“We’re at a store called Pink. Did you know you can try on thongs over your shorts?”
This is a week of many firsts: Saoirse’s first “hang out” at the mall with Martina, our foreign exchange student from Madrid; her first siting of a Wendy’s restaurant; her first exposure to the makeup aisle at Wal-Mart, the first time she has used her dad’s cell phone to send a text message.
I am downstairs by the mall exit, waiting for them, madly searching online in one of my own first-time experiences, googling the question “Why do women where thongs?” I scan the articles that come up and text back.
“I just learned that wearing a thong can make you feel confident and ready to conquer the world. Who knew?”
When I was nearing the end of my first pregnancy 14 years ago, I never imagined I’d be having such a conversation with my baby. She texts back:
“Bleh! How about wedgies? I hate this store.”
“I hope you’re being nice about it.”
“It’s all just an adventure.”
The adventures I imagined for my baby were once wildly different: backpacking through Europe, camping beside mountain streams, traveling through South America. And here I am, waiting to pick her up from this enormous shopping mall.
When she and Martina finally find me, I hug her so hard, one might think she’d been on safari in Africa for six months, rather than at the mall for four hours.
Saoirse is a loner in this world. She doesn’t make friends her age easily, which has led her to settle into constant companionship with her father and me. Martina’s presence has altered that dynamic. She’s three years older, and the two of them find lots to laugh about, and have taken to filling my kitchen with an array of baked desserts. Conversations around mealtime frequently turn to hair and fashion. And Martina has been introducing her to the world of shopping.
Wierdly, I am encouraging it. I don’t have an understanding of why. I hate shopping. I am more prone to temperamental outbursts in a shopping mall than a two-year-old coming down from a blue raspberry Slushie. I get confused, find it hard to focus, and typically abandon whatever mission I’ve come on in favor of fleeing for the car.
But it’s me who suggests they have a date at the mall. It’s me who arranges schedules so they can visit Wal Mart. It’s me who’s coaching my daughter to open herself up to the experience.
And I don’t quite get it.
But the day after our mall excursion, I’ve planned something different. We pack up a picnic, take our kayaks and canoes to a nearby pond, and head away from cell service from morning until dark. Saoirse and Bob take Martina out on the water to teach her to use a kayak. I sit quietly in the forest, pondering what’s happening inside my heart.
I want Saoirse to have these consumptive American experiences. I want her to go off with joy in her heart, untethered by my opinions about all that is wrong with this part of our culture.
Am I a turncoat? Am I just thankful for a little space away from a kid who’s never away from my side? Am I so worried that she’ll never make friends that I’m encouraging her to adopt conventional Western hobbies so she’ll have something in common with others? I like seeing the joy and excitement on her face. But will I lose her?
The girls come back, allowing me a turn to slip a kayak into the water and glide out into the open. The day is perfect: warm in the sun, but cool enough for comfort. The clouds are stunning overhead, sending glorious reflections down to the water. Dusky, my faithful little black dog, perches in front of me, enjoying the ride, my only companion at this moment.
But I’m actually a little lonely. Me…. Shannon Hayes, the person who always wants to find more moments to be alone to think, who can be happy for hours and days with no one’s company, who will choose any job that requires solitude over a group task…, lonely???
And if I’m lonely, why am I encouraging my own child to drift away from me and my tightly held values?
The answer floats up to me from the water, drifts down to me from the clouds:
Because you are in danger of dominating her.
I don’t know who is talking to me. Is it my conscience? God? Nature? A spirit guide? I have no idea. But I ask another question.
Does that make me a jerk?
And as I think on it, I realize that it could. But there was once a place for my domineering strength — when I had to muster the courage to walk away from all the things I once thought I was supposed to be in this culture: a working professional with a two career household with high-achieving kids and a pension and spending power….When I had to sell the rejection of these ideas to the people around me, to earn their understanding and compassion….When I had to teach my daughters why their lives didn’t look like the lives of other kids.
But it doesn’t have such a strong place raising a teenager. Saoirse doesn’t need these lessons from me anymore. She needs to own her own thoughts and opinions. And a trip to Wal Mart, a trip to the shopping mall is just a start. I know what I think. I know how I feel. I know that I’ve taught my child about a different way to live. She doesn’t need to grow up parroting my dictums in order to validate my thinking. She needs to become her own person. And that means I need to give her the room to develop her own opinions and ideas, to know that I will love her, no matter what. Because if I don’t, I face the possibility of losing her.
I catch a movement from the corner of my eye and turn my boat. I see a paddle working furiously, Saoirse’s long arms are pulling her through the water to me. I lay my own paddle down and wait for her, smiling at her wide grin as she enjoys her own physical strength. She glides up, brings her boat around, takes the combing of my boat and pulls it close to hers. And there we sit out under the bright blue sky, saying little. And I recognize the great opportunity that comes from shutting my mouth and letting my daughter form her own views on the world. It is true that, as she comes to know her own mind, she is less and less my child. Because when she knows her own mind, she can become more and more my friend.
Ps: FYI, Twenty-four hours later, Saoirse sought me out alone in my room. There, she fell to sobbing, pleading with me to help her be free from ever having to take another shopping trip again. My kind of thirteen-year-old…