We have a new rule in our house these days: Everything is my fault. No matter what.
If the conditioner bottle in the shower is empty, it’s my fault. If the egg yolk breaks (she hates that) when it is going into the pan, it’s my fault. If it gets to be 3:00 in the afternoon before it reasonably should, it’s my fault. If a show doesn’t play correctly on Netflix, it’s my fault. It if rains, it’s my fault. If there’s no more cheese, I forgot to buy it, and that’s my fault. If a dress shrinks in the wash, its my fault.
Now, I know many of you will read the above paragraph and think this is a complaint or a vent. It’s not.
See, I’ve worked with young kids my whole life. I was worried about having a teenager. I’ve never really known how to interact with teenagers, including when I was a teenager myself. They’re moody, they’re unpredictable, they’re lazy, they’re self-absorbed, they don’t want to be with their families anymore–or so they say. I breezed through three and four and eight. No problem. But this whole teen thing, I was really concerned.
And I admit, for a while, at the beginning of this whole stage of life, things didn’t go so well. I thought I had to be in charge. I lost my temper too often. I started the all too familiar panic about all the values and responsibility that I have to make sure she learns because now she’s getting older and I only have a few years left and ohmigod I forgot to instill this or that in her when she was young and I have to be strict because otherwise she’ll take drugs and I have to be her friend because otherwise she won’t ever tell me anything and I have to make sure that she cleans up after herself because teenagers are too entitled these days and it’s up to me personally to make sure that teenagers aren’t like that and oh does she know how to do her own laundry and oh I have to teach her to cook and how do I impress upon her that she can never use her cellphone when she is driving when she isn’t even of driving age yet and if she doesn’t like to read as much as I think she should she’ll never be a good student and then she won’t get into college and then she’ll never go to medical school and it will all be my fault for being a crappy parent.
So I did all that rabbit hole stuff for awhile. And then I remembered. I remembered that she does like to be with me and her life is her own and she makes phenomenal choices and she’s amazingly considerate and she’s funny and great company and maybe I did do something right, and maybe I should relax. In short, I remembered that I actually have choices. Remembering that we have choices is a really important part of parenting, in my experience. Remembering that this life, this living with a teen is not something that has been thrust upon us, even as everyone around us smiles and says with a knowing grin, “You have a 15 year old? I’m so sorry!” No. It wasn’t thrust upon me. I chose it. I don’t have to be sorry that I have a 15 year old. I don’t feel sorry. So I thought about my choices.
When it’s “my fault,” I could choose to argue or to be worried that my obnoxious 15 year old just won’t take responsibility for anything (and take a quick trip into the aforementioned rabbit hole, which inevitably lead to visions of my child living under a bridge.) I try not to do that. I’ve done it, but I try not to.
When it’s “my fault,” I could choose to get all serious and say “okay, this is really getting to me, I’m tired of being blamed.” That might work, it might authentically evoke empathy, if I tried it. I’ve done that, too. But maybe evoking empathy isn’t really the most important thing.
When it’s “my fault,” I could choose to ignore it and regard it as just a teen ranting, and let it roll off my back, give it no attention at all, just go on with my day. I’ve tried that too. I’m not great at that, probably because ignoring someone isn’t really in my DNA, even though there are days when I wish that it was. It feels disrespectful–if not to my daughter, then to myself. So that one’s mostly out.
I’ve made all of those choices at one time or another. But at some point, I caught on. I quieted the runaway thought train. And I made a conscious decision to do something different. So here’s what I do now:
I agree. I smile. I recognize that this is play. (I love play.) I genuinely, authentically, and fully enjoy it. All of it. Well, all that’s my fault, anyway. Which is everything.
I say (yes, out loud, yes to her), “You know, I was just saying to myself the other day, that one of these days that conditioner in the shower is going to run out and I have been trying to remind myself that I need to pick up more when I’m at the store because you know, if I don’t, and it runs out, I will be wracked with such guilt that I will have to take a sick day for fear that I will start to develop psychosomatic symptoms. When something is my fault, it’s my fault, and I know I need to stay on top of that conditioner so that the guilt doesn’t seep into the core of my being and leave me permanently disabled.”
And she responds “Good. As it should be.” And we both smile. And often, we laugh.
I say “The yolk broke in the pan? I’m so sorry! I know you hate that! That is so terrible. I try so very hard to buy the eggs that have unbreakable yolks and yet once again, I have failed miserably.”
She nods. “Yeah. You should work on that.”
I say “I have been reading up on how to stop time for you, honey, so that I can make 3:00 come at a time that is more convenient for you. Sometimes I’m just a slow learner. I know I should have figured it out by now. I get busy doing other things…and no, wait, that’s an excuse. We’ve lived together for 15 years. You’d think I’d be able to control time by now, but no. I am a sad excuse for a mother.”
She shakes her head in disappointment. “You are. You are a sad excuse. I mean, geez, call Stephen Hawking or something.”
I say “Ugh! Netflix again? I spend six hours with them on the phone explaining to them the finer technical points of running a video streaming business, I give them all my ideas, I explain to them exactly how that movie stopped in the middle and that circle of death started going around and who wants to see that. And do they listen to me? No. They don’t. Tomorrow, I’m going to cancel all of my work meetings, and ask to talk to a supervisor. Come hell or high water, I’m gonna talk some sense into them. No, no, no, that’s okay. This is completely my fault. I’ll take care of it.”
She rolls her eyes. “If they don’t listen to you, perhaps you should work on your persuasive skills. Maybe you should take a class.”
I say (with not a hint of sarcasm) “I’m so sorry. I ordered sun, a few clouds for variety, and 75 degrees. It is totally my fault. I should have planned better.”
She gazes wistfully out the window and says, with a sigh, “Yeah.”
I say “Yeah, there’s no more cheese, because I wasn’t sure if you wanted the American or the Cheddar.” She says “Wait. That almost sounds like you think it might have been my fault, for not telling you what kind I wanted. That can’t be right.” I say “Oh! No, no. You must have misunderstood. I should have known which kind you wanted. Or bought both.”
She says “I’m sure you’ll do better next time.” And again, she smiles, somewhat surreptitiously. As do I.
Of course there are occasional moments in which it is slightly more serious. I say “Yeah, it does look like your dress shrunk in the wash. I’m sorry about that. I followed the washing instructions to the letter, and still it shrunk. What a drag.” And I sometimes add (with a smile) “that’s what happens when you let the person who’s always at fault do your laundry, I guess. Bummer.”
And she says “That’s okay, Mommy. It happens.” Sincerely this time. And she smiles.
I have my moments. Of course. Like parents of teens everywhere, I begin to listen to the voice in my head that says, with a clear tone of defensive irritation, “I washed it the way that it said on the label! It shrunk. It happens! If you want to have everything turn out the way you want, you can wash everything yourself!” And sometimes it even makes it from my head to my vocal cords and out of my mouth. I’ve definitely said that.
Here’s the thing. I’ve reached the conclusion that I don’t want to live like that. This time, I did do the wash. Sometimes, she does the wash. But this time, she didn’t. And yeah, since I did the wash, whatever happened is at least partially my responsibility. My “fault.” Yeah, it’s really also the manufacturer, or the person who put an inaccurate label on it, or the heat in the dryer being too hot. Yeah, all of those. But I don’t want to live like that either, trying to figure out whose fault it is. So I’ll stick with taking responsibility this time (without the need to feel like I am a horrible person), acknowledging the disappointment of having something that you love shrink, and move on.
I choose lightness. I choose humor. I choose playfulness. I choose the laughter and the release of tension and the transformation that has taken place in my life with a teen since I made the choice to not take everything so damn seriously. I choose the sarcasm, the smiles, and the laughter that comes from everything being my fault.
And here it is. In living color. Just this moment, as I’m sitting here writing, my 15 year old daughter picks up her water cup off the coffee table, saying “This is disgusting” I say “What’s disgusting about it?” She says “Earlier when I was eating that cookie, a few crumbs dropped in my water and now some of it has migrated to the top and it’s floating around. Disgusting.”
My response, which is thankfully informed by my knowing what’s what around here, is “I’m figuring that’s my fault?”
Her response, also thankfully informed by her knowing what’s what around here? “Yes. Of course it’s your fault. Do you need help understanding how this works again, Mommy? Here you go: If you get to wondering if something is your fault, you can put your mind at ease. It is. If you want to know if something is your fault, just stop and think about it for a minute, and then you’ll remember that everything is your fault, so yes, it must be your fault. Everything is your fault. I’m not sure where the confusion lies.” And then, “You’re welcome.”
Whew. I like it when things are clear.
Life with a teen (and as a teen) is filled with so much confusion and angst.
At least we agree on this one thing.