It was Spring Break at my daughter’s university, and she and her friends wanted to spend it at my aunt and uncle’s house in Orange Beach, Alabama. My relatives graciously gave permission, but we agreed on one caveat: Someone had to teenage-sit. After all, if a bunch of college kids descend on an innocent beach house on Wolf Bay for a few days, what’s the worst that could happen?
“MOM!” my daughter screamed in exasperation when I told her I couldn’t take the whole week off, thus cutting her break short. “We’ll be FINE! We’re not going to DO anything! You don’t HAVE to be there!”
Sometimes it’s best to back slowly away from your teenager and go into passive-aggressive mode, i.e., don’t argue — just do what you gotta do. I sighed, packed a couple bags of essentials and hoped for the best. “The Best,” defined: No interactions with law enforcement.
Back in my day ...
I’d heard a few hairy tales about Modern Spring Break With Teenagers from my friends. When I was growing up in Mobile, Spring Break meant a day trip or two to one of our favorite beaches. The rest of the time, it meant putting in more hours babysitting or working at McDonald’s. No one in my circle of public school friends had a family beach house. The weekend after graduation, a few of us pooled our money for two nights in a cheap hotel room in Gulf Shores, and that was about as rowdy as we got.
But Modern Spring Break means large groups of high school and college teens spend the week at the beach, completely unsupervised, led by whoever has been handed the keys to his family’s Gulf Shores condo. I can’t help but find this astonishing, but it is rampant. Apparently these grownups never ask themselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
One of my dearest friends, a cancer patient, had a heated argument with her teenage son over this issue a couple of years ago when he and his buddies from his private high school all wanted to go on Spring Break in Gulf Shores. She wondered if there would be any chaperones, and he said no, but don’t worry. She wasn’t willing to let him go on Spring Break without a grownup present, so she ended up having to be the chaperone.
(I try not to be judgmental, and I’ll be the first to admit I am a terrible parent, but if you are the parent of a child from the Class of 2015 in a certain Mobile private school and you blithely allowed your child to go on Spring Break unaccompanied, so that a cancer patient had to pick up your parental slack in between her treatments, I’m sorry, but I am judging you.)
We drove a caravan of several cars to the Orange Beach house Saturday afternoon, the first official day of Spring Break, because the college students did not get moving before noon. We hauled in our bags and a few groceries. The wind was howling and the temperature was in the high 50s. A few groups of students would occasionally venture down to the dock, then return hastily, blowing on their hands. Most of them eventually settled on the couch, playing video games or watching cartoons. My daughter stared at her phone, lost in electronic torpor. I felt a little sorry for them. They might as well have been back in their dorm rooms. Without warmer weather, Spring Break didn’t seem like much of a party.
That evening, I called my husband to say goodnight. “How many kids are there?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think there are six.” He was incredulous that I didn’t have the exact number, but my daughter had mentioned that several would leave early or arrive late during the next few days. What did it matter? The house has a lot of bedrooms, and I certainly wasn’t going to go poking around in them to count noses. As long as I had my room to myself, I was happy. And if the Mama’s happy, well …
The next morning, feeling divinely inspired and a little guilty at the initial desire to sleep in, I Sprang Forward for Daylight Savings and got up at an ungodly hour to drive back into Mobile for Sunday school and church. My aunt and uncle blanched when they saw me in the choir loft. “I thought you were watching the kids!” my aunt said after the service. I reassured her: “They are like vampires. They sleep ’til past noon. They will just be waking up when I get back.” Sure enough, the house was barely stirring when I returned about 2 p.m. A few dirty dishes were cluttering up the sink, and the kitchen garbage can was nearly overflowing, but otherwise, all was in semi-order. A light rain was falling and there was no sign that the weather would improve.
I can do this, I thought. I will commute to work for the next three days, so I won’t have to take any vacation! As long as they stay up all night and sleep all day, I thought, I can work a full shift and get back before they’ve had a chance to get into mischief, or attract the attention of neighbors who might become alarmed enough at some unfamiliar faces to up and call the police. And if it stays this cold, so much the better.
The next three days were the same routine. What happens when it’s cold and gloomy during Spring Break? Not much. No rowdiness with loud music from speakers set up at the end of the dock. No one wanting to take out a kayak or to go fishing. The students barely left the house during the daylight hours, except to make a Starbucks run. The bathing suits and beach towels remained untouched. Weather-wise, it was about the worst that could happen. I gave myself a mental high-five.
But vampires do tend to become more lively at night. On Monday evening, one group decided to go out to The Hangout, to … hang out, as no one had any money. The ladies spent an interminable time doing makeup while listening to horrible songs at full volume just outside my bedroom door. I did my best to ignore the incomprehensible musicality — the back beats all sounded like “wucka-pause-wucka” — and inanely, monotonously chanted lyrics, such as “Workworkworkworkwork,” but after about 45 minutes I was almost ready to break my Lenten fast and resort to alcohol, or worse, social media and alcohol. “Tell your friends to be quiet when y’all get back, because I will be asleep,” I told my daughter. “How is that our problem?” she asked. I didn’t have a good retort, so I mumbled a lame request to please at least keep it down in the hall outside my door.
I normally power off my phone when I am ready to go to sleep, but not this time. The vampires were out, roaming the world, which suddenly seemed filled with terrors. What if they somehow got into an unpleasant interaction with the police? What if they had a horrible car accident? I was the responsible adult! And whom would they call if my phone was off? I drifted off into an uneasy rest, wondering about the logistics of bailing someone out of jail. And where was the nearest hospital? After their mangled bodies were extracted by the Jaws of Life at the scene of the multi-car crash, would they be airlifted to Pensacola? Really, brain, let’s come up with the absolute worst that could happen! Why bother trying to sleep?
I was startled out of a light doze a few hours later when the ungrateful beasts made a loud, triumphant return home and cranked the wucka-wucka music back up. I powered off my phone in relief, turned the handy HoMedics Sound Machine on the bedside table up as high as it would go, and managed to piece together a few more hours of rest before the alarm went off and it was time to go back to work, an hour and a half drive away.
The commute from Orange Beach to south Mobile County was actually a pleasant interlude, made better on these early mornings with the combined enhancements of a pretty sunrise and relatively minimal traffic. I felt loved when the toll booth attendant, a kindly grandmotherly type, said, “You stay warm, now,” as she opened the gate for me Tuesday morning.
The Best Awful
In the evenings, deprived of my usual YMCA workouts, I went on quick walks to the nearby park. The fading light turned the bay to a deep blue, and the sunsets lingered in the distance, glowing orange and pink, but the teenagers, glued to the TV and huddled together for warmth, were oblivious to their beauty.
I wondered abstractedly if my daughter would ever look back on this Spring Break with fondness, remembering her mother’s sacrifice to make sure she and her friends had such a good time. Would she be grateful for all of the driving, the toll-booth fees, the kitchen cleanups? The anxiety and the lack of sleep? I felt certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, she would not.
But, that’s teenage parenting for you, and this Spring Break was the best — or, possibly, the worst — example of it. The Best Awful, as the late, great Carrie Fisher put it. You do the best you can, hoping it will be good enough, and hoping that when it’s time for the next Spring Break, some other parent will step up to chaperone.
Sally Pearsall Ericson is the director of marketing and public relations for Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore, Ala. She is a former copy editor and page designer for the Sun Herald and for the Mobile Press Register. She lives in Mobile with her husband, their two teenagers and three dogs. She wrote this column for her blog, Great Moments in Teenage Parenting, which is available at sallyericson.wordpress.com.