We were in Logan Airport, having just visited my family in Billerica. On this trip, Nikki took you on a shopping trip with Mom for the first time and sprang for a lot of expensive clothes at Justice, and new wedge shoes (I think that’s what they’re called?) We also spent a fun day in Salem and a few days later spent a day at Ed’s girlfriend Joanne’s family lake house where you threw lake weed onto Uncle Ed and teased him about a stain on his shorts. And then it was over. And we jumped into our rental. Dropped it off.
Somewhere over dinner at an airport restaurant–it’s always at a restaurant–you grew sullen, you put your head in your arms and you shut down. Are you mad at me? I think she’s mad at me. You sure she’s not mad at me? I don’t know. Honey are you mad at us? Silence. Are you mad at daddy? Silence. She’s mad at me. Why? I really don’t know. And then you cried. You told mom you didn’t know what was wrong and memories of my own adolescence rushed back–a painful “I’m depressed, I want to die, I don’t know why” conversation with my mother that got me into a therapist’s office and on antidepressants.
It’s always so hard for me to know what’s really going on, and your old memory of things will probably be so radically different from my fresh experience and guesswork, but just because this is fresh, I don’t want you to think I that I feel I’m right.
I just know what I saw. I saw a young lady who swam every day in the pool, got everything she asked for, went to bed when she felt like it, ate whatever, whenever and was showered with affection by her doting aunt. (Her gamma…not so much this time around. She’s depressed and won’t leave the couch–not sure if that hurt your feelings and contributed to this…it really may have.) And then we left. Back to a life with mom and dad, and rules and bedtimes, higher expectations, lower tolerance for all the “can we buy me one of these” requests…And you broke.
But you gave us no more to go on. Until I left to investigate food options during a quest for a smoothie. (You didn’t want to eat at the restaurant. You weren’t hungry enough.) When I came back mom filled me in. You had reported that you felt nobody likes you.
A little while after that, I was walking with you alone. Mom had gone to the bathroom and we were making our way to the gate. I think this was the hardest parenting moment of my life so far. You were feeling intense, overwhelming sadness. It reminded me of depression, which I know well. The thought of you feeling this is enough for me to do anything it takes to make it go away. But I’d just been told, in a roundabout sort of way, that I was part of the problem. Mom always seems to know what to say. I can often muster the right words in writing but in the moment, face-to-face, I rarely can. So my mind and my mouth was frozen. Your sadness was visceral, and it begged to be addressed. I had nothing.
We sat down. Nothing. You pulled out your phone. You were going to shut me out. Quick, think of something, anything! “What are you doing?” I asked, without even thinking.
“Playing Color Switch,” you said.
“Can I watch?” I asked.
“Sure,” you said. And then I watched you play your game. I felt a little like the idiot who can’t figure out how to ask someone out so he follows her around wherever she goes, trying to build up the nerve. But then something strange happened. You warmed up. I watched you closely, commented on the game, eventually played a little too and we laughed a lot. Mom later told me that when she came back, she figured we’d had a talk and hugged it out. Nope. I just followed you where you were going and asked to be there too.
Here’s my interpretation, now, fresh: we don’t give you enough attention. More accurately, we don’t give you the right kind of attention. You’re lonely. Partly because it’s summer and you really are between close friendships right now. In a matter of minutes, you’ll be focused on your friends and will want less and less attention from us, but we make the mistake too often of choosing to live in a world of responsibility–one that we’re always aware is fully centered on you but kids don’t care about this stuff–rather than a world of minute-by-minute joy and interaction with the whirlwind of a gift that you are in our lives. We concern ourselves with your screen time, your forgetting to put your clothes away, your dragging your feet on your chores…and leave less energy for all that happens in our lives between those parenting moments. We forget to follow you where you are.
That’s the only reason I can think that you would have gotten the impression that we don’t like you (in this moment, at least). We adore you. Despite all the new emotional stuff that has entered into our relationship, you’re still getting more and more funny, more and more charming and clever and…just…awesome…in basically every way.
In the days that have followed this trip, I’ve been making a greater effort to stop moving from responsibility to responsibility and take moments to be with you. We’ll see how it goes. My initial findings have been that this is getting harder and harder to achieve. Because, paradoxically, your maturation means you’re also pushing us away and wanting, more and more, a life defined without us.