Yesterday was a snow day. Where I live snow is a rarity. At its coldest, the temperature in the winter is in the high thirties and low forties. It snows maybe once a year, enough for outdoor snow play every two or three years.
Yesterday was a gift from the gods, an outdoor winter wonderland. In our neighborhood, a super hilly enclave bordering a lake, it was as if we’d been transported to a sledding village in the Alps. Everyone in the neighborhood came out in their colorful snow gear. People were sledding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing. Dogs were bounding down the hills and into the mounds of snow.
I’m a planner and a worrier, so even in exciting times when there’s something to look forward to, like sledding, I start overplanning which leads me to overthinking, and eventually worrying. As I thought out the day I started to worry about how my sixteen-year-old daughter could enjoy this. When she came upstairs and saw the snow she was happy and excited, but as the prospects of sledding with her parents clarified as her only option, she became increasingly sullen.
There were a few things going on. First, she wasn’t actually that into the idea of sledding. Second, as an only child times like this are hard. There’s no built-in playmate and hanging with your parents is just not that fun. Third, I was projecting all of my expectations onto her and completely missed every single one of her cues.
I managed to organize some of our family friends to drive over to our house to sled. They have a teenage daughter as well. I checked that off my box. Only child problem- CHECK. Then there was the issue of Lucia not really being into sledding. I nagged and cajoled and manipulated Lucia until she actually came outside to meet the family friends. Getting her to sled — CHECK.
We walked up to the top of our hill to sled down another side street where we met a friend of ours. She had been sledding by herself all morning. She’s a family friend as well and has no kids. Sometimes she’s good at relating to teens. Lucia was sitting on the sidewalk, her silence and facial expression clearly telling me that she was unhappy. My friend asked me what was wrong with her and I said, “I don’t know. Can you fix her?” And then I jumped in the sled and went down the hill.
I meant my comment about fixing Lucia to be tongue and cheek but the truth is I was really desperate (projecting) for Lucia to be enjoying the snow the way I thought she should. When I got up the hill I saw my friend sitting next to Lucia. I walked over and Lucia looked at me, glared really, and said, “Fix me. Really Mom?” And then she walked down the hill to our house.
My partner Nancy, a much less overbearing parent, said, “Laura, you have to back off. She’s in a bad mood. Just let her be.” This is not an uncommon experience in our family. As a parent, I become consumed with an outcome (like Lucia having fun sledding like a Norman Rockwell painting), go to any means necessary to achieve said outcome, and completely ignoring all of the messages my daughter is giving me, end up in a pool of regret over my misguided ways.
Nancy and I talked about what to do. “Just go down and apologize and then give her some space. Keep it simple.” I walked down the hill. Lucia was sitting in an Adirondack chair on the patio under our back deck scrolling through her phone. Lumbering through the foot of snow to reach her, I met her sad-angry eyes. When I got to the patio I said, “Lucia, I’m sorry.”
“Mom, why do you do that? You nag and text and can’t you just let me be in a bad mood.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I’m really sorry. We’re going over to the big hill. Meet us there if you want. “I’m really sorry Lucia.”
I didn’t go into all the ways I was sorry because they didn’t really matter. The fact that I’d spent the morning trying to control her experience like a puppeteer was evident all over the place. What she really needed in that moment was just to know that I finally saw her.
Lucia eventually walked over and joined us. I gave her a wide berth for the rest of the afternoon but my hideous words, “Can you fix her?” pinged around in my brain like a pinball all day. What I’d wanted on the surface was for Lucia to have fun, to celebrate the snow with us. But the deeper sentiment, the one I’m not proud of and that I want to change for the future, was my need for her to be a certain way.
I wanted my daughter to fit into a mold that would make my Norman Rockwell painting complete. And in doing so I made her feel incomplete, unseen, and misunderstood. My intention to create a big happy family playing in the snow backfired and I became an asshole. I regret that Lucia heard my comment. I made her feel exactly the opposite of how I wanted her to feel.
It’s snowing again today. The streets are closed and I imagine people will be sledding. I’m not sure what our family plans will be, but I’m going to try not to be an asshole.