On vacation my girls, my mom and I wandered through the outlet mall for awhile. On various clearance racks I found t-shirts for the boys and for the little girls. So near the end of our wandering when we walked into Old Navy, I figured that might be a good place to find t-shirts for our teen daughters as well.
I should have known better; like most teenage girls, they are persnickety about their clothes and habitually get overwhelmed by choices in stores. But since I’d already found things for the other kids, I wanted to get them something. A quick cruise around the store didn’t spark their interest. To simplify things, I headed them toward a display containing basic T’s in 6 different colors. I’m always glad to have more simple t-shirts myself, and I figured they’d be useful neutral additions to their wardrobe.
“Pick something,” I said with a smile. “What color do you want?”
They looked uncertain. They hemmed and hawed. They picked up things and set them down looking disinterested. Five minutes went by. Meanwhile the other members of our party were done shopping and the grandbaby was showing signs of needing to nurse.
“Pick something,” I said. My smile was starting to feel tense, but I tried to make my voice coaxing. “I want to buy you something.”
But they couldn’t– wouldn’t — make a choice. I toyed with the idea of just grabbing two shirts and saying, “Here ya go.” But then they’d be sure to hate the choice I’d made, which would translate to clothes sitting in the closet, unworn. My mom suggested quietly that I just give them money, which I knew they’d happily take. But dangitall, I wanted to give them a gift, something to bring back as a memory from this trip, not hand them cash like this was some business transaction.
Finally we left, having purchased nothing. Yeah, I could (should?) have been happy they’d saved me a few bucks by refusing to let me get them something. But I was livid, and I knew exactly why. This was not just about a couple of t-shirts This was about all the times I’ve tried to show the girls I love them and they’ve turned me down flat.
Of the times I brought thrift store finds home, excited, hoping they’d like them, only to be met with wan smiles, and have the clothes languish in their closets until I insisted they wear them. Of the hugs I’ve given that were returned with noodle-arms. The times I’ve invited them to play games or go to the store with me and they’ve opted out.
Yes, I can force it. And sometimes I do. But it can be discouraging to feel such resistance to my overtures even now after they’ve been home nearly five years.
Sometimes things are good between us— like today when I broke the oven door and my 14 year old and I spent 30 greasy minutes trying to wrestle the thing into submission before calling the repair man in defeat. We shared some absolutely lovely laughing moments. But all too often I’m met with resistance.
I know that some of the ups and downs are normal teen stuff. Girls often have a hard time getting along with their moms– I know I did when I was 14. For awhile I fantasized about being adopted by a rich family where I could be the only child and wouldn’t have to do chores. I’ve told my daughters that, and I understand it’s a tough age.
But still–when a child home almost five years says you’ll never really be her mom, that signing papers doesn’t make it true, it is a knife to the heart. A failed shopping trip, though a small failure in the grand scheme of things, feels like twisting that knife. If we can’t even have a successful shopping trip together, what are our chances of a real relationship some day?
I comfort myself remembering how well they do when interacting with people other than me. Folks rave about how great the girls are, how sweet and fun– and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve seen that sweetness from across the room. I just wish they’d show that loveliness to me more often. When I do sneak a real smile out of someone, almost always the shades go quickly down over that light, veiling their hearts, snuffing the connection that flared for just a second.
I’m the second momma, you see, the substitute for the one they really want. Maybe it’s anger. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe they love me way down deep, more than they dare show. (Oh, I hope so.) But it feels to me that their automatic default is to push me away than to connect.
The years have scarred me, and make it hard some days to keep my perspective. The truth is, eight of the kids think I’m just fine. But I want these others to love me too, so much that some days my self-worth as a momma feels hinged on their acceptance. I know how foolish that is; they’re hurt kids, wounded souls. It’s only a little about me. But I care passionately for them and want them to feel truly enveloped in the love of our family. No matter how wide the rift, they are part of my very soul, and I will continue to fight on behalf of our relationship.
I talked to the girls after the shopping incident, explained that gift-giving is one of the ways I show folks love– that I’d been trying that day in Old Navy to say ‘I love you’, and that I’d heard rejection in their refusal to accept my gifts. I think they understood then, at least a little, why I’d come unglued over t-shirts.
While unpacking from the trip, I came across a handful of gummy bears in a baggie. I stashed them back in a corner, thinking of a bedtime snack. A few minutes later my 14 year old came into the kitchen, spotted them, and asked for them. I said no, saying there weren’t enough to share with everyone. It was true, but really it was more that I wanted them myself.
Later that evening I nibbled a few, but my conscience wouldn’t let me forget she’d asked for them. I knotted the bag up and set them aside. The next day I came up behind her and tucked the baggie quietly into her sweatshirt pocket with a wink, then walked away quick before I could even see her reaction. Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly what I need to do more of: quick stealth ‘I love you’ actions, without looking for or expecting any immediate reaction.
Sometimes I get so set on loving kids how I want to love them that I forget about loving them the way they want to be loved. I’m not sure if that handful of gummy bears was received as the gift of love that I intended it to be. But I’ll keep my eyes open for other chances like that. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually get somewhere. Until then, I’ll just keep on loving my kids to the best of my ability, and hold onto the faith that God is watching over us all, and that He has a perfect plan for all our lives.
Mary Ostyn has been married for 25 years to the guy she met in math class at age 17. I have kids in college, high school, junior high, grade school, and preschool, 10 altogether. Six of her children arrived via adoption, 2 from Korea and 4 from Ethiopia.She homeschools, gardens, cooks, budget-stretches and takes pictures obsessively. Also she writes. Her 200-recipe cookbook/ shopping guide Family Feasts for $75 a Week came out in September, 2009. She also wrote A Sane Woman’s Guide to Raising a Large Family which came out in March, 2009. If she had to describe her blog in one sentence, she’d say it is about making the most of your resources so that you can have the greatest impact possible on the world around you, beginning, of course, with family. Visit her site Owlhaven soon!