I don’t recall being a very empathetic teen. I remember doing my darndest to escape my family, hide in my earphones and Metal Edge magazines, and pine after whatever latest crush I was having. Dark, brooding, quiet.
Empathy for others, especially my parents, was not a familiar practice.
In my family, conversation consisted often of only the surface level and logistic measures of running a big family (there were 7 of us living in a small rental house) and rarely delved into deep emotion. I am not sure why this level of disconnection, except to say that there were marital tensions that we all avoided like the plague.
This is not to say my parents didn’t need support from each other or from us, only that it seemed to be difficult for us to do for each other. I have raised my children with the juxtaposition of this internal struggle with my very un-parent-like habit of oversharing and being a bit self-absorbed.
My boys are now two grown men and differ greatly in their communication styles but both exhibit great emotional depth and empathy for others. When pressed, they respond differently but usually with an air of compassion, especially for women.
My teenage daughter, though, is in that age I was when I’d rather be alone, door shut tight, lost in my whirl of emotional response to the world. She, as I was at her age, spends a great deal of time contemplating the hair styles and social-framings of teenage existence with a measure of disregard for family activities. Smiling through a sigh does not constitute joyous compliance, she teaches me each time I interrupt her chill-time and ask her to do something for me.
However reluctant, she does the things. This week, as I was up to my eyeballs in “things” that were overwhelming me, stacking up like one big barrier between me and any sense of rest or peace, she showed me the love and empathy that I, as her mother but also a hurting human being, needed.
I’d bought the groceries the day before (spent the rest of the day easing my aching back) and packed the freezer up tight with meat. Stocking-up, I call this. Then before bed I noticed the ice trays weren’t frozen hours after I’d filled them. The morning brought the realization that the freezer had officially died.
I was running late for a chiropractor’s appointment and now had to scramble to solve the dead refrigerator issue.
Scrape up the money from depleting 4 different monetary sources — message endlessly with my boyfriend about finding a fridge on Facebook Marketplace — arrange with Wesley (my oldest son) to get his van so we could move said refrigerator.
Welsey lives an hour away and after I finally got out of the chiropractor’s office I learn that he and his fiance were at the emergency room. After spending the previous 24 hours on an EEG for other health issues — and now she was in the ER with abdominal pain? Of course, I couldn’t burden Wesley with the refrigerator thing now as he sat, worried about her and trying to manage their two increasingly bored small children. I was worried.
And now, no van to move the fridge.
On the way home the skies opened up into a steady, heavy rain. I bought 6 bags of ice, in the rain. I washed out 3 coolers, in the rain. I packed all that meat from the freezer and layered them in ice in the coolers. I parked them right in the middle of the living room. The cats thought I’d given them a new climbing tower and were delighted.
I tried to make lunch — exhausted and back aching — and burnt it.
It was in this moment, with my feet soaking wet in my shoes and freezing, still no idea how we’d get a refrigerator home, messages still blowing up my phone, and I am trying to choke down scorched ravioli, that my daughter called.
“Mom, can you come and get me from school? I couldn’t get my lock open on my locker and I missed the bus.”
You have got to be kidding me.
I won’t even sugar-coat it. I was harsh with her on the phone. I spoke too quickly, too emotionally, too critically.
Guilt settled in quickly and kept me company on the drive.
When she climbed in the car in front of the school I was playing a favorite song; Miami by the Counting Crows.
Make a circle in the sand
make a halo with your hand
I’ll make a place
for you to land.
— Miami, the Counting Crows
We didn’t speak. The song washed over me and the tears slipped quietly down my cheeks. There was something about having her there, sitting quietly next to me, knowing, that pulled the tears to the surface, finally.
When the song went off and in that white noise space before the next one, she looked at me and said, “Mom, do you want to talk about it?”
Just like that. One human being saying to another I see you, I hear you, and I want to help. Not as it should be, from parent to child. But in a strange reverse that reminded me that not only am I her mom, but I am a human being.
We forget to praise them when they get it right.
In that moment she cared for me. I cannot think of a time when I did that for my mother when I was a child, but I am sure that I did from time to time, indirectly. Never the outright words. Never asked her — “Do you want me to get that, Mom?” or “How was your day, Mom?” or “Can I help?”
Somehow, my daughter is far more comfortable being empathetic and present than I was at her age — and for this I am grateful. I wish for a moment I could go back to my teenage self, wipe that sour look off my face, and just be there for my mother, empathize with her. Ask her how she was or if she needed anything. I am sure with 5 children she could have used some help from me, the oldest.
For now, as the difficulties that led to that moment in the car have passed, I think of what I will say to my daughter this evening.
That dialogue is precious. The thank you. The acknowledgement of compassion.
We forget — we criticize and lecture and teach — but we forget to praise them when they get it right. Sometimes they do get it right, in spite of our own parental blunders.
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