|In unrelated news: I am trying to teach Scarlett to eat with a spoon. Still.|
I was kind of wondering why she hadn’t asked before, but on the way to her conference it came out: “Why are you reading all of my stuff all of a sudden?” It wasn’t her usual ‘I’m just curious’ tone. She was getting pissed. I didn’t sympathize, but I understood.
“Because you’re eleven.” I say, my eyes on the road and my hands on the wheel. “If you have something private to say, you can say it to yourself in your journal without any fear of it ever being read. You aren’t allowed to be writing notes in class anyway, so those aren’t subject to a right to privacy. And when I trusted you to come to me with messages that I should know about that you received on your iPod, you didn’t. You took that trust and instead of turning it into something beneficial, you chose to take a route that landed you here. I can’t blame you completely. I misjudged what you were ready for.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know…” with heavy-hearted, downcast eyes. (Hm, I think. Progress.) Then she hits me with it. “But you’re like, the only parent I know of all my friends who does stuff like that… you’re like, stalking me.” She says the words like they’re a bug she’s flicking away from her. Disapprovingly.
Before I even know what I’m doing, I check my mirrors and I pull the car to the shoulder. Her eyes bulge at me like she’s a little afraid I might kick her out of the car.
“Your friends aren’t bad people,” I start. I’m not yelling, but there’s a distinct urgency in my tone. “But for one reason or another, they’ve been robbed of something very vital to a happy, healthy life. The ability to know self-respect. I know that to you that’s just a word right now -- But it’s what makes the difference between good people, Mary, and the people who grow up to behave like scum - because it’s the only skill in life they have to fall back on, and who walk through life spreading their scum onto the rest of the world like a disease, building it up to look like something better than self-respect. As far as I’m concerned, the people you “know” are sick with ignorance. They aren’t my responsibility, but you are. And right now, I’m failing you; when I mislead you to believe that at eleven years old you have the right to behave like a piece of trash without my getting involved unless I had your permission -- I was no better than every other ignorant parent of a scummy kid in this school. You guys are rotting away in here right now, and you don’t even know it. You guys are babies, all caught up in trying so hard to be something so ugly, something so far from what you actually are, something that you would never want to be if you knew what it really was.
So if you want to measure my parenting strategies against those of your friends’ parents, than by all means, honey, be my guest. It’s not that I don’t care what they do. It’s that I am actively striving to do something different.
And I hope I achieve it, too. I really do. Because something tells me that whether I ever get through to you or not, you’ll spend sixth grade being more of a ‘parent’ to your friends than their actual parents will. And I won’t be making that mistake with you.”
I drove off after that, and she wasn’t quiet, but it didn’t feel like we were on opposing teams anymore. I always thought that when I had these kinds of moments with my children that they’d be more staged, more strategized; that I’d have some kind of preparation before me to draw from, and that I’d know exactly what I was going to say more than half a nanosecond before it slid from my lips onto the open ears of my children. But I didn’t.
I tried to think back on Parenting With Love and Logic and How To Raise Confident Girls, and all that other crap literature taking space on the bookshelf above my bed, (*These books are not actually crap.) but it was like trying to birth Scarlett after I’d read all of those articles and books on managing labor pain without an epidural. In my very hour of need - the moment of truth, all of it ditched me. All of it. I thought of a million don’ts that all seemed to make so much sense in the calm of the afternoons I spent reading them, but I couldn’t remember what a single one of them actually was.
I wasn’t even sure that what I was saying wasn’t coming off as a little too derogatory. (Maybe calling them “sick” was a little much. And did I really use the old ‘they aren’t my responsibility’ line? Couldn’t I have done better than that?) You know how you walk away from a confrontation sometimes suddenly enlightened by a dozen more effective things you could have said instead, just ten minutes too late? That’s half of the feeling I was hit with. Except without the perfect, punchy lines. Just the awareness that I could have probably done better.
“Stalking her…” I thought, pulling into the school. Jeeze.
The conference was brutal, it really was. She spent most of it slunk down into her chair, her long legs climbing out from under the desk, and hands over her face in defeat. Once in a while, when a teacher or I would say something directly to her, she’d peek at us through a slit in her fingers and nod her head abidingly. We were tough on her, but the truth had to come out into the open; she’s not headed in a very good direction, and we need to see a change. We didn’t baby her feelings, but we did let her know, without question, that we were on her side. This was a team effort -- it wasn’t going to move a muscle without a lot of effort from her, but we’d be there for her every step of the way. (You know, all that parent/teacher stuff.)
We walked out to the car through the parking lot with my arm over her shoulder, both in kind of a strangely high spirit. We picked up some ice cream bars on the way home and we got started on some very important business. The business of talking. Just talking.
All this week we’ve stuck to our guns about the new routine. Today, we’re six chapters into Dear Zoe -- a book I picked up for her at a consignment shop down the street last year, but after skimming it myself once I got home, decided she wasn’t ready for. The main character, a fifteen year old named Tess, starts smoking weed with her boyfriend and at the end loses her virginity -- even if they stop halfway through. It’s a short, easy read, but it’s heavy. Do I necessarily think that she’s ready for this kind of material? No, I don’t. But we live in a world where she needs to be - whether I like it or not. At least this I can be a part of.
There’s a part in the book where Tess talks about her step dad. A part that in the thirty-seven seconds or so it might have taken to read, changed a big part of my life.
“David is the disciplinarian, the one who makes me rub some of the makeup off my face, the one who’s saving for my college education. He never got to hold me when I was a baby, and he’d never been a dad before he met mom so I think he just thought it was his job to make rules… I don’t think he really knew how to be a dad until Em came along, and by then the way we were with each other was just the way that we were… I really believe he was doing his best with me when we all moved in together. He can’t help it if his best is better now, or that loving a new daughter can’t change how he is with me… It’s not tragic or anything. It’s just the way it is.”
It was something I related to so heavily, it felt like my very life had been pinned exactly into words. It took one of the most complicated dynamics of my life - my relationship with my stepdaughter - and, like a slap in the face, turned it into something so simple, so obvious, that it made me feel stupid. Even though Tess’ step dad loves her a lot, and even though Mary and I have more than what a typical step-family has, I knew that from that day on, I wanted to change the script with Mary and I. I can’t go back in time and rock her to sleep or watch Disney movies a thousand times over, the way Philip Beard describes Tess’ step dad wanting to do so accurately. But I can be more than what I was, even if it takes a little more effort. Even if it takes a lot.
I feel like this whole experience with Mary recently is another slap in the face kind of wake up call. Something I needed as much as she did. When we were walking to the conference on Tuesday, I saw one of those cheesy, motivational posters outside of a classroom window. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. I pinned it in my brain, thinking lightly, that’s a good one to remind my children of once in a while… yeah, I like that. When Mary and I got to that familiar description of Tess’ relationship with her step dad that same afternoon, I realized how befitting that hokey, motivational saying was to my own situation with her.
Because I felt distinctly different on that day. Distinctly unstuck from the discription that had pinned me down so well a year before.
I can't promise that I'll be a better parent from here on out indefinitely, or that I'll know all of the perfect things to say even when practically giftwrapped the perfect opportunity to say them, or that I'll even notice every glaringly obvious mistake I make staring me right in the face, but I can promise that 'just the way that we are' will never be good enough for us.
|I am failing at that, too.|