The holiday is almost over and C will come back in a few days now. I had been thinking when she left that she would be very afraid to leave, that the sense of being without me would be very frightening. She is with her grandmother, but my absence would still be triggering to her. So I sent her a lot of texts that I was still here and we were still connected the first few days she was gone. She reached for me by asking for recharges and once I set a limit about that, she withdrew. Then I didn’t hear from her until she was entitled to more recharges (according to the agreement I barely fished out of her). She has exhausted them, and I don’t really expect to hear from her until she gets back, but I still text her. I am spending quite a lot of money texting her, actually, and I think it’s well worth it. I think she needs it. I am sending maybe 70 texts a day to her, and I think she needs them. She almost never responds to them, and I don’t expect a response, but I think they are important.
There would be fewer, except that most days, I have this extended monologue with her, which stems from whatever I imagine at that moment she needs to hear. I can’t really know if it is what she needs, but I feel like I ought to do something, and that the monologue does give her a feeling of connection that periodic “check-in” kind of texts don’t give her. Yesterday’s was about unconditional love or something like that and that the bond is still there between us when she is not with me, and also that she is allowed to want to go away from me. The day before, I couldn’t really think of anything to say. I think she was in a very guarded place emotionally—her last communication was a terse “recharge me.” I sent check-in texts, but nothing sustained. There was another day when it was all about how special she is to me, and that I like her and I specifically mentioned certain moments when I really, really liked her.
When I was in B-town, I didn’t do this or think of doing it. I just kept telling her we were still connected. Probably I ought to have thought of this. How can she feel we are still connected if there is nothing to connect over? So I guess I have been doing this for only a few days. And I do think she needs it.
I wish it weren’t like that, but I think it is like that. I think she is both a teenager who needs independence and an infant who needs to know mom is there still. And I also think that, although she is too afraid to reach out, what she learned as a little thing is that mom is there sometimes and not at other times and C can never know what to expect. This is about having a different experience. Mom is still there.
I worry sometimes this is smothering and that I am really meeting my own dependency needs and she can sense this and is put off by it, but my gut feeling is that this is not the case. My gut feeling is that some of both is happening and I need to be mindful and aware of my own needs and feelings, but that what I am doing is okay.
I have been repeating the whole time she is gone something that I wrote to her in a letter quite some time ago, and one time while I was waiting for her I found the letter under her pillow—so I know this one meant something to her. I keep telling her she is allowed to go away and come back again.
I was thinking about that this morning, because she is coming back, and that fear that she is not really allowed to go away is going to surface very strongly for her. She is going to be thinking of returning, and feel all of that excitement inside about coming back and seeing me and seeing friends and returning “home,” and that’s going to be scary. Will it still be there the way I remember it? Will I be wanted still? Will the people I feel excited to see again be happy to see me also? Was I forgotten while I was gone? Those will be the questions on her mind.
I don’t actually fully understand her fear at returning, but I know it is there. So this morning I began to think about it. And I began to think: what if the person she is returning to feels afraid of abandonment just as much as she does? What if that person feels that she does not love that person if she wants to be with another person? What if that person worries about being replaced in her affections? In that case, her leaving and preferring to spend her holiday with her grandmother would be very hurtful. It would feel extremely rejecting. If that person has schemas about being unloved and unwanted, this would activate that schema, and that person would feel angry at her. Even if they allowed her to go because at some level they recognize they are behaving like a crazy person, those schemas would get activated and that person would feel angry at her despite their consent to allow her to go.
I suspect one or both of her parents might be like that, and the situation might be compounded by the reality that C does want to get away from them. She wants them and loves them and misses them because they are her parents, but she also wants to escape from them. During winter, she was going to defy them and stop off at her village on the way back from football camp rather than return to Y-town to be with them. I told her not to, and she accepted that, but it also turned out differently, because she went to help her aunt instead of coming back this direction. (The football camp was close to where her aunt lives.) So there is also that reality that she loves them, but has ambivalent feelings about being with them.
And it kind of made it click in. C is not making these fears up. They come from her parents’ beliefs and the behaviour that arises out of those beliefs. One of them has to do with a kind of insularity, a lack of robustness about relationships. If she loved them, she would not want to go anywhere. She would want to be with them all the time. If she has other relationships she also values, it means she does not love her parents very much.
It isn’t my belief. When it comes to C, I don’t feel replaceable or at risk of being replaceable. I feel like I have a special place in her heart. She might push me away, but it isn’t because the bond isn’t there. There are quite other reasons she does that. It might be that she does not consider my feelings sometimes, but I don’t really think of it as her job to consider my feelings. That is my job. At 14, she is old enough to think about other people’s feelings and be considerate, but the trauma is going to make her emotional development all wonky. If she could figure out her own feelings and needs, that would be tremendous.
That is going to be confusing for her: default “other” would be her parents, and they feel abandoned when she wants to be with other people instead of them.
I had another thought about our relationship, which has to do with her seeking a caretaker, because she is. The people who sign up for a caretaker role are frequently not doing it for free: there is a cost involved. What caretakers frequently want in return is admiration or meeting some need of theirs. I am sure I am doing something like that myself, but less coercively. When she was at the lower school, and I went and checked on her 20 times a day (not really 20, 3), she kept being happy to see me. I remember that happiness. She often concealed it, but I could still feel it. I could feel this sensation of her mentally taking a breath. She would more or less ignore me and go on with what she was doing, and I could feel her relaxing because I was there. She would see me and I run away and I would go after her, and I could still feel that: a sense of her mentally taking a breath and also a sense of pleasure coming from her, a concealed kind of cuddliness, as though she felt safely snuggled up in mom’s lap.
So I know what I did when she was at my school was tangled up: I had the urgent sense she needs me. She needs me to go check on her, which is all mixed up with my need to go check on her, but it’s still different than what other caretakers in her life expect from her. It might be different in part because I know more: I am getting a sense of efficacy. Someone else in the same situation as me would not feel effective. They would see her acting out and feel they are failing—and sometimes I feel that—but usually I see peeking through her acting-out behaviour, this safety in her. She is struggling with a lot of fear and grief and anger, but because there is a bond between us, she still feels safe. The safety is about the present. The other stuff is the past.
At any rate, what C needs to do in return for getting warmth and affection is to suppress much of what is going on inside her and try to meet the needs of her caretaker. It is very quid pro quo. When Coach Ma’am left for a training in the Capital City, C wanted her phone to call her and make sure she reached safely. She said otherwise Coach Ma’am would think she is a very selfish person. Now, it might be that C actually needs to know for herself that Coach Ma’am arrived safely, because she is afraid of abandonment, but actually this meets Coach Ma’am’s need to feel special and important.
C does not do this for me. I know she worries, but I tell her I arrived safely. She does not ask me. I ask her if she arrived safely and I tell I arrived safely. It does something to me to know that she worries: I do have to wrestle with a grief over it, but I also know this is not normal 14-year-old behaviour. A normal 14-year-old might worry at the moment of my leaving and then forget all about it, because basically I am a competent adult who can be trusted to remain alive. Her worries don’t really make me feel that special or important. They remind me she has a lot of trauma to deal with, and it motivates me to respond to and take care of her worry.
I think some of this might go on with her stepdad. In Country X, it is not uncommon for stepparents to never accept nonbiological children as their own or to treat them the same way as their biological children. C has lived with her stepdad since late infancy, and calls him “dad” rather than stepdad. He sometimes treats her as his own and sometimes doesn’t, but I think he expects admiration from her for the times he does treat her as his own. He expects greater obedience as a sign of her gratitude. He does not expect that the child he treats as his own might behave as his own, and act out and rebel the way a normal child might act out and rebel, nor that she might have a lot of grief and anger at being abandoned by her biological father (nevermind all of the other shit going down in that house).
My point is, I suppose, that the care C gets must normally feel very contingent, and also it must feel right and proper to her to suppress her real feelings and experience. Rather, she might feel confused about it. She might feel both guilty about displaying her real feelings and struggles and free to do so.
I think this happened to me. Maybe not within the most powerful nurturing experiences I had, but in other childhood relationships. I might have felt I can get this bit of extra affection and warmth I am getting if I don’t reveal the grief it makes me feel.
End of meander.