"I want to be brave," says my daughter
It's the first thing she says when I ask her about what kind of adult she wants to be. Also: "a good job, a nice home, and two best friends—one of whom I've known since high school." A pretty solid list, especially at fourteen.
"Bravery is something you can learn," I tell her, "like any other skill."
My daughter, A, is incredibly smart, deeply empathic and caring, passionate about her ideals, and polite with adults. It's a privilege to be her stepmom (or "bonus mom", as I prefer). Especially at this phase of her life, where she's transitioning out of childhood and into a young woman.
I say these things today because on Saturday, standing in the middle of the duty free shop at the Mexico airport, I was so fed up with her that I had to look her directly in the eyes and say, "I'm leaving you now to go buy water, I'll meet you at the gate;" then by Sunday, after I'd taken her out for a three-hour lunch, I came to understand the stressors she's coping with right now. I can only be in awe of her fortitude.
A was twelve when I married her dad. One thing that struck me right away is how much she yearns for independence. But she needs to be empowered with more responsibility and increasing expectations. Asking A to find her way through the airport, for example, with Sean and me trailing as she has to figure out the signage and where to go.
But on this past Saturday, she was dragging her feet and the look of contempt on her face was enough to make Sean and me really question if we would ever take her and Z on a vacation again.
By the time we were 30,000 feet up in the air, I'd restored my own patience enough to realize there was something big going on with her that I was just totally missing. As it turns out, A was stressed about having to go back to school on Monday. That, in addition to being sunburned and losing some of her favorite clothes at the hotel, made for the moment when Sean and I sprang this expectation of her getting through the airport pretty overwhelming.
Lesson learned: I should have prepared her in the taxi for what I expected from her at the airport.
And also: My daughter drives me the most crazy when I'm not listening to her.
At our lunch on Sunday, she also did a lot of listening to me.
One thing she told me in Mexico, as she was being so indecisive about what to order that the waiter had to come back three times, is how much she admires my strong sense of identity. I know what I want, I make decisions easily, and am unruffled by what others may think.
So I hope it's helpful for her to hear that I had really low self-esteem in high school and college, that I suffered with depression for years. I am not kidding when I say the only great thing about being fourteen is that you never have to be fourteen again.
"Here's the thing," I say to her. "You're going to be flying by yourself in three years when you start college, so I need you to learn this skill." She nods.
"But also," I say, "I want you to fail." She looks up at me. "You can make a wrong turn, and then go back the other way. You can lose your boarding pass, reprint another one. Failure is not something to be afraid of."
I know of no other way to teach my daughter bravery than to teach her to face failure (or the potential for failure) head-on. I need her to learn to problem-solve and to know that the most powerful force she wields comes from within herself.
It grieves me to watch her struggle so hard and know I can't save her from painful experiences by simply telling her the answers. What I offer her is the chance to walk her own path, with a support team. "My mom couldn't take my depression away, much as she would have wanted to," I tell my daughter. "I love you and I'm here for you, just like she was for me, but this is your journey."
I think my daughter needed to hear this. She needed to know that I see her as strong and capable and brave, too. It's just that, as her mom and as someone older, I also have a really clear idea of the specific skills and milestones she needs to achieve along the way. "So the expectations your dad and I have of you, the responsibilities we ask you to take on, are only going to increase."
And it seems to me, when I say this, that she sits a little taller, her jaw becomes a little more set. And I know that I can ask more of her now.
So this is something we will continue to come back to together, reaffirming her incredible potential and making sure we both still have buy-in on the plan to get her there.