Last night Strudel and I got into a humdinger. Her face was red, and she was yelling at me and crying. Naturally it was over something completely stupid: dinner and the dishes. Also naturally, as these domestic squabbles go, it was not really about dinner and the dishes. She’s been cooking, because she wants to learn, and we’ve been planning menus together. The government has been smashed and we’re trying to figure out what this banana republic looks like now. I am wearing a fake mustache and we are pretending that I’m the long-lost twin of the old president.
So things went pretty wrong last night. She made dinner, and I arrived late, because I got sucked into a phone call. My fault.
“I think the sauce is ruined,” she said. The arrowroot had relaxed after holding the sauce for too long, and had become watery.
“Let’s rethicken it,” I said. I pulled out my current favorite, which is potato starch, and sprinkled too much in. “Oops.” It might be more like gravy, but it would probably be fine. I turned around to get plates.
“MOM.” It had completely seized up into a solid.
“Fuck,” I said. First I was late to dinner, then I ruined the sauce.
We ate buttered, salted rice for dinner and decided not to worry about it too much. We continued our Office rewatch. Before bedtime I asked her to wash the dishes in the morning before she went out, since I have a class Saturday mornings and had been doing the dishes all week.
“WHAT! NO! NO! YOU SAID THAT IF I MADE DINNER YOU WOULD DO THE DISHES! THIS IS COMPLETELY UNFAIR!”
I tried to defend myself, lamely, by saying I had done dishes all week. I tried to say that we didn’t really eat the dinner, which is definitely the worst excuse I could possibly come up with. She let me know that I had ruined it. We went back and forth like this a couple of times. She had been having mast cell fallout from stress for part of the week, I had been sick from a day I welded all day.
I looked at her face: flushed, determined, upset, angry. I flipped through the deck of All the Parenting in my head. This would not be an argument in my parents’ house. You must be this high to have agency at all. I wouldn’t have even argued. I thought her response was disproportionate in a teenaged way, but there was something else underneath it as well.
I think she’s trying to find her levels right now, just like I am. She has experienced two parents with various reserves of strength and empathy at any given moment. She has experienced inappropriate emotional responses to her distress. Many times I was just flattened and exhausted by caretaking, or angry myself. If she got into it with her father and things got heated, he would often laugh in her face in his discomfort and not knowing how to respond appropriately. Even though it is not his fault, I know firsthand how devastating this is.
One of the most depressing events in the past couple of years is the degree to which she took on caretaking with me. She was pretty small when she started managing her four-years-older sister, who would attempt to pull rank on her and get them both into trouble. She was starting to take that role on with her dad as well, to absorb his stress and anxiety and make sure he took the right freeway exits. She and I were stage managing and yet unacknowledged, and even disregarded. I tried my best to leave her out of it but she figured out when I wasn’t there, it was in her best interests to make sure things didn’t go wrong.
In different ways, she and I are melting and reforming. It is strange and dangerous territory to suddenly have a major emotional obstacle to an open and trusting relationship removed. If you can’t hide behind a common struggle anymore, what do you have? My instincts are often to flee what I perceive as danger that can result in trauma. In a lot of ways my gauge has been very skewed over the years, but I’m trying to hang in there and face her.
The other day she told me, “I hated you until I was eight, and then I realized you were making the best of a bad situation.” That was one of the hardest things I’d ever heard. My heart broke a little, that such a small person had to figure this out. That someone so young could begin to make sense of the mistakes I had made. I wanted her love, but I see why she felt the way she did.
I attempted to present a united parenting front with someone who was uncomfortable with using the words “we” and “our,” and who always referred to me by my first name to the children. Strudel thought I was some kind of bombed-out Stepford wife because I couldn’t see what was right in front of me, and she was right. As a small example, all the times something went missing or was broken, and I assumed the children did it, because my husband, with his severe memory impairments, told me he absolutely had not. Strudel knew she hadn’t done it, and was looking around like, what the actual fuck is the gaslit nightmare?
“I guess a ghost did it,” I would say, exasperated that no one would just fess up for once. What a fucking idiot I was. I thought if I could find the right words or get the right task minder app I could fix everything.
Sometimes it is hard for me to stay with her when she is livid and screaming at me. The toxic parenting voices whisper in my ear. “Are you going to let her get away with this? She is so disrespectful.” She’s not, though. She doesn’t call me names, swear at me. I believe she is overcorrecting. It hasn’t been that long since this became just a lady house (sorry Horace) but I already see her becoming calmer and our conflicts are less fraught and severe. I take her anger and try to hear what’s underneath it. Being heard gives us comfort and a place to think about what the real issues are instead of just reacting, and always running like a scared deer.
I think, just like a toddler punching and kicking at you because you’re that safe person, or to see if you’re that safe person, she needs to lash out right now. I think this isn’t unique to her as a teenager. She needs to be heard, and considered, and not laughed at. I am being very careful to hear her and respect her, which isn’t hard, because I do have a lot of respect for her.
I don’t want her to be my co-conspirator in caretaking another adult. I don’t want her as my roommate, and she doesn’t want to be mine. She is too wise and too old for me to time travel and pretend it’s the beginning again and she’s a new baby. But we are working on her staying in her lane, which is high school, and her friends and clubs and volunteer activities. And some fun with me, but also some arguments and talking about hard stuff.
I relented. “Ok, I will do the dishes.”
She wasn’t ready to let it go at first. Her hackles were still up. She had a few more jabs to get in. I took them, and saw her anger deflate. We didn’t go to bed on great terms but I think things will look better when she wakes up. I do not get a gold star for doing the bare minimum as an adult and parent. I am not the bigger person. This is not the story of ha ha, teenagers man, what are you gonna do?
Last night was just a tiny brick in a bigger road. Maybe she will reflect on what happened and think we were both wrong, that she was right, or that I was, or maybe she won’t remember it at all. For me right now, the important thing is that she was heard and believed about her feelings. She needs to hear that sometimes things are disappointing and she can be apologized to, but it is not all about who was right and who was wrong.
This is not “fixed” and this is not even close to fixed right now. I am making mistakes daily, as easily as taking a breath, but I am trying to do the right thing. The other day I learned that the Latin root for “imperfect” is “imperfectus,” which means “unfinished.” I am trying to take that attitude: things will continue to be imperfect, but that means that we keep trying instead of saying it’s just fucked up. I feel like I’ve given myself another chance to have a different kind of relationship with Strudel, without as many obstacles, and with more acceptable imperfections. We are trying together.