What we’ve taught our four year old (so far):
We don’t clean rocks in our mouth (even pretty rocks).
We don’t blow our noses in our shirts, unless Mom forgot Kleenex (which is often).
We don’t NOT wipe our butts because we need to resume playing.
How to snap (her fingers).
What I’ve learned? Kids teach us much more. If we let them.
Filled with dread, I picked Beatrice up from her group home on Friday the 13th, (yes, I’m superstitious. I’m Jewish and Catholic. Sue me.) I looked down as I walked past all the other foster kids playing outside, trying to live without parents. I didn’t want to worry about any of them. I was too worried about myself.
Parenting your own home-made teen is not fun. Bringing a foster teen into an already overflowing life is scary. Bringing a 16 year-old foster kid who has survived neglect, abuse (and worse) into my 4 year-old’s life is head-in-the-toilet terrifying. On top of that, I don’t want to care about any more people than I already care for or am paid to care for.
But Beatrice having hope matters more than keeping my almost comfortable life almost comfortable.
Beatrice was waiting inside, hugging a dog-eared NBA championship pillow. When I entered, she exhaled, probably unwilling until that moment to believe I would actually show up. One quick hug, then she handed me her pillow and headed out the door, a blanket bundled in her arms.
BEATRICE: Let’s go.
ME: What about all your clothes and books and–
BEATRICE: They’ll bring it later.
The heavy front door, scarred by kicks and punches, slammed behind her. She didn’t even bother turning off the radio in her room. She couldn’t wait to save her own life.
As we walked past the kids, some burrowed deeper into their games. A few ran over and pulled Beatrice into a group hug, petting her blue hair and telling her how much they’d miss her.
Beatrice took the attention like a teenage pop star, enduring their adoration while trying not to lose her leaving momentum.
One little boy hung way back, silently kicking at the hot cement. He looked like too many people had already left him in his short life.
Beatrice handed me her blanket, then ran over and hugged him hard, whispering in his ear. Humans, in the absence of family, can’t help but create family. Hence fraternities, gangs, clubs and cults.
A girl who probably has fetal alcohol syndrome, ran after us, crying for Beatrice to not leave her behind. Beatrice hugged the crying girl but just kept moving to the exit.
I don’t think I resumed breathing until we were in the car.
I kinda hate loving Beatrice. When I’m not with her, I’m annoyed at how much mental bandwidth she exhausts. But when I’m with her, I am in awe of the miracle of her.
She is bright, easygoing, incredible with kids and even more incredible with adults. She’s funny, considerate, and observant. Like many foster teens (and all teens) she’s self-absorbed, self soothes with too much make up and hoards food, squirreling it away in secret pockets of her bedroom.
Under the ombre green nails and the cobalt blue hair and the war paint, Beatrice is simultaneously 16, 45, and 9. A brilliant hider, the four of us play a Hide and Seek session after dinner and before bed.
Unlike most foster kids, Beatrice doesn’t hide her tidy rows of ritualistic scars on her arms and legs. The other scars, the ones under the make up, the blue hair and eyeglasses are well hidden. We don’t pry. We watch, worry and allow her to surprise and disappoint us. Just like parents do.
What we’ve taught Beatrice (so far):
We don’t lie or judge.
We call questionable behavior and poor choices out fast, to forgive faster.
We talk it out so we can hug it out.
We can be disappointed, but we aren’t walking away. (She might need to learn that one a few more times.)
What Beatrice has taught us: The Long Game.
When you are being tortured by a 4 year-old, surrounded by parents who are also being persecuted by 4-year-olds, you sweat blood every time your kid doesn’t say ‘please’ or spits out the lunch you researched on Pinterest at 5am.
You stress every time your kid refuses to go to bed. You flip out when they freak out in the middle of a store. You hate yourself for snapping and yelling your fool head off because they have tap-danced on your last nerve one time too many. You weep when you show them ‘The Lion King’, convinced you’ve permanently ruined their relationship with death and hyenas. You lie awake at 3am, convinced your kid is a sociopath because they pinched a friend.
But, if Beatrice can survive abuse/neglect, losing her family, being moved from school to school, being beat up in group homes, and can still wake up at 6, get ready for school, do the dishes, walk the dogs, play with kids, paint, read, and love yoga- then me flipping out over my four year old’s refusal to wipe her butt one time is me playing The Short Game.
Seeing how grateful Beatrice is, I’m much more chill over Grace skipping a meal or inhaling one too many Swedish Fish. Three nights without a bath isn’t going to make Grace under-perform in high school or make her low-ball herself in future relationships or job interviews.
More Long Game Benefits: Andrew and I get along better. Beatrice has made us up our communication game. We discuss everything from discipline, chores to ‘Are those actually shorts if they cover nothing?’ as a united front. I’m proud of what a good father he is. She made him a Father’s Day card and signed it, ‘Your New Kid’.
Having a kid we can talk rationally to is a revelation. A kid who listens and responds with sentences as opposed to sound effects from Paw Patrol is groundbreaking. Actual conversation with a reasoning semi-adult is a miracle after begging a toddler to stop lying face-down on the filthy, freezing Manhattan sidewalk because she wants a hotdog you didn’t sneeze on.
I wonder if parenting a teen makes more sense because we remember being 16 and the boneheaded choices we made. That said, insta-parenting a teen is like learning how to drive in a car already doing 160 mph on the Autobahn. When dropping Beatrice off for her first unsupervised hangout with a friend, I made them text me photos of her every hour on the hour.
ME: I’m sorry, but you’ve been a teenager for 5 years and I’ve only been the mother of one for a month.
BEATRICE: It’s okay. Parent me. That’s why I picked you.
And she did. She picked me. It took me a year to ovary up, but Beatrice waited for my comfort zone to budge. I’m prepared to not have a comfort zone again for another year.
Even as we worry about Beatrice, we are much calmer parents to Grace. We might have given Beatrice a home but Beatrice has given us the gift of the long game.
And, it’s kind of nice to be age-appropriate parents to at least one of our kids.
Here’s someone smart opining a year ago on the whole Long Game thang that I thought I just made up…