When I met Mark Johnson's daughter, she was thirteen years old and in the eighth grade. Whenever I would tell anyone how old she was, they would inevitably shake their head and say "Oh, how is that going?" And I would always smile and give the same answer. "It's going great."
And I meant it. Mark Johnson and I live a relatively stress-free life. We both dislike drama and conflict, and it pretty much does not exist in our house. When his daughter Zoe is with us, we all get along pretty well. We like to watch cooking shows and How I Met Your Mother reruns on TV. Sometimes we go out to Target or Joann's and pick up things for a project she is working on. There is always lots of laughter, and a bit of good-natured teasing, when we are together.
Over the summer, things stayed relatively the same. And then high school started. The first week or two still felt pretty normal. We would hear lots of stories about her day and what happened in each class. And we would even get a few nuggets of information about boys she was talking to. But as the weeks went on, the information flow seemed to slow down. And the mood swings began to pick up.
I know that other people have it a lot worse when it comes to living with a teenager. And I only do it part-time, so I am not trying to complain. We still have a lot of fun together. But now there is this extra component to deal with. The recognition that quality of our evening is largely influenced by her mood. As much as I try not to let it affect me, it is hard not to have some sort of reaction to this change in lifestyle.
Last night Zoe Johnson was in one of those moods. It seemed like nothing I did was right. The bread I bought for the grilled cheese was too soft and the cheese was cut too thin. It was like I had never made a grilled cheese sandwich before. As we were making dinner, Mark Johnson started talking about weekend plans and suggested we might want to go and see some new superhero movie that just came out.
"She won't like that movie," Zoe Johnson replied hastily.
The minute she uttered those words, my heart sank. I felt like I was being accused of something. And she was right, it would not be my first choice of movies. I try to avoid entertainment that is noisy and violent. And I know that my preferences sometimes influence the things we watch. Of course, I also know that Mark Johnson and I have sat through hours of High School Musical movies and episodes of Pretty Little Liars when those are clearly not our first choice of entertainment.
I don't really expect a fourteen-year-old to have the understanding of any of this. I didn't understand it when I was fourteen. And I know that she was just stating what she knew to be a fact. If she had said "I don't think Becky would like that movie," or even if she had said directly to me "I don't think you would like that movie" it would have been ok. But there is something about that word She. It places an artificial distance between us, even though I am standing right there.
Even as I type this, I can hear my Mom's voice saying to us "I am not a She. I am your mother." My Mom must have said that to us a hundred times. And now I know why she felt that way.
I am not a She. I am a Me. I am a kind, loving person who is doing my best to pick out the right bread and cheese. And supporting Mark Johnson in being a Dad. And trying to find some common ground with a teenager who is changing so fast that we can barely keep up.
I am not a parent. I am an Auntie who is loved and adored by my nieces and nephews. It want to be liked, and I like to be appreciated. I am a cupcake. Soft and fluffy inside and out. I am not sure exactly how to deal with this new storm of teenage drama that sometimes comes crashing in on our peaceful quiet life a few nights a week.
As I sit here, struggling for clarity, I think about what is important to me in this situation. It is important that I have a good relationship with Zoe Johnson. But even though it is important to me, it is not within my control. I only have the ability to influence one half of that relationship. I can only manage my own behaviors and responses.
And not being a parent makes it even harder to navigate this situation. Because if it were my own daughter that was talking to me that way, I could at least speak up and tell her that it hurt my feelings and ask her not to do that anymore. Of course, she might just roll her eyes and not listen to me, but at least I would feel like I have the standing in the relationship to say something. Or I could ask Mark Johnson to say something to her. But that really doesn't feel like the right response either.
Instead I am writing this blog and wondering if there is anyone else out in the world who feels the same way I do. I am in uncharted territory here. And whenever I find myself in that position, as I have many times before in the last three years, I just need to take a deep breath and find some perspective.
Yesterday, the situation really surprised me. The next time it happens, I will be prepared. And I can think about how I would like to handle it. Maybe I can find a way to let her know that it bothers me and ask her not to say it anymore. Maybe I will learn to let it go and embrace my new state of She-dom. After all, women have survived being called She for years. In fact, we have survived being called much worse things than that! At least I am in good company. The Sisterhood of She.