Reflections on Raising a Teen while Being a Teen Librarian as She Becomes an Adult
Trigger warning for talks about sexual violence and suicidal ideation.
Eighteen years ago I gave birth to my first child. At the time I was a teen services librarian at one of my favorite jobs at one of my favorite libraries. And as I sat in a room full of teens for my weekly Teen CoffeeHouse, in which I never actually served coffee because I didn’t know how to make it, I wondered what it would be like to have my own teen attending my teen programs. I’m here to tell you that I have loved every minute of it. This girl holds my heart in ways I could never have imagined.
Then 2008 happened and the world changed, though that change took a bit longer to catch up with our family personally then it did for others. A flood came. We lost a house. And at the age of 8 we moved and everything changed. It would not be the last time things changed.
Now living in a new state with a new job as a tween and teen services librarian, my child soon started coming to my library programs and it was hands down the best experience of my life. I loved having my child come to my library, this place that I held so dear, and make memories with me in this space I had created, had loved, had felt such tremendous pride for. Libraries hold endless wonder and opportunities, especially when your mom works there and you get to see it all behind the scenes. And library staff make great aunts and uncles and friends.
At that time I also began Teen Librarian Toolbox, and she became a part of that as well. She rushed to open packages of arcs that came in the mail and shouted with joy at all the books that came like candy from the sky for her to read. I will never forget when she read her first YA book, a category that I had dedicated my entire adult life to reading and serving. We were driving down the street as she looked at me and said, “I think this girl is being raped, mom.” So I asked her to tell me what was happening in the book and she told me and I said, “Yes, that is definitely rape. She is not consenting to those actions.” She then looked at me and said, “Do I have to keep reading this?” No, no I said, you never have to keep reading a book that you don’t like or disturbs you.
But she did finish it and we talked about it. That book would be one of the many books that we would talk about and would help us have hard conversations about what it means to be female in a patriarchal society, about consent, about friendship, about mothers and daughters . . . .
She has gone with me to conferences and author visits, meeting some of the authors that have shaped who she was becoming. She’s met Sarah Dessen, Jon Corey Whaley and Natalie Lloyd in some of her most formative teenage moments. She read their books and sat down with them and thanked them for their words. She stood next to Julie Murphy and thanked her for giving her permission to love her body no matter what it looked like.
One year, having been moved by an A. S. King book, she set out to read every single A. S. King book. We talked about each one as she read them. The book she told me she hated the most was also the one she talked about the most. She sent me long, stirring text messages about the complicated mother/daughter relationship and being allowed to be yourself. We talked about sexual violence and mental health and white nationalism. We talked about gender identity and sexual orientation. We talked about being lost and finding yourself and the pressures of life and school. We talked about invisible helicopters and drinking bats and why the world seems to be so afraid of female bodies. It’s hard for me to think about my child and not think about A. S. King and to think about A. S. King and not think about my teenage daughter, about the gift she gave us both by giving us the tools we needed to have conversations that I never knew how to have. A. S. King will always be an important part of our lives in ways that I will never be able to communicate. Stories can bring you together in ways that you can never imagine.
I started a Teen MakerSpace and she came and sat with me for hours. I would watch her create in the corner with her headphones on while I worked with hurting teens. Teens that I knew were going home to parents who didn’t accept them for who they were. Teen who I knew had parents in jail. Teens who I knew were sleeping outside the library late at night when they thought no one would know. And I thanked God every day that she was there with me and safe. And I prayed every day that the teens I worked with who weren’t would find someone, anyone, who could do more than give them a book to read and a safe space for a couple of hours. But she saw the reality of life for teens whose lives that were very different than hers and that formed who she was, as well. It made her heart big and open and caring.
At one point, my world came crashing down again and I began to seriously struggle with crippling depression and anxiety. I became suicidal and surviving every day was a tremendous amount of effort. Then her dad got sick with a still unknown illness. And now we’re living in a pandemic. But through it all there have been prayers from strangers, friends made on the internet, and this continued sense of purpose that I get to share with this kid I love.
TLT has saved me, saved my family, time and time again. As a piece of me, it is also a piece of her. A building block that has formed who she became and is becoming, has yet to be. I fought hard to build things to bring me to a place of health and in doing so, I not only saved myself – well, am learning to save myself each day – but am teaching her to do the same for herself. At least, I hope I am. I’m trying.
This kid is my heart. She’s smart, passionate, compassionate, and learning to be strong. Like me, she struggles with anxiety. Unlike me, she’s not ashamed of who she is and has decided that the only way to help people like her is to just be honest about mental health. She’ll tell you that although it’s hard, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. She speaks out when she hears others saying racist or homophobic/transphobic things. She does her best to learn and grow and fight to make the world a better place. She’s marched and registered to vote. She wants to smash the patriarchy and end racism. She has been formed in a generation that has seen our failings and is demanding better of herself and the world around her. She inspires me and gives me hope for humanity.
As I type this she is sitting in front of me putting together a skull. All of those murderous YA books and a love of science have left her with a passion for pursuing forensic science. Earlier she was trying to pick a lock with a lock picking kit her father purchased for her. Behind her sits a puzzle of the periodic table of elements we put together as a family and framed for her. But she texted me her first day of school in her senior year, just a few short days ago, to tell me that the patriarchy is still alive and well because she is the only girl in her AP Physics class.
Trying to figure out what to do about this year, her senior year, was one of the hardest parenting things I’ve had to wrestle with. I have watched her blossom and grow in her theatre program. I still sometimes weep when I think about how I may not get to see her on the stage again during her senior year. Theatre helped her find herself in the same way that being a librarian and doing TLT has helped me find myself. I ache to think of what it means for her to lose that. I pray that she will always find her place and her people and her peace.
I don’t know what the future holds for her. This world is very different now. This is not the senior year that I had envisioned for her. It’s definitely not the world I wanted to send my newly minted adult into. But it’s the world we have and I love her more than I could ever have imagined. I hope that we will all do our part to make the world a better place for her.
Thank you all. And Riley, I am so blessed to be your mother. May you be blessed every day, and may we right the wrongs that have brought the world to this place in which you now find yourself starting your adult life. You and your friends deserve a better world, don’t stop fighting for it – ever.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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