Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tots and Teens

Parenting is hard sometimes - like trying to grab those little pieces of eggshell that fall into the bowl when I'm making an omelet. Just when I think I have a grasp on it, it slips through my fingers and ends up both farther and further away. With omelets I generally accept a little crunchiness and with parenting (at least recently) I end up with egg on my face - or more accurately, frustrated, angry, and sad.

It certainly isn't Amari. A seventeen month-old has the distinct advantage of diluting said challenging feelings with their unbearable being of cuteness. That was a weak attempt and Milan Kundera word-play. A seventeen year-old, however, has the distinct disadvantage of being at that in-between age where she desperately clings to childlike irresponsibility while the rest of the people in her life want her to grow the f--k up. Unfortunately for Carrie and I, the responsibility of helping her through this transition was thrust upon us without the benefit of the sixteen years of experience usually afforded parents in our position. Unfortunately for Siobhan, the world doesn't stop spinning for anyone.

When my niece arrived last August I was optimistic and excited, hopeful that Carrie and I could prepare her for life in ways that a boarding school on a hill station in the middle of nowhere might not. I knew she wasn't going to be thrilled with the move away from everything and everyone she knew, but I figured that time and our loving family would ease the pain and hopefully give her a new sense of home. I was loving, I gave her space to find her own way. I encouraged her gently but never forced her to do anything. I waited...

She went from a small, private, international boarding school in India to mildly redneck, slightly larger public school in rural California. The change was bound to be hard on her, but she showed promise at times that she could take anything the world threw her way. As the weeks and months went by, I saw glimmers of the person Siobhan could be, probably the person she is when she's with her friends back in Kodaikanal, or Facebooking or whatever. She joined the soccer team, got good grades, and seemed to at least be not hating it.

Along the way, I started the upward struggle of teaching Siobhan how to be a part of a family - rights and responsibilities, respecting shared space, and most importantly, common courtesy. I mistakenly thought that a boarding school experience fostered independence, but instead it inhibited it entirely. I've come to believe now that boarding schools are kind of like high-priced prison - three hots, a cot, and some distant, future, release date, when you're cast into the world like a newly hatched bird from its nest. I hoped Carrie and I could cushion the fall, but not at the expense of our own nest.

I now feel as though everything I've tried to do to support Siobhan has been summarily thrown back in my face. She asks for help, I offer my hand, and she refuses to meet me half way. She wanted to eat better, to exercise more, to study for the SATs. I cook eggs in the morning, invite her to exercise, tutor her in the evenings, but when she has been unwilling to put the work in on her own. She doesn't wake up on her own, feed herself well, get to sleep at a reasonable hour, help out around the house. I know, I know - she's a teenager, but that doesn't make it easier to live with.

My lectures have gone from comical encouragement and pleas for help to angered annoyance and silent indifference. The last one is where I'm at right now. The last week has been brutal. I now equate parenting a teen to the cycle of abuse that can be tracked in some relationships. Acrimony and venom six days a week, but the flowers and candy on Sunday make the person think, "Maybe s/he's not so bad. This time will be different." I don't feel venomous, but I certainly feel duped. Every time I feel as though I've had a breakthrough conversation, Siobhan's behavior will change for about thirty-six hours - she'll do some dishes, say please or thank you, help with Amari - before she holes back up in her room and disappears into cyber-land.

Long story...well, you know, I feel sad. I feel like I've failed even though I wasn't given much to start with. I feel like I'm damaging my relationship with my niece by not even wanting to talk to her right now. I know she knows I'm mad - if she couldn't tell by me barking, "I'm sick of this shit, Siobhan. If you're not going to help around her, then you're not going to get in the way either." It was my way of saying, "You're on your own until you start meeting me half way." I don't ask for a lot. I really don't. I just want her to start participating in her life, or at the very least in our family. So far, I'm 0 for 2.

On that note, the Giants beat the Dodgers tonight 5-4 in thrilling back and forth nail-biter. That's how my dad always used to change the subject when things got uncomfortable, "So...how 'bout them Dodgers."

As for the tots in the house. Awesome. Siobhan said something very telling the other day while Amari was mastering the art of putting triangle pieces in triangle holes. "I wish that's all I were learning," she mused. I get it. I really do. But that's just not how life works. And the longer you keep using out-dated tools that don't serve you anymore, the harder it is to catch up.

Amari's vocabulary is multiplying every day, and she recently graduated to two-word sentences (all joking aside - something Siobhan could still improve on. Don't ask a yes/no question if you expect anything more). It's an exciting stage of development because you never know what to expect. From simple repetition of similar worlds - blue, book, bubbles - to the unexpected mimicking of things like, "Uh oh" (today's greatest hit) "Got it," "Bite dad," (when it was my turn to enjoy her delicious cottage cheese and beans), or "Mo ice," when it's her turn to enjoy my delicious beverage of choice.

The sun is finally shining consistently, which means lots of outside time, planting vegetables and flowers, therapeutic lawn-mowing, and general upkeep of our property. It's slow-going most days, but Amari loves to help, which mostly means steering the tractor or filling the evaporating puddles with gravel. She is truly her father's daughter when it comes to the latter, because I could happily spend all day throwing rocks into a body of water - no matter what size.

So be it tots, teens, triumphs, or tragedies, the hard days go by just like the easy ones. The sun rises will rise tomorrow and I'll get to do it all over again - hopefully with a little a more grace and always a little more consciousness.


  1. Teenagers are tough, I know I was. Hope things turn around for you. You are doing a great thing and one day Siobhan will see that.

  2. I was just pondering the teenage years when I read this. It was a really scary horrible time for me, the teenage years. At about age 37 I started contacting those adults who took care of me and made a difference to say thank you. I couldn't say it then but their support means everything to me now. Keep your head up.
    And Lincecum is pitching great!