Be the adult.

I joined a meet-up for Stepparents. I’m not a joiner, so this was difficult for me. I like to try new things, see what sticks, but once I decide to do something with regularity (re: yoga for the last 25 years,) I end up hating the joiner culture that surrounds it. Most would call this community, I do recognize that.

So, last night, I went back and forth in my mind of all the reasons why I wasn’t going to go – I would have to drag my ass at night to Manhattan, it was in a crap part of town, I didn’t know anyone, they would surely be lame, or god forbid, they would think I was lame (I wasn’t, FYI, I was hilarious.) And then, like magic, Jason called from his business trip to ask my what my plans were. I had a choice to lie, which in these circumstances I just call not-sharing-every-detail, but decided to tell him I was conflicted about going. He reminded me, as always, that it is good to push ourselves out of our comfort zone yada yada. He wasn’t the one going into a room full of strangers. But he is my mirror and he was right, so I went.

They weren’t lame. I mean, they were a little weird, some of them, but not lame. I did my brutally honest, self-deprecating schtick and they laughed out loud at points. Over the course of the two hours, though, I realized that despite all of our stories and backgrounds being very different, we did actually have a connection. A feeling of not being at home in our homes. A feeling of selfishness and helplessness. And a desire to learn skills and hear advice to make it work.

One thing that resonated with me was the moderator relaying a story about the conflict between her and her step-daughter. She was feeling frustrated and petulant (the stepmom,) and things were deteriorating, and she had to keep reminding herself of the golden rule – Always be the adult. Be. The. Adult.  I heard those words and immediately got grumpy and defensive. But I don’t waaaaaaant to always be the adult. I am, always, the adult! I had to be an adult before I was an adult, before I had a child of my own to parent. I am independent and responsible (despite what my ex always feared,) and now, at 45, when I’m constantly having my buttons pushed by a 12 year old who mostly hates me (and herself,) I don’t want to be the adult!

And yet. I have to. I will continue to fuck up. My relationship with the girls may or may not get better or worse, but I still have to remember that until they are adults, I have to be the adult. Their mom and dad don’t actually have to be the adults all the time, because they are forgiven for their indiscretions and foibles and even their resentment or antagonism. Its built in, this forgiveness as children. Not me, though, not the stepmother. Even when I apologize, I am not forgiven. It is remembered, and it is shaping our relationship. So, do I continue to start each week with them walking on eggshells? Deciding to see how long I can not engage with them, for fear of saying the wrong thing? Forgetting how to be myself because I know the person I am isn’t the person they choose to be with?

I don’t know. I do know better, though.

It’s funny until it’s not.

When I picked the girls up from school yesterday, Dylan started in with her incessant talking. I could tell Jennifer really wanted to chime in about her day. Usually, I remember to say up front, each day, that we’ll take turns – each kid gets to talk for a block. Dylan has a tough time with this but she does love her sister, so tries very hard to let her speak. But yesterday I forgot, or was lazy, or god forbid just wanted a normal walk home. So after 10 minutes of non-stop talking, I asked her to take a break. I tried engaging with Jennifer but Dylan interrupted so I joked, out loud, that she had verbal diarrhea. She thought that was hilarious, thank god. She laughed (maniacally) about it for a good block. But then when she was done, she started talking faster and louder and more incessantly. I made the observation that perhaps not everyone wanted to hear everything she was saying at all times, that she was talking to hear herself talk. She then informed me that I was being very disrespectful towards her because yes, in fact, people DO want to hear what she says. Always. I asked her to see if she could go an entire block without talking. “Why would I do that? I have things to share. Important things, like how high a score I got on my game.” I asked her to see how it felt, to just be alone with her thoughts, inside her head for a block. But she couldn’t, and went on to tell me how awful I was that I didn’t want to listen to her, at which point Jennifer chimed in and came to her defense, as well. Anytime Jennifer sees ANY type of conflict, she jumps in to defend Dylan – even if Dylan is doing something wrong. They scream “We’re sisters, that’s what you do!” At some point, I felt disconnected to my mind and body because I said, “Fine, here’s how it feels when someone talks incessantly and you can’t get a word in edgewise.” So, I started rambling. I talked about the place in Italy I’ll live one day with their Dad. I talked about how we’d have to go back and visit the girls, still maybe teaching the older one how to take care of herself in her 40’s. I talked and talked. And you know what they did? They ran. So I ran to catch up, and I talked louder, and I tried to get in their faces and said “Hey, hey, that’s disrespectful to not listen to me.” Throwing words back in Dylan’s face doesn’t work because she doesn’t recognize any faults of her own. Ever. Did I mention this? Plus, shit, if I thought I could just run away every time I didn’t want to listen to her anymore… wow, my life would be different. And yes, very childish of me to just not disengage and move on. I’m an imperfect person.

By the time we got home, Dylan was telling Jennifer that they’d hate me forever. I don’t think they thought I’d hear them but I yelled up the stairs “Forever, ever??” They didn’t get the Kanye reference. Inside, they were mopey and quickly told their Dad that I pulled on Dylan’s backpack. I’m not sure how that would have happened since I had both hands on my handlebars, pushing my bike behind them all the way home. It didn’t happen but Dylan needs to be the victim, always. Plus, hello, what if I HAD pulled on her backpack. What is that, abuse?? Jennifer said she hadn’t even seen it but she believes Dylan and I’m just awful, end of story.

I made stir-fry for dinner and while the chicken pieces were tiny, small enough for her little sister to eat, Dylan insisted in cutting each piece into tinier pieces. Wouldn’t be a big deal except that using the knife was making an excruciating nails-on-chalkboard sound every single time. Her Dad asked her to stop, repeatedly. I suggested using the side of her fork instead. Nothing. When she went in for her second serving (yes, chicken is one of the things she eats,) she kept doing it and when her Dad asked her to stop again she said “Listen, this is really, really hard work. And its going to make a sound, every time, so you can’t be upset every time I do it. You just have to deal with it.” Sometimes I admire her complete lack of awareness for anyone else’s needs but her own. Girl is going to get what she wants, end of story. Because cutting chicken is really, really hard. But in those moments, I think, how are we helping her by letting her believe this. In the real world, she’s going to get a smackdown. And because she has no skill set, as well as real mental illnesses, she won’t succeed. Being overly-assertive and demanding and believing that people are there to serve her and only her, will. not. work.

Where to start?

It would be too difficult to start at the beginning, so I’ll start with yesterday.

When I picked the girls up from school, the older one, whom I’ll refer to as Dylan from here on out, started her usual onslaught of verbal diarrhea. This time it was about her visit to the nurse’s office. She started by telling me about her nosebleed (she has these chronically and yes, we know there is a procedure that can cauterize but if you keep reading, you’ll understand why it’s not possible.) Then she went on to explain that the reason she was at the nurse’s wasn’t because of the nosebleed but because she’d had a sore throat. It started the night before, it was ‘strep-y’ and in gym she was coughing and coughing, and then her breathing got really rattle-y, and on and on. The nurse saw a little irritation at the back of her throat, no doubt from coughing, but there was no fever, aches, pains etc. Dylan told me, though, that the nurse said she should see a doctor. So, when I could get in a word edgewise, I said, ok, I’ll see if I can make you an appointment this afternoon while Jennifer (her little sister) is at her acting class. That’s about when Dylan started losing it. “What?! No, no, no, I don’t need a doctor!” Yet, she’d spent 10 minutes explaining how very sick she was. She’s not, in fact, sick. This happens every month or so. Her biggest fear, actually, is to BE sick. She associates illness with throwing up and has a paranoia about vomiting. Its a long story, stemming from her mother lying to her about chocolate milk (that was really a protein shake because we were trying to get Dylan to gain weight, since she doesn’t eat anything. But that’s a story for another day.) Anyhow, I said we’d discuss a doctor’s appointment later with her Dad.

When Dylan is quiet, its unsettling. I’d love to believe its because she’s feeling peace or calm, but its usually because something is stirring. She is spinning so badly that she’s not even talking to herself. Later that afternoon, before dinner, we discovered Dylan had forgotten some homework at school. After some attempts at connecting with the teacher via email, she found she’d be responsible for doing it tomorrow instead. But because this is a chronic habit of hers (yes, yes, I know, school is very difficult, there is so much homework, yada yada,) her Dad said she couldn’t watch TV that evening. We are trying to implement rules around accountability and responsibility, of which she feels zero. Ever. Its part of her personality, brain chemistry, and upbringing. The knowledge that her little sister would get something that she wouldn’t started her in a woe-is-me tailspin. Mopey at dinner, which for her has consisted of bread and cheese for the last couple of months. Then its “Da-da, can we talk in private?” One of her attempts to manipulate (a skill she’s learned from her mother.) She puts on the baby talk, even though she’s 12 years old. Her Dad is learning not to cave anymore, and understand that love and boundaries are best – not giving her everything she wants. It turned into her calling her Mom and crying for pity because Dad is so mean and Jennifer gets what she wants, why can’t I blah blah. Poor, poor Dylan.

And yet, yes, I feel badly for her. I feel for her. OCD, high anxiety, oppositional defiance disorder, classic narcissism, and possibly ADHD are the most common diagnoses she’s received from two psychiatrists and two MFT/social workers, not to mention being under height and weight. It isn’t just an unwillingness on her part, its an inability. She can not feel empathy, she can not see beyond herself, her needs. She is most comfortable telling people what to do, keeping order and control within her grasp. And she is exhausting. I’ve spent the fast few years feeling badly about myself – not being a better role model, not being able to always be ‘on’ or even myself with her, for sometimes losing patience. But I am a human being. And while I love her, I don’t always like her. Yes, that does, in fact, make me feel like a shitty person. How can someone not like a child? And how can they admit to that fact? Am I terrible? Is she in a bad environment because of my feelings? Are we doing more harm than good because despite every single effort we make (therapist, medicine, consistent behavior training, love love love and positive affirmation,) she is about 3% better than when I met her. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hang on to that 3%. I pray that in another few years, she might actually recognize the need of another human being before hers, or even something simple like – not trying to trick or bait me in every conversation. That is a skill she doesn’t need to hone. I pray that she’ll choose to eat with a fork instead of her fingers, that she’ll be able to have dinner at a friend’s (oh and actually EAT the dinner.) I pray that she’ll be able to spend time on her own, without direction every moment. My biggest fear, though, is that she’ll never know how to keep a job, pay a bill, have a relationship, and worst of all – never love herself. And we, my wonderful, sweet, amazing husband and I, will continue to play ping pong with Dylan’s mother, well into our 60’s and 70’s, trying to figure out a way for her to exist without us.