Thursday, June 14, 2012


I want to tell this story of a true family moment that happened last night, with names and everything, because right in the middle of it, while it was happening, I knew that it was an example of family doing what a family is supposed to do.

I have four teenagers.  And there is angst.  And there is drama.  And there are tears.
And it is way way way way way way harder to know what is best for them now than when they were toddlers.

Back then I knew.  I just always knew exactly what to do.  I didn't always do it right, or with the right spirit or with the best amount of patience, but at least I knew - I was captain, teacher, all-knowing, ever-present - keeper of the bandaids, the kisses, nutrition, shelter, life!

Now my role has changed drastically.  Getting ready to leave James for the day last week I asked him if he'd be all right, all by himself, all day.  His answer,

"Of course!  I have plenty of waffles!"  

They feed themselves now.  They wander around town with friends, babysit for neighbors, wash their own clothes and take showers behind locked bathroom doors.

If my role hadn't changed, I'd have absolutely nothing to do now.

But now instead of lifting a spoon to their mouths, carefully balancing amounts of green vegetables, orange vegetables and pureed fruit, I just try to make sure they don't eat too many waffles.
I roll them outside when they've watched too much television.
I get them to the dentist twice a year.

And I listen to heartbreaking teenage moments of exclusion, betrayal, fickleness, immaturity and selfishness.  And I am suddenly in this place where I have no idea what to do.
No idea.
And I watch helplessly as my child is rebuffed or lied to or hurt and I can't step in and scoop them up and carry them out of the sandbox anymore.

Because the hardest part is -- they really don't want to leave the sandbox.  They like playing there and the other occupants are their friends - imperfect and unpredictable though they are.
And the fact that I am still allowed to sit on the edge of the sandbox is a tenuous gift.

Beth was invited to a party - a boy-girl party - an overnight party.
The boys were to be banished to the basement while the girls had the run of the upstairs.
The information about boys spending the night did not reach me until permission for the sleepover was given.
It was not difficult to render my previous permission null.

The protest was passionate.
I handled it calmly by asking Beth who was the strictest parent she knew.
She said it was me (beam, beam).
I said,
"Do you remember when we tried to do that very thing for your and James' birthday?"

We promised the parents that the boys and girls would not mix.  But housing a dozen 13 year olds overnight requires round-the-clock vigilance.
And we fell asleep.
And they mixed.
And no harm came, but it was a lesson learned.

If Matt and I couldn't control a situation like that, I couldn't trust that another parent could.

Beth accepted the verdict, but what we didn't anticipate was that Beth's best friend would react so meanly.  Beth handed me the phone in tears and told me to read the slew of angry texts.
In Sarina's words, thanks to Beth the party was now "wrewned".
None of the other girls were likely to spend the night if Beth had to leave the party at 11pm. 

I was torn.  Beth was being blamed for something completely out of her control, and the problem was not whether the party was "wrewned", but it was that Sarina was so terribly angry with her.
I watched her dejected form, and I read the many many apologies Beth had texted back to an unsympathetic party host.

I needed reinforcements, so I brought Matt in but he started saying things like, "Why are you crying?" and "Can't you see that this girl does not care about you?"  I gave him the evil eye and he started to leave but then I gave him the pleading please-just-stay-and-be-quiet eye and he sat down on the floor while we talked and Beth cried.  It had suddenly come to me that we could not denigrate Beth's best friend. The problem was clear -- Sarina was mad at Beth and Beth felt terrible and we just needed to talk about it and figure something out.

Kara was leaning in the doorway listening to us come up with possible solutions and she started adding her own advice.  Soon we were all sitting on the bed together, throwing out ideas.
The first thing we decided was that Beth should not apologize even once more.  The second thing we decided - neutrally - was that Sarina had all the control.

We found out that Beth didn't even care about spending the night, she only cared about keeping Sarina happy.  We all gathered around the phone as Beth texted the other girls only to happily find out that nobody else was spending the night either.  Sarina's accusation that the party was wrewned was completely false.  The party could go on!

I noticed that the more information we had, the more Beth brightened.
The more advice her older sister gave, the more she was listened to and comforted, the less terrible she felt.

A few last barbs were thrown by Sarina.  They were deflected by positive statements from Beth about how great the party was going to be.  We could see Sarina weakening with every text.  We could also see Beth's power grow.  She realized that she was actually the powerful one in this relationship.  She realized how much she was wanted, and how easy it was to distract Sarina from what she couldn't do.  She realized that she didn't have to answer every question that Sarina lobbed - she was not required to be defensive - there was nothing forcing her to apologize.

We talked about how  Beth should show her kindness regardless of the things Sarina had said.  We extended grace at every turn - another thing that added to Beth's confidence.  She was extending  grace, not asking for it.  Any hurtful idea was cast aside as "not very nice" - only strong, positive comments were allowed to be texted.

I felt, in the middle of it, so honored to be there.  Nobody took over.  Matt - a very black-and-white no-nonesense person - listened to all of this female fluff with patience and just lent his presence to the situation.   Kara and I knew it wasn't fluff - it was real to Beth and we remember 13.  I also knew that I wouldn't have been able to help Beth all by myself - it was this group of people, all with a common purpose, who were working together to help her.

Beth felt it.  By the end of it she was smiling.  She went from complete discouragement to happiness.  We asked her things like, "But what do you want to do?" and she didn't shrink from answering, from thinking for herself.

I hope this long long post really describes what I'm trying to say.  You might think that the issue at hand was frivolous...but to a 13 year old girl it was not.  And the lessons learned during this time of figuring out how to be in a relationship...and how to be in a family....were priceless to me.  Because at the end of it I said to her,

"Beth do you know that all of these people in this room care so much about you.  We all know you were hurting and we will always be there to help you figure stuff out.  We love you more than anything in this world."

And she heard me, and I heard me.
And we as a family all sighed with relief because Beth was no longer unhappy.
And because we remembered that every one of us is sad sometimes because of something we just can't figure out, but we are in it together, and that's what matters.

That's what family is.



Brian Miller said...

smiles...yeah you all did is a tough time...but sticking together like is what family is for...fight the power...haha

mrc-w said...

Aw, I loved this!! Love to all of you! :)
And I'm SOOOOO glad texting wasn't around when I was in middle school...

jkluke said...

Ah, this is so beautiful! And familiar...great job from all of you. Karen