One Day At A Time Is No Way To Live: Love, Death, and Parenting Teenagers

A first sneak peek into the Love & Death Issue, which you can order here. […]

Mockingbird / 8.8.17

A first sneak peek into the Love & Death Issue, which you can order here. It comes from the one and only Emily Skelding. Remember, subscribers/monthly givers get a discount on the upcoming D.C. Conference!

I relish long-term planning and list-making. During this academic year, I planned to write a book, my son Sumner strategized to get into his first-choice college, and my daughter Ramona declared she wanted to take an extra math class in her free time. We broke our big goals into littler ones and scripted the things we had to do to get there. Looking ahead is my habit. Tidily structured days, weeks, months, and years liberate me.

But things happen: viruses strike and a week is lost to vomit patrol. Meetings are canceled and deadlines are missed. Food preferences change, so five pounds of broccoli rot in the fridge. Like most mothers, I expect the unexpected. My tidy structure is flexible, allowing for the steady wave of the unexpected my four children throw at me every day. My book will get written over the summer or next fall, Sumner has several good college choices (not his first), and Ramona will complete her high school math classes at the usual pace. It is not what I planned, but I can handle this.

I say a prayer for each of my children (and a desperate one for myself) each morning. Having a cup of tea before school dismissal and a glass of wine while I make dinner also helps, for an hour or two. I dabble in yoga, but sometimes its benefits are also fleeting. In my five minute savasana I consider how Sumner could reframe his personal statement so he gets into the good-fit college, and I wonder if Ramona could benefit from probiotics. Everywhere, all the time, I am handling it.


My fourteen-year-old daughter’s pendulum swings wide. A sharply worded reprimand from a teacher can ruin Ramona’s day, whereas an overheard compliment on her makeup from two girls in the back row of Geometry will bring her joy for an entire evening. Either her frustration has no depths or her joy has no bounds. Last night, I found her with fresh tears on her cheeks because the self-imposed task of cleaning her room overwhelmed her. She accepted a hug from her little sisters, but gave me the hand when I came in for one. She will not let me handle her.

When Ramona is down, I cannot coax her into serenity. Worse, I am agitated when she won’t accept my offer to brew a cup of herbal tea or my suggestion that she accept good-enough instead of striving for perfect. When she poo-poos my sage wisdom, I’m likely to throw up my hands and yell at her to “just calm down.” I want her to stop freaking out, so I freak out. I cannot handle it.

With my seventeen-year-old son, Sumner, my influence often feels even less significant. Last fall he was suffering from depression. When he’s down, there is little of our mother-son banter. He emerges from his room to say, “There’s nothing I want to do. I’m not interested in anything.” Nothing? Anything? Did Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime crash? Did the books vanish from our shelves? Of course, I have experienced depression. I know that paralysis. And because I wish I could make it vanish, I fire off a few things he might do to find relief: practice yoga, play video games, go on a bike ride, take a shower, get something done. My suggestions of how to handle it rarely help.

I cannot handle my teenagers blowing up or shutting down and hiding quietly. Instead of finishing my to-do list, I am left rattled, and desperate for resolution.

In Frances Jenson’s book, The Teenage Brain, I read, “As parents we sometimes experience our teenagers’ emotional highs and lows as frighteningly out of control, and because our teenagers are yet unable to smooth things out using their frontal lobes, it’s up to us to be the filter, the regulator, to provide the sense of calm their brains can’t yet provide.” Instead of filing this advice away, I wanted to flush the book down the toilet. I am reading the book to fix them, not me. I am supposed to be the regulator? How can I maintain the calm in the midst of their storms?


When I think of calm, I think of the lilies of the field. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches the radical idea that humans should not worry about tomorrow. Jesus suggests people shouldn’t even worry about food and clothing. Instead, we mortals should be like flowers in the field, trusting God will provide what we need.

If I was a lily, as waves of teenage elation or anger spilled into my orbit, I would be unruffled, downright zen. I would look beyond myself, to God, to provide what my teenagers need. Tranquility would be my nature. I would live gracefully in the present. I would be a flower, effortlessly displaying my peace and beauty, blossoming despite my circumstances. My savasanas would be untroubled, placid.

But the lilies of the field are not parents. Flowers don’t procreate or attempt yoga. They do not have partners and career trajectories. And if I don’t worry about how dinner gets on the table and leave my family to their own devices, we may subsist on scrambled eggs, Clif bars, and cheese sticks. If I don’t monitor clothing, my three-year-old would wear shorts in January and my seventeen-year-old would wear pajama pants to his college interview. I cannot be a swaying lily. Jesus’s Sermon is so unrealistic. What does He have against weekly menus, reward charts, and calendar alerts? These are my worry-busters.

I miss the easier days of elementary school when my teenagers were predictable and happy-go-lucky. My son was easily settled with a good fantasy book and my daughter was appeased if she picked the menu for her lunches. They whined, they bickered, and they made mistakes, but their emotions were reasonable.


The day after Ramona’s outburst, in a free moment between pick-ups and drop-offs, I called my father to complain about the dark and hopeless turn my parenting has taken since my older kids reached adolescence. I was in tears. I asked him if I would ever accomplish anything—buy groceries, write a memoir, or get a good night’s sleep—with two adolescents interrupting my flow?

How dare Ramona ask for last-minute essay revisions? Why did my Sumner forget to ask me for a ride until we had to jump in the van, racing to our destination? What does Ramona expect from me when she is daunted or disappointed and needs to vent when I am brushing my teeth, ready to hop in bed? Would Sumner ever learn to put the milk back in the fridge?

Usually, my dad would remind me that he prays for us every day. He would assure me children mature. He would promise they will eventually grow up. Sometimes, imagining my children beyond this mercurial stage feels a million miles away. On this day, my dad took a different tact.

“Just take it one day at a time.”

Like Jesus’s lilies, was he was suggesting I not worry, take it in stride? Was he implying I ought to stay composed in the midst of madness? Perhaps he was using one of those “Keep Calm and Carry On” napkins my mom keeps in the kitchen? I thanked him for his encouragement and hung up so I could blow my nose.

In the quiet of my minivan, I thought: one day at a time is no way to live. Especially with teenagers. Especially since I have two younger kids and a husband and two puppies and a career trajectory. I want to live in my dreams for the future. He should know I can handle things on my own.


I lead a double life. While I am the overwrought parent of two teenagers, I am also the overwrought parent of two small children. Recently, when I manage to make it to the grocery with my six- and three-year-old daughters, Zola and Opal, other parents will stop to marvel at the girls hoisting canned goods and cracker boxes into the cart. These parents say things like, “Savor it, because they grow up fast.” Then they tell me how old their children are (always in their teens). This report is a lament. Sometimes I confide that I, too, have children who look, but rarely act, like adults.

I know these parents don’t miss middle-of-the-night wake-ups and tantrums at checkout. But with small children, struggles are overcome with a cuddle or a snack in the car. Band-aids actually fix things. While parents of young children bemoan the long days and short years, parents of teens miss the simplicity of lips on soft cheeks.

Parents of teenagers no longer share playgroups or birthday parties, and we use this as an excuse to not talk. My children are breaking away from me in uncomfortable and unsettling ways, and sharing this makes my pain more real, so I avoid sharing the quiet tensions, outright rebellions, and miserable seasons. Instead, I brag about the stuff Sumner and Ramona will put on their resumes. The days are long and so are the years.

I wish I had asked my dad to explain how one-day-at-a-time works. How can I regulate this rocky ride, the juvenile double rainbow of angst and euphoria? I feel like a pinball, at the mercy of each day’s twists and turns. I wish I’d challenged my dad when we were speaking on the phone, pointing out that he had been the one who showed me how to carefully plan so my life might flourish. How dare he throw one-day-at-a-time at me now? One-day-at-a-time sounds an awful like “live in the moment.” Would he want to live in these vexing moments?

Once, my dad was known for his bellows and blow ups, especially when faced with my brother’s teenage defiance. Now a grandfather, my dad is a chill guy. He once revealed how he changed: “My son grew up.” I don’t want to wait for my children to be adults to be in control of my emotions. When I look at parents around me, I see a field of flourishing white lilies and I am the shriveled, stunted one—dried up and bent over.


Sumner and I go to yoga together (something that will end up on his resume one day). This makes us sound physically and emotionally aligned, two zen beings seeking enlightenment and health. Today we were running late for class when he offered to drive. He has his permit and I am looking forward to having another driver in the family to share pick-ups and drop-offs. So I moved into the passenger seat. He drove just below the speed limit (did he remember we were late?), he stayed in his lane (with reminders), and there were no sudden starts and stops (although he almost missed a stop sign just after I yelped at him to avoid a car parked too far from the curb). It was shaping up to be a successful lesson.

When we got to the studio, he confidently drove into the tiny, cramped parking lot. There were no spots and the only way out was to back up about 50 feet. He has not mastered steering backwards. He slowly began to reverse while saying, “I just cannot see anything.” He swerved a little too close to the cars to our left, and then corrected too close to the cars on our right. I gripped my door and asked him through gritted teeth to stop. Just then, a Range Rover in front of us pulled out, leaving us its giant parking space. Instead of pulling slightly to the right so he could angle into the spot on our left, he moved closer to a Prius we were already close to hitting. I shrieked at him just before my minivan made contact with it. I booted him out of the driver’s seat, while demanding he get in the passenger’s seat, to “see how it’s done.”

Neatly parked, we walked into class at the same pace, but he was six feet behind me, annoyed at my overreaction. There was no time to reconcile, so we headed straight in for our first downward facing dog. I mentally beat myself up: I was supposed to be modeling safe, calm, defensive driving, and I showed him furious frenzy. It was like giving road rage a thumbs up. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I copilot like a transcendent lily?


I have often found that my moments of greatest peace are in the midst of the Great Unexpected. When I discovered my unplanned pregnancy, without feeling flighty or flakey, I left the last week of my job and moved to a new city to start a family. When my nine-year-old’s retina detached, requiring out-of-state surgeries, I was completely present. When my five-year-old had appendicitis the week of Christmas, not baking cookies seemed like a good tradition to adopt. In the Great Unexpected, fixation on the future evaporates. These are times when weekly food planning and having clean clothes is forgotten. I am centered, a pillar of peace, because I can no longer pretend I am in control. I am at the mercy of my situation. My purpose is clear even if I am fragile. Like a lily, in my utter desperation, I become dependent on God.

I wish I could live with teenagers like I do in crisis: thankful for family and fortune, somehow comfortably sleeping in the chair-bed in a hospital room. Instead, on a nightly basis, I lay awake on my own Tempur-Pedic mattress, primed for eruption, unable to absorb the aftershocks of teenage life.

After yoga, Sumner and I went out for tea. I explained to Sumner my struggle with my father’s apt advice. I told him how the lilies confound me, taunting me with their sway. Sumner asked about the lilies. He wanted to read it for himself.

Sumner then told me I had one-day-at-a-time all wrong. Through dealing with depression, he has learned one-day-at-a-time doesn’t mean you are calm or quiet or devotedly present in the storm. He didn’t expect that from me. “Mom, one-day-at-a-time means you don’t ever say, ‘I can’t go on.’ It means as long as you’re still standing at the end of a day, the day was a success. It means when times are hard and your goals seem too far away, all you have to do is say to yourself ‘one more day.’” Later, I asked him to text this to me, so I could hold onto it. I’ve read it many times. He freed me—while I cannot devise a way out of the chaos, all I need to do is weather the storm. I don’t have to do it while swaying like a flower, pretending to be above it all.

I’ve also reread the Sermon on the Mount. I now see that Jesus wasn’t asking me to achieve a white-knuckle calm. He was preaching surrender, but surrender is rarely graceful or pretty. I prefer to handle things myself with my plots and my plans. The lilies are not pretty, serene mothers who keep it together through stubborn, hard work. Jesus’s lilies are simply dependent, unresistant.

So, just as my dad and my son told me: here’s to living one day at a time. I won’t put pressure on myself to do the crow pose before I am ready, and I won’t beat myself up for impatience or powerlessness with my teenagers’ peaks and valleys. I will live surrendered to “one day more,” because that is the only way to live with two teenagers and two little kids and two dogs and one husband filling our house.