d start selling dime bags out behind the school annex, and running an illegal floating craps game under the football bleachers (those episodes of 21 Jump Street were sobering!). I figured they’d start shaving large inappropriate sectors of their heads, listening to thug rap, and carrying a razor in their boot.

But no. I’m the one who seems to be struggling the most with the change. Not in them, but in me. It’s taken me a while to figure this out, but when the conflict hits the fan, I get angry, resentful, frustrated and irrational not because of what they’ve done (or not done), or even so much who they are becoming, but who they’re leaving behind.

They’re my kids, but they’re no longer my little kids. I was already 36 when Barb had Rusty, so I came into this game somewhere in the third quarter. But I took to fatherhood like Keith Moon took to the drums. I ignored most advice and ran totally on instinct. Animal Dad.

By the time Speaker came along two years later, I had learned some valuable lessons, such as always checking the height of a doorway before running through it with a toddler on your shoulders.

Once we unleashed our kids on the grade school system, the clapboard bungalow of my ideal self was fully engulfed in the flames of enthusiastic parenting. I volunteered at the school. I chaperoned field trips. (The kids loved me. The parents and bus drivers, not so much.) I quit my job so I could freelance from home and be more available. I quit drinking. Liquor. As often.

The single-digit years were a cakewalk, because these two impressionable angels believed everything I told them. I had stockpiled 20 years’ worth of apocryphal stories, simple magic tricks, dumb jokes, and cheap bar gags with which to amaze them and cast myself as a god-like figure in their tiny, booger-encrusted eyes. And it didn’t hurt that 99% of their problems could be solved with a handful of Skittles and couple of carousel tokens.

But now we have entered the Big Leagues of parenting. The kids are throwing straight heat. Every time I open my mouth, they shift gears to High Skeptical. The more they learn, the less they think I know. In a routine document check of Rusty’s room, I found a pamphlet entitled “So Your Dad’s a ‘Tard.”

The other night Speaker and I were sharing the couch in the living room. The TV was on, and I had the sewing kit out, repairing yet another overtaxed belt loop on a pair of my jeans.

Black lipstick: The universal harbinger of teenagedom.

No, I haven't been drinking motor oil. Why do you ask?

“I didn’t know you could sew,” she said.

“Sure, I can sew. I can even hem pants.”

Her eyebrows leaped up and attempted to dunk on her hairline. “You know how to hem pants?”

“Sweetie, when you’re five-seven you learn how to hem pants.”

Their newfound mental acuity is accompanied by a host of disturbing physical milestones, known collectively as puberty. If there’s any lesson I learned from watching The Lion King 733 times on VHS, it’s that puberty is a part of the circle of life. You know, like eating your next-door neighbor.

So when my son’s voice dropped into the Barry White range, and he started spending long hours locked in the bathroom with the Land’s End catalog, I chuckled knowingly. I’d been through it too. Only I had National Geographic and an Ohio Players record jacket.

But with girls, it’s different.

Last summer, Speaker came home from spending a weekend at the lake with a friend and went straight to her room and shut the door. Gone three days and we get no hello, how was your weekend, no nothing. Barb went in to quiz her, and soon came out to report the problem: A man had run off with her swing set. [Note: When we men try to invent euphemisms for menstruation, this is the kind of thing we come up with.]

This news stunned me like a SWAT team shock grenade. What happened next was mystifying and heartbreaking, and kind of embarrassing. For me, that is. I went into my bathroom and shut the door. I sat on the toilet and cried like a baby for half an hour. I was losing my little girl, I thought, and here was the first wave goodbye.

Right on the heels of the stolen swing set came the makeup. Gobs of it. Trowelfuls of it. I suddenly found myself living with a small rodeo clown with too-tight jeans and no interest in conversation.

One of the other important lessons I’d learned about parenting (I forgot which Disney movie it was) is that you have to pick your battles. I understand that girls are bombarded with media images of idealized women from the moment they are able to focus their eyes, and when they hit adolescence most of them are eager to try their hand at changing their appearance. They’re expressing themselves. They’re searching for their identity, and makeup is a quick, dramatic means of achieving a different look.

I get that. I used to think that if one shot of Cuervo was good, seven shots would be outstanding. By the same reasoning, if a tasteful swipe of mascara enhances the eyes, then doing up your face to look like Amy Winehouse after a make-out session with Gene Simmons will really make a statement. There will be failures and missteps, but the stuff washes off. Then it’s back to the mirror for more experimentation. No big deal.

But I hate the black lipstick. I can handle the teased out hair. I can deal with the, um, eclectic wardrobe that makes Cindy Lauper look like Hilary Clinton by comparison. But that black lipstick—it completely obliterates the person who used to be my little girl. Even if she says, “Thanks for packing my lunch, Daddy, I’m going to the bus stop now. I love you!” it’s coming out of these big old black lips. Ugh.

Her favorite place is no longer Dragon’s Hollow, now it’s the mall. Hannah Montana? Nix. She listens to Katy Perry. Her morning drink of choice used to be pink chocolate milk. Now it’s chai, which I believe is black tea mixed with taco seasoning and iron filings.

So I just hang on and try to keep up.

Both kids are getting excellent grades, which results in a longer leash and more green lights on the home front. They rarely get into any real trouble (when I was a teenager, cops used to say hi to my parents in the grocery store), and we get frequent compliments from other adults on how they carry themselves. They’re good kids. Honestly, I could not be more proud. I just have to learn to stop freaking out so much.

If I just pay attention, I can see that my little kids are still there. They’re the same people they always were. It’s mostly the packaging that’s changing.

Oh, and their sense of humor is becoming more sophisticated, whereas mine seems to have peaked at about age 17.

While Speaker and I were sharing that couch the other night, a commercial came on TV about an online service that will show you who’s been searching for you. “I can’t believe it,” says the spokesmodel. “Seven people are searching for me!”

Speaker rolled her eyes and popped a Skittles between her black lips. “There’s never that many people searching for you. Unless you’re Bigfoot.”

Wow. Apparently, I have some growing up to do.


Wanna laugh ’til your sides hurt? These ought to do the trick: Ice Fishing: The Aromatic Sport of KingsWho Will Save Rock ‘n Roll?, and The Guitar That Saved My Soul.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Bob Wire in the Wonder Years.

Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers.