When guilt and fear don’t motivate you, changing how your caregivers care for you
“He asked about his options. This is what he wants.”
“This is what you want because you’ve still got something to prove. I’m saying it’s been a rough night. I’m saying your sisters just treated you like a teenager and questioned your surgical skills.”
“I can’t care what they think.”
“You think you don’t care what they think?”
“I cannot let them define me, if I did I would still be the messed up baby of the family, the person that I revert to when I’m with them and that is not who I am.”
“I know that, I’m asking if you know that. I’m asking if you’re ok. I’m asking if you’re doing this surgery for more than to prove yourself to people who clearly don’t understand you at all.”
excerpted dialogue between Amelia Shepherd and Link, episode 21, season 15 of Grey’s Anatomy
In the last two years, I’ve lived with my parents for about six months total. Initially to recover from an injury, and periodically when unplanned things require me to vacate my apartment.
This past week, my mom and I were up late talking at the dining room table, a place where you’d expect heart to hearts to occur.
The topic of teenagers came up, specifically my teenage years. I’d shared with her an observation I was having that related to our perceptions and frustrations with each other then, and probably still some now.
“I feel like a lot of parenting relies on kids being motivated by fear or guilt. So maybe I don’t feel guilty for disobeying you, but I’m naturally cautious. Or maybe I’m not scared of consequences, but my sense of obligation to you is really strong. And then there are kids like me, who aren’t particularly moved by either. Who in fact are escalated when those appeals are made, more likely to disregard the rule completely.”
I’d walked into their foyer with my niece, and I was explaining to her that the walls were newly painted, asking her to avoid touching them. She listened without saying anything, before backing away from the playroom she was headed towards to sit instead on my lap.
My mom looked at her and referenced my observation, commenting on our exhibited likeness. The independent evaluation we engage in before determining our recourse or action.
I’d been sharing with her that I was reading a lot on teenage brain development, looking for more language to use in my discussions with other caregivers and parents of teens.
I was relaying how it felt when she made me go to therapy, contextualizing why some work is hard to consent to do within dependent relationships and living situations. I offered further, “it felt a little bit like agreeing to therapy was important for your narrative.”
She nodded and she said, “I think that’s right. All you really want is to know that your kid is ok, and a lot of sources were telling me that you weren’t.”
I soaked her words in as my resentment continues to soften and give way to compassion, even as I hope to God that my strategies will lead me to engage in alternative ways with the teenagers I care for and know now.
I identify strongly with a young person in my life, as I do with my niece, sensing what it is to be in constant tension with your caregivers.
I affirm even in my self talk, “it didn’t get better, I just got older and given more control back.” Our irreconcilable needs of each other were never bridged, they merely weren’t so at odds in a changed context. I grew in tact, and I grew in the ways my agency was allowed and affirmed.
I thought of this conversation as I watched this week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy from the airport this morning.
I watched the scene of sibling alienation leave Amelia energized to take big risks professionally, and I heard as her colleague asked her to check in with her motivations.
Can you track yourself, he’s asking sincerely.
Can you remember that you are more than someone else’s story of you?
Can you receive that your teenage hurts affect you even without your consent?
Can you share the responsibility for how you got there emotionally and practically?
The gift I receive in my relationship with my mom is receiving and observing her as a grandmother. Watching her rethink the assumptions she clung to while I was a child, and more fiercely as a teenager, and allowing my story line to acknowledge how trauma changes our priorities while we’re in it.
I acknowledge that I gave her reasons to be scared for me, and she gave me reasons to feel alienated and at odds with her priorities.
I can better stand my perspective being broadened, inclusive of emotions that are as tender as they are evolving.
And I can better articulate my point of view, and the language I didn’t have then but I have now.
I can allow us both to be slow in our learning curves while also sincere in our respect for each other, conscious of how much of our histories remain unknown to each other.
I inch towards connection without collapsing my boundaries as if I don’t get a say.
I respond when I’m asked to share my insights, and I celebrate when I see a skill being practiced.
I celebrate even though they’re not practiced on me, and in spite of the time that has accumulated.
I tell my teenage self as I tell the youth and children I identify with now,
“Nurturing, unintimidated, independent thinker that you are, it is not easy being fourteen with dispositions like ours, and my memories from that time in my life feel as tender now as they did then. My wish for you is that you get to be completely and frustratingly yourself.”
I continue to be molded to identify with my adult privilege, bringing my experiences forward so that they can shape how I become accountable to the youth who trust me.
I continue to want that for us, connection that we consent to because we trust each other.
Because we trust ourselves more than we trust each other, and even in the moments where we cannot trust in anything.
I continue to knead relationships in my life to reach in gentleness for each other’s honesty, excited more than afraid of our evolution, not hurried or stuck because we reject versions of control that seek to stifle how we love, or want us to be only and always loving.
Control surrenders our choice to love, and with it our wish to connect as we grow and age.
May we realize that, and revisit those junctures, and choose differently.
May we be given the choices we weren’t given the first time.
May we be explicit that we’re engaged differently, because our priorities change.