“You Can’t Use Me To Feel Good About Yourself”
As I write today I’m reminded of a post I wrote 8 years ago, What I Did When My Daughter Said, “You’re the Boringest and I Hate You! This time, however, it’s not what she said, but instead what she didn’t say and didn’t do that shined a light on some difficult parenting wisdom.
Part I – The Sweater
It all began when I knit my 14 year old daughter a sweater. She’d accompanied me to the store to choose a soft, washable yarn in a neutral color she’d actually wear. During Covid I’ve picked up knitting again and found a healthy distraction in searching for patterns and scrumptious yarns. Because my grandmother taught me to knit when I was young, knitting sent a gentle signal to my brain, “Everything’s okay.”
A couple of weeks ago when I completed the sweater, I laid it on her bed so she’d see it when she got home. I imagined she’d try it on and show me how it fit. Over the past month I’d measured the length of her arms, inquired about how cropped she’d like it as that’s the current fashion and worked to tailor it just for her.
Because she never mentioned the sweater, I checked in with her in the afternoon, “Did you see the sweater? Please try it on — I’d love to see how it fits.”
She answered, “Not right now.”
Later I asked her again and she explained that she’d already changed into her pj’s but that she’d do it the next time she got dressed. The next day I decided to mention it one last time. My heart felt heavy. I didn’t want to get entangled in a power struggle with her over the sweater I’d made for her because I adore her. Needless to say, I never saw it on her.
Part II – The Pile
My daughter had recently cleaned out her room, placing all outgrown and unwanted items into a huge bag in the hall. Beside the bag was a loose pile of papers with a blue glue gun resting on top.
After a few days of watching the pile collect dust, I took a closer look and saw under the glue gun a photo storybook I’d created and given to her for her birthday some years ago.
This project, with a closeup of her soft two year old face on the cover looked to have seen better days. I picked it up and brought it into her room asking, “What’s happened to this?” She confirmed that she’d found it spoiled, likely because last fall she’d placed a little pumpkin from our garden on top of it, in a drawer. The pumpkin decomposed over the course of months.
I felt an anger rise in me and said, ‘You clearly don’t care about it.”
She answered, “I do care.”
I said, “If you cared you’d have come to me when you found it and asked what we could do.” I swore, “Just f***ing get rid of it then, but don’t leave it on the floor for me to take care of.”
Heart pounding, I retreated to my bedroom across the hall where I stood motionless, a little shocked that I’d spoken to her so harshly. Being the youngest child she was adept at avoiding conflict and I’d become more able to keep my cool.
For a split second I thought, I’m going to ignore her, give her the cold shoulder. A memory flashed from the recesses of my mind of my dad ignoring me for two weeks after his feelings had been hurt because I’d been spending weekends at my friend Sharon’s house. I can remember him scolding me as we stood inside our front door, “You care more about her family than you do your own!” I was in 5th grade at the time and it was two weeks before he looked at or spoke to me again.
I decided I wasn’t going to ignore her, even though to hurt her back felt like the “natural” response.
Returning to her room, disintegrating storybook in hand I said, “I realize the reason I’m so upset is that my feelings are hurt. It’s becoming clear to me that you don’t care about things I’ve made for you.”
I was of course thinking about the unadorned sweater.
I repeated myself, “It’s becoming clear to me, and I’m speaking to myself now, that I need to focus less on you and more on myself.”
I felt my voice catch and tears well in my eyes.
Unlike 8 years ago, this time she said nothing. Through the uncared for storybook and forgotten sweater I was getting a message loud and clear, “Mom, get a life. While I need you to be there for me, I don’t need you the same way I used to and I’m not going to act in ways to please you. You haven’t trained me to take care of you and I’m not going to start now. My main concern right now is my friends and all the changes I’m going through. You can’t use me to feel good about yourself.”
I felt grounded when I turned to leave her room, closing the door quietly behind me.
I haven’t figured it all out yet.
It felt valuable to write about and share with you because it’s not spit spat all settled in me and tied up with a bow and maybe you’re having your own messy parenting moments. I’m sitting with a real life collision between my daughter’s age appropriate growth and what I’m gently naming my age appropriate stuckness, a slice of difficult wisdom.
It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it, myself.
— Joyce Maynard