My daughter recently turned 14, so I opened Beth Harpaz’ book 13 is the New 18 with interest, looking for some thoughts and experiences that I could identify with. I wasn’t disappointed. This memoir, by an Associated Press journalist, is a story of the personal detour that her motherhood took when her oldest son entered and eventually survived his 13th year. Of course there were many ways her story was different than mine, but the thing that drew me to the book was her need to pinpoint that segment of her son’s life and her motherhood. Apparently, I am not the only mother who spent much of my daughter’s 13th year mourning the loss of my child and second guessing my parenting skills.
One of my favorite parts of her story is when Beth Harpaz gets hooked on Facebook while trying to understand her son’s online activities. Like the author, I signed up for Facebook in order to see what my daughter was doing online. Once I set up my own page, I found a group from my high school graduating class and became friends with them, then moved on to college friends, cousins, nieces and nephews, and people I’ve met and wanted to stay in touch with throughout my life. No wonder my daughter likes it – Facebook is a fun way to interact with lots of different friends and acquaintances.
There were other ways the author’s experiences struck a chord. When her son gets into trouble she responds by labeling herself a terrible mother. She longs for the little boy she thinks she has lost, and worries about the big boy’s friends, grades, and behavior. Her son’s cell phone rules his life (until he drops it), and impacts the whole family.
One of the really interesting things for me about reading 13 is the New 18 was my reaction to the author's dilemmas. I questioned her parenting in certain situations, and debated how I would have handled the situation, envisioning that my response would have been more effective. I patted myself on the back for the fact that my daughter’s 13-year old journey was tame in comparison to her son’s. While Harpaz was dealing with issues like condoms under his bed, a call that he was caught with liquor at a school dance, and bad grades, my struggles with my daughter’s disrespectful behavior had been milder. What we had in common were the doubts and fears these issues raised for me as a mother.
13 is the new 18 is not a book full of remarkable insights about how to survive your child’s 13th year. It’s a book about a mother’s personal journey, told with pathos and humor. Parenting itself is a journey, full of joys and fears, successes and failures. If you approach it as a lifelong lesson it’s easier to learn from your mistakes and take the next step. That’s the approach that Ms. Harpaz takes, and that’s what makes this book a worthwhile read.