Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Marion Winik

Until you have children of your own, you simply canít believe the conversations that go on between the parents of babies. The ardent analysis of toilet training, the deconstruction of pre-school biting incidents: none of it makes sense unless you are there.

I got through this phase years ago, but lately have found myself drawn into an even more passionate discussion. I had my initiation in a hotel bar in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a group of booklovers at a literary festival. The conversation that night never got near a book. For these were parents of teenagers, and we had a much more pressing set of common interests.

Right after ordered we our calamari, one of the women received a call on her cell from her nineteen-year-old daughter. I just wish I was there to give her a Breathalyzer test, she sighed when she hung up. Did you know you can get a home blood-alcohol kit at Wal-Mart?

The ponytailed guy sitting next to me looked interested. "I never thought Iíd be the kind of dad who took his kid in for drug tests," he said. "But since my son and his friends started smoking dope and having sex, I donít see any other way."

"Well, you know what I tell my kids," says another mom. "Thereís just one rule. Donít get caught."

Donít get caught may be easier said than done. One of the moms told us she had recently walked in on her son receiving the oral attentions of one of his lady friends. Oh my god, what did you do? we gasped. Thereís not much you can do, said a woman who had had a similar experience. Returning home unexpectedly not long after departing for the evening, she interrupted a full-scale Hollywood seduction. She walked in on her sonís girlfriend lounging in a bubble bath eating a plate of pasta, which in her frantic attempt to cover up, the young woman pitched into the laundry hamper.

We all laughed at that one, but soon found ourselves drawn back to the car accidents, the pregnancies, the ringing phones at 3 a.m. that fuel our nightmares. I mention that I recently heard of a boy who died of a heroin overdose the weekend before he was to graduate from college. His girlfriend didnít tell the paramedics exactly what was wrong with him because heíd made her swear never to tell his parents or anyone else that heíd tried hard drugs.

A silence falls over the group. How do you be a friend and an ally without tacitly giving permission? How do you protect and set boundaries without becoming a prison guard? As the drug tester dad put it, "Itís easy to think you know what you would and wouldnít do -- until you could lose the person you love most in the world."

In some ways, it is like the mysteries of babyhood. there are many schools of thought, which means thereís no one answer, no magic, and what you end up with is just a lot of muddling through. But while everybody gets toilet trained and stops biting their friends, and not everybody makes it through their youthful experiences with drugs and alcohol and sex in one shiny piece. The journey is a lot scarier, yet our only comfort is the same. Itís the conversation.
After 20 years in Austin, the hometown of her heart, Marion Winik lives in a farmhouse in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania with children and stepchildren ranging in age from 1 to 14. She is the author of The The Lunch-Box Chronicles and Rules for Unruly.