I came into the kitchen through the sliding glass door and wheeled up and down the rug a couple of times before letting my tires touch my mother’s pristine white tile. Something was simmering on the stove– chili by the smell of it.
I could see video cases, markers, several bottles of nail polish, and damp, polish-splotched tissues scattered on the carpet in the great room. Tossing my keys on the table, I went to wash up before dinner.
Before I made it into the bathroom, I heard my daughter stomping across her room above me. “You’re not my Mother,” she screeched. As I wheeled toward the stairs, she continued: “I don’t have to listen to you!”
I heard my mother’s heel-heavy steps, then cringed as I heard a swat, followed by my mother saying, “Don’t you push me you little brat!” as I skidded up to the bottom step. I sat there looking uselessly at the stairway, so frustrated I could see my bangs shaking. That was the moment when I knew: I’ve got to take charge of my child.
We’d been living with my mom, stepfather, and younger sister since Char was a toddler and I was newly divorced. I was in college then, and everyone assured me it was wise to have able-bodied folks around to help me keep up once she could walk. I used the freedom it gave me to finish school, get a decent job, and learn to drive.
But ten years had passed, and the status quo was just not working. The big question was, how was I going to shift from fun, mall-and-manicure mom to the kind of mom my daughter needed?
Just sitting everybody down for a talk worked for the first five minutes; as soon as I got tough with Char, her loud protest brought my mother in quick, telling us to “Be nice, girls.” Suddenly, I remembered how we ended up living the way we did– and I realized we were going to have to get our own place. I enlisted my sister to babysit and took my mom out to dinner.
When I announced we were moving out, I expected her to give me a long list of “Can’ts.” She just nodded and said “Yes, I think it’s time.” She gave me the rundown of “What you need to think about–” everything from phone numbers for the school and pediatrician to a long list of things she thought Char “pulled” when she expected to get away with it.
I listened, wrote down the phone numbers, and mostly ignored anything else. After all, I am not my mother, right? I knew to pick my battles and let the kid be a kid. I was determined to get it right this time, and still be fun.
For the next few weeks, everything stayed pretty easy. I was focused on the practicalities of moving and establishing a routine. I was sure that once we got out from under my mom, we’d do fine. I set up after-school programs, made miles of lists, bought modern furniture and white appliances with all the knobs in front.
I stayed out of Mom’s earshot as much as I could, and told Char how we were going to do it together, and how much fun it would be to be on our own. “I can’t wait, Mom.” she’d say.
The big day came, and we spent the first night in our own place. I rented a movie and filled our new yellow-green bowl with popcorn; Char hugged me, bounced happily through the house, pawed through some boxes, put music on in every room, complained that the fresh paint smelled and there was nothing good to eat.
I made two lists for the back of the front door. For Charlotte: Don’t forget your lunch, bookbag, house key, or to walk the dog. For me: Don’t forget your lunch, your car keys, to lock up on the way out, to get groceries and take the movie back.
I packed us each a nutritious lunch, and asked Char to load the dishwasher while I took a shower in our huge new bathroom. I listened to classical music, defuzzed my legs, and planned the next few days’ meals. “We are
doing OK.” I thought as I spritzed the tile with after-shower spray.
I headed out into the kitchen to get a cup of tea, and passed Charlotte still lying in front of the TV, swirling unpopped popcorn kernels around the bottom of the greasy bowl. “Sweetie,” I began, “I asked you to load the dishwasher.”
“Okay, in a minute, Mom.” she said, still swirling the kernels.
“I’m afraid not.” I said, trying not to let my panic be heard. I wondered: What if she just refuses to do what I tell her? “You need to load the dishwasher now, and then get washed up for bed.”
“I’m too tired to do all that stuff now, Mom. Grammy makes me go to bed at nine. You took so long in the shower, it’s nine-thirty already.”
“Fine,” I said feeling the frustration rising in my throat like hot waves, “Go to bed, then.” My voice only shook a little, and I didn’t yell. Phew!
Except she didn’t move– only her right hand kept wiggling rhythmically, keeping the kernels moving.
I pictured her falling asleep there, upsetting the bowl and scattering greasy kernels on the pale beige carpet. Was my mother right? My determination to be calm dissolved. “GET UP AND GO TO BED NOW!”
She jumped up, plopped the bowl on the counter as she passed, ran down the hall and slammed the door to her new bedroom.
I dumped the popcorn, clattered the dishes into the dishwasher, and fell into bed, wondering how I had let it happen. The conversation played and replayed in my mind; I told myself that I had to be the grown-up, and let her be the kid. Slowly the anger receded enough to uncover the fear.
What if I just can’t handle her? I thought. A few minutes later, her door crept open, and she came slowly up to stand next to my bed. “Sorry, Mom.” she said, and hugged me.
“I’m sorry too. We gotta find a better way than just yelling, huh?”
Our alarm clocks startled us both before daybreak. Char hit snooze at least twice while I got the coffee started. I went in and turned on her overhead light. “Get up, Charlotte. You’ve got to take the dog for a walk before the bus comes.”
She groaned, but the dog started its potty dance and forced her to move. She did her hair three different ways, dawdled over breakfast, forgot her lunch, and made the school bus at a run.
That became our routine: Fun in the evenings, decorating and hanging around together. Bedtime was always tough, and the best word for our mornings was “frantic.” I spent my lunch hour reading parenting magazines; when the yelling kept happening, I signed us up for counseling.
After the first few weeks, I was ready for a little break and made plans to visit my family for dinner. We had a great time for a couple of hours, but things went bad when it was time to go home– Char pressed me relentlessly to stay “just for a few more minutes.” I was exhausted, and I wanted to give my mother the impression that I had everything under control, so I held firm.
When Char cried, my mother asked me to stay. Holding my voice carefully quiet over the rising frustration, I declined, and Mom coddled and cooed her all the way into the car. How nice, I thought– you get to be the good guy now. Char slept on the drive.
When I pulled into our parking space in front of the apartment, I woke her up and asked her to hold the door for me. She just grunted. When I asked again, she yelled. “Why do I have to do everything for you?”
“Just be QUIET!” I yelled.
She jumped out of the car, and ran into the building. I transferred into my wheelchair and followed her as fast as I could, but when I got inside, there was no sign of her. I unlocked the apartment and called her name; I went back out to the car to look for her, but she wasn’t there. I opened the door to the building again, and realized that she must’ve gone straight out the opposite door, to the back of the complex.
It was dark, and there was a step outside that door; if she went that way, I couldn’t follow her. What made me think I could handle her by myself? I thought. Would she have gone into the woods back there? I called her name as loud as I could, looked out into the dark. I pictured her out there in the wet weeds, running and crying. I was shaking as I turned toward the apartment to call in reinforcements.
Before I went three feet, she stood up on the shadowed landing, halfway up to the second story. “I’m right here.” she said.
I looked up at her, stunned, tears running down my face. She stepped down into the hallway, and I held her until I could speak. I knew I had to put her safety before my pride. “If this is going to work, us being on our own together, we’ve got to be safe.” I said. “I know I need to find other things to do besides yelling. I promise I will.”
I swallowed hard, holding down my fear. “You’re a big girl now, and you can do some things that I can’t. I want to take care of you. In order for me to do that, you have to let me be the mom, and not go places where I can’t reach you.” tears were sliding down her cheeks now, too. “If you don’t want to do that, we can go back to Grammy’s, the way it was before. It’s up to you.”
She stared into my eyes; I could see her coming to terms with that idea: she could choose who to give authority to. After a minute, she tucked her face into my shoulder. “I want to be here with you, Mom!”
I finally got to be the parent I wanted to be, by acknowledging that I couldn’t control my daughter without her consent. I won’t pretend that we haven’t had trouble since that night; sometimes things get rough, but we manage. We’ve both learned a lot about how to talk to one another.
I’ve educated myself about other ways to parent besides yelling. We’re older and wiser. Clear boundaries and a predictable schedule alleviated some of the chaos. I’ve learned to appreciate my mother all over again.
But the real magic was in giving a little girl a choice about her life: Ever since she decided to stand up on that landing, I am the mom, stairs or not.
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