Now that I’m headed into my 50s, I tend to recall my teenage years with a rosy glow. After all, what did I have to worry about back then? I didn’t have a mortgage, I wasn’t locked into a dead-end career, and my left shoulder didn’t make a glitchy crackle. I was hardly the most popular or brilliant girl in my high school but—as I picture it now, decades later—I had a solid group of friends, a stable home life and a tidy sense of my place in the world.
OTHER MOM ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:
- My Mom Had Me at 18 and When My Daughter Was 18, I Got It
- A Big Shout-Out to the Working Moms, Mine Especially
- Notes from a Proud Mom and Her Teen Drag Queen
- Here Is a List of All the Ways I’ve Turned into My Mom
- Confessions of a Hypocrite Mom
- Mom to College Kid: Text Me, Maybe
- My Mom Was a Sex Therapist But Don’t Ask Me to Have the Talk
- What Mom Got Right—Even When She Messed Up
- Anger Management, Mom Edition
- And Now My Kids Are Moms
Then again, if you were to read the journals I kept between 8th and 12th grade, here’s the teen-ager who emerges: The Most Miserable, Mistreated, Friendless Daughter of Overdemanding Korean Immigrants on the Eastern Seaboard.
Nobody likes me. I don’t know why but there must be something I don’t know.
When I’m at home and I try on an outfit, I might love it, but I go to school, see somebody like today I saw Samantha and feel ugly and awkward.
He doesn’t like me anymore. What the hell happened? I thought everything was so good.
My parents only love me if I get good grades. That’s all they care about.
I recently discovered these journals—nine notebooks in all—while helping to clean out my childhood home. There they were, neatly bound together with an old ribbon and packed away in the same Barnes & Noble shopping bag I had stashed them in during the late ’80s.(To their vast credit, neither of my parents seemed to have trespassed.) I’m not sure what I thought I would feel upon reading these entries one day, but I was struck by the intense seriousness with which I’d created them. My loopy Bic-penned cursive was gouged so deeply into the paper that traces of the imprints are visible pages later. Some entries I had typewritten and carefully taped in place. Each notebook was numbered and dated (“May–June 1987”), as if I’d intended the volumes to one day be studied by scholars.
I’m feeling incomplete. My grades, my field hockey, my weight, even the guy in the library, I really want to find somebody. I want shoes and a sweater. I want to go to the city. I want to get into college. I want my parents to act more like loving parents should.
I want to stab my mother.
Here’s what I learned: Reading your old journals is painful, torturous and humiliating. Here’s what else I learned: I need to be a more empathetic mother to my own 14-year-old daughter.
Lately my former angel has been so uncooperative, rage-filled and self-centered I’ve dreamed of shipping her off to one of those South Korean “cram prisons” where kids start school at 6:30 a.m. and have no access to electronics—just so she can see how good she’s got it. But if I force myself to read just a scrap of my old journals, I am instantly reminded of how much it sucked to be a teenager.
My mother does not understand at all. I couldn’t expect her to.
Teens are masters of disguise. Back then, I never let on to a soul—least of all my mother—what violent emotions were heaving inside me. She never could have dreamed that I was frantically working out a dozen interpersonal dramas at the same time I was doing my algebra. And she never knew how much I often regretted our ugly quarrels because I was too proud to apologize. I suppose it must be much the same for my daughter. I just hope she’s keeping her own secret journals.