I picked my daughter up from school yesterday with a black eye and a tissue to her nose. Feeling distinctly low-class and ashamed of it, I got there, ready to raise hell with a baby on my hip.
Before that, I talked to my husband and then I did what I always do: I called my mom. There are a lot of things I don’t do the way my mom did with me when I was growing up and I don’t usually take her advice in anything but my favorite bits and pieces, but I always call her. If I can’t get a hold of her, I don’t panic or anything. It isn’t that I need to hear what she thinks to decide what I think. It’s that she centers me, just by being her. She’s my mom. Talking to her before I make any big decision is like being able to come home and get a good night’s rest before I travel somewhere new and unpredictable.
Her legs were crossed when I got into the conference room with the kids, hair in disarray and there was a tear sitting on her cheek when I asked flatly if she was okay. I couldn’t tell immediately if it was from the busted blood vessel in her eye or the “emotional state” the sixth grade administrator told my husband she was in after the fight. If there is anything I will not tolerate, any place that I draw the line, Mary knows that it’s fighting. (Fighting is kind of an epidemic at her school.) Then again, six months ago I would have said it was getting suspended off of the bus. A few months before that I would said it was detention. She’s a sweet, smart kid, and I refuse to believe that she doesn’t try hard. But even at her best, Mary has a knack for kind of tripping over the lines we draw for her. Giving this less-than-reputable school a shot with her has been the worst parenting call we’ve made to date.
The drive home was quiet. The administrator didn’t fault Mary for what happened and it looked like he sympathized with her a lot more than I was expecting. Fighting is fighting though, and it comes with a three day suspension. Normally there would be a separate conference upon a child’s return to school, but in this case, he said, it wouldn’t be necessary.
I gave her twenty minutes to transition home before we talked. I gave the younger kids a snack and told Matthew to play with Scarlett in his room. I had already run through all the different ways our conversation could possibly go in my head on the drive over to the school, so when we sat down to talk it out in the living room, I felt marginally prepared for it. I say “marginally” because you can’t script conversations like these. I knew that it could end up going one of a thousand different ways and that was fine. I didn’t want to script it. I wanted to hear her out. But to do this right, I needed to be clear on what was to come out of our talk.
I was going to listen to her first. I was going to hit her with a few of the things we could walk away from the situation with, no matter how it went down, no matter who was at fault. We were going to talk about smarter conflict resolution and how to know when to walk away from a high tension situation. I wasn’t going to attack her with a bunch of attitude; in situations like this I like her to know above all else that I am always in her corner even when I think she could have done things a lot differently. The rest is important, it’s just secondary. But I didn’t plan to be easy on her either. The fact is that she was suspended from school. This was not going to be a vacation and she needed to know that this was not going to happen again.
But that was before she cried. Not because of the bitch who hit her. Not because of the trouble she was in. Because she missed her mom.
One thing I pride myself on is being able to stay in control of my emotions. But even just writing this, I can’t not cry. It isn’t because I feel slighted or because it makes me jealous. It’s because everyone can relate to that feeling of just wanting your mom sometimes. I’m 26. I still want my mom when I have a rough day. And I’ve never even been punched in the face before.
As much as I love Mary and she loves me, (and we do, we are unconventionally close for a step-family, and there are plenty of times that I feel needed by her) I will always fall just short of being the person who fills that one, important spot. I think if things happened differently; if I were older and I came into her life much earlier, maybe I could have been the real-deal replacement. And in almost, if not every other way, I have. (I said that I wouldn’t, but since her mom has been absent, I have.) It isn’t tragic for me, because I don’t feel like I have Mary any less than I would if she had never known her real mom. Let’s face it, Mary isn’t exactly the easiest child in the world to raise, but she has never - not even for a second - caused me to question that I am loved and appreciated by her. Sometimes, even when adults are good at showing their appreciation, you have to question how much of it is genuine and how much of it they’ve just been conditioned to show out of common courtesy. For a child, utterly free from the chains of societal obligation or anything like that, to not only feel that way but take the care to show it? That’s remarkable. That’s something I wouldn’t have been lucky enough to get with any other kid in the world, I bet. So I don’t feel bad for myself when she says that she misses her mom. I understand. More than anything, I’m thankful that she knows and honored that she feels like she can talk to me about it.
But I cried like a helpless sap when she said “I’m sorry” for it.
In some ways, Mary’s just always going to feel a little off-balance by not having her mom in her life the way that a growing girl needs to have her mom -- even during the “ins” of her mom’s in-and-out ways. I’m always going to love her completely, without any conditions, and she’s going to love me the way my biological children do. I feel like she has for a long time now. But at her age, it won’t change that there is a void her mom isn’t equipped… for whatever reason… to fill, and unfortunately, neither am I. I don’t think that means she’ll have anything she needs missing from her life. But I do think that no matter how close we get, or how much of my approval she’ll always have, a part of her will crave it from her mom.
Mary didn’t see her mom at Christmas this year or Mother’s Day, and on the latter, she didn’t even bring it up. She was the first, even before my husband or my son to tell me Happy Mother’s Day and she was very specific about the card she picked out for her grandmother, treating it like extremely serious business. But I knew that those wouldn’t be the worst days. I knew that they would be days like yesterday. The ordinary ones that just somehow get away from us, those are the days we all need our moms. It doesn’t matter if they have any idea how to fix the problem or if they stop us from making a terrible mistake or if everything that comes out of their mouth rubs us the wrong way. We just need to know that she’s there, because as long as she is, life can never bend us too far in the wrong direction.
It’s been so long since anything’s triggered an emotional response over her mom that Spencer and I find ourselves forgetting altogether sometimes that she even has another one to consider. What used to be this relentless, looming elephant in the room all of the time; something I thought we’d live with forever, has diminished into little more than an afterthought on landmark days. For all intents and purposes, I’m her mom. In fact most of her friends this year don’t even know that she has another one and I’ve heard them sound surprised when on occasion, she calls me by my first name. She’s a totally happy-go-lucky kid with a wild sense of humor, a hard time sitting still, a ton of friends, and an untouchable self esteem I marvel at constantly. Our life together, our relationship, is everything I could have ever hoped it would turn into. But it isn’t often that I get to see Mary be totally vulnerable with me, concerning her mom. She’ll make jokes or cop an attitude before she breaks down. When I hugged her that day and she said that she was sorry, I just lost it. Every wall between us came down for a minute and it gave me the chance to tell her things the way I’ve always wanted to put them to her; things that so often get watered down when they’re just being exchanged in the middle of everyday crap.
I told her how unconditionally I love and respect her; how lucky I am to have a daughter like her in my life and how my biggest hope for her future is that she never, never questions that she can talk to me about anything… That I have a massive, massive responsibility to do right by her when it comes to important things, like raising her to have a solid understanding of morality and honor and all of that. And that I know I can be tough on her because getting the big stuff right is so colossally important, but that nothing she will ever come to me with -- even when she is completely in the wrong, from beginning to end -- will ever make me think less of her or change what she means to me.
Mary and I hugged it out and cried together and said that we loved each other while she held ice to one of her eyes and wiped the other with her free wrist. Then we cleared our throats and told Matthew we were okay with a hug and a kiss to seal the deal, and laughed when Scarlett came in the room and did something funny. I popped a coke and we talked for a while about how unfair the whole thing was and how that girl really sucks and how she’ll handle it when she goes back to school on Monday.
I can’t fill the void her mom left. And I think that if I spend my entire journey with her trying to do that, I’ll have wasted a lot of time getting to be what I can be for her. Which is a good mom, who is here, unfailingly. And someone who will do everything in her power to bridge the gap the best she can.
The less attractive side to the role I have in Mary’s life right now is that yes, I have to be the one to pick her up from school when she’s been suspended and the one to sentence her to the scrubbing of toilets when she’s tested being defiant to her English teacher, and still find the opportunity to remind her (more often than a “real” mom would need to) that she is unconditionally loved. But there is a lifetime of upsides and one of them is that for her three day suspension, I get to be the one she spends them with.
I couldn’t be prouder.