During our morning “coffee time” about three weeks ago, my husband, Art, looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Our girls, our girls!” His heart was wrenched at the article he was reading in The New York Times headlined, “Teen Girls Reveal Record Levels of Sadness.” “What do we do?” was his next question.
Being parents of four children, two of them grown “girls,” and grandparents of 12, six of them being girls, it was a question that haunted us both. Art, who always thinks that “something” can be “done,” and I being a woman of a vision that generally stays close around our family, was stymied until he thought, “You are a woman, and it is not a story for me to write.”
His intention was for me to write a newspaper column because that is our place in the community, as meager or small (concerning the depth of the issue) as that may be. All I have is my life experience from just a hair shy of 78 years and so I offer my thoughts.
Somewhere on this page, you will see a black and white snapshot of four little girls taken right after the photographer told us all to put our hands on our hips, and then she caught us as we tried to find our hips on our little girl bodies. This was the age of film, so you got what you got.
Carolyn is the blonde on the left who thinks her hips are right at the beginning of her ribs. I am next, and I’m trying to cock my hips out in an effort to find them. Sandra is the little cutie next to me and it is her elbow that is most prominent. Then there is Bobbie, with more clothes on, because she was an “older girl,” hands behind her back. All of us are barefooted because that’s the way we were.
Carolyn and Bobbie are my aunts, more like sisters, and Sandra is my cousin. All of us are still living and are connected in the way families are, even if hundreds of miles apart. The qualifications for being in this column are that we are all girls (maybe old ladies now). Each of us were teenagers, then mothers, and finally grandmothers, so we have faced life in all of its stages.
As Carolyn was growing up on that farm in the picture, her father, a farmer of 40 acres and a third-grade education, and her mother, rose to the sixth grade before marrying and raising eight children. I wonder if she, Carolyn, were asked as a teenager, if she “had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year?” That was the survey question which caused the bleak headline that riveted Art’s attention. What would her answer be? No one asked.
She went on to graduate and earned two advanced degrees. She became a teacher and married a teacher, raised two girls, and built a house with her husband in two years’ time, working on it when they got home from school. It is beautiful, as are their two daughters.
Those sentences condensed a life of happiness and excruciating pain (because of her husband’s back injury) productivity and an esteemed place in their small, southern town. Raising two girls, who, as children always do, brought joy and pain. Sadness and hopelessness? Nobody asked, and everybody did the best they could.
I am next in the photo lineup. My family moved like gypsies because my dad was in international construction. As soon as he finished in one place, we moved to the next. That meant 17 schools before I graduated from high school. Was I anxious? Yes, every time I had to be the new girl standing in front of the class as a teacher would wait for the principal or the janitor to find another desk. Sometimes, I would land in a friendly place, and sometimes not.
Today, I can walk in anywhere and pretty much be at home. Anxiety caused me to see beyond myself.
I also earned a degree, married, and had four children. Were our children anxious? Probably because they had very strict parents. They all have forgiven us for our failures. Each one brought us his own variety of joy and sorrow. Our oldest son was killed at age 38. We have pain but not despair.
The third girl, who has her elbow out, is Sandra. The most remarkable trait that she exhibited as a teenager was a saucy wit. Her folks also gave her a pet monkey, so you know they were cool parents.
Her mother, in addition to being cool, was an alcoholic, and she spent many of her adult years in a nursing home being cared for because drinking stole her mind. She didn’t even know her own daughter.
“Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness,” probably so, but still, Sandra perseveres, and to this day, with many years of battling cancer behind her, her saucy wit still makes us love being around her. Sadness? Of course.
Now, there is Bobbie, who was so much older than the trio she was probably charged with watching on the day the picture was snapped. Bobby married C.B., the boy she had loved from first grade. Her home all these 80-something years later is still the farm next to the one her parents owned.
Bobbie could do everything, and often did. She and C.B. grew chickens, cows, mules, and three children. About three years ago, C.B. drowned as he was fishing in a pond. Nobody asked if her teen years were filled with sadness or hopelessness because everybody around her was too busy, making a good garden and growing crops for a little cash.
If you read this long expose of my family and think, “Well, she is just dismissive of what is very real pain girls experience today,” you are wrong. I know the feelings are real and cause great harm. I would take them away if I could.
What I am trying to share is that pain can be followed by joy. However, I also think each generation experiences life with problems unique to their time. Just a cursory look at history will remind you of the problems of WWI and WWII, the Depression, and in between, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, high infant mortality of earlier times, burying children along the wagon route as pioneers moved west. This generation deals with technology, for all its good and bad.
I cannot tell anyone how to live because I am still discovering the answer myself, but as to the teen girls, within our scope today, I suggest we love them and support them in the way available to each of us.
Then I go back to the title of this column to ask the question, “Why So Downcast Oh My Soul,” and suggest the antidote to a downcast soul is found in the second part of that verse. “Put your hope in God.”
There is the one answer that I have found in good seasons and bad ... my hope in God. That is my answer to this generation and all those to come because there will always be sadness, but with God, hope is possible.
From the Bible: “Why so downcast, oh my soul, put your hope in God.” Psalm 42:5