So this is the weekend T.’s brother comes to visit. As happens from time to time, it turns out my intuition on this has been mostly wrong so far – or at least one-dimensional.
I thought T. might secretly want his brother to come and live with us. At the moment, I think he’d like nothing less.
It started like this. I said something like “What shall we do when your brother is here?” And T. said something like “Shut up and don’t talk to me right now!”
Interesting. I tried again “I thought we could plan something fun for his birthday and it would help me to know what you have in mind.”
“It’s up to him,” he said. He went in the other room and sent me a text message. It read “goodbye.”
He is generally a sensitive and responsive, if strong-willed, kid. It’s unusual for him to shut something down so completely, or to be so abrupt. It actually struck me as funny, which perhaps says something about my ill sense of humor.
Tim and I gave it a few days, then tried again. We started with logistics. “So we got permission to pick your brother up at his group home on Saturday. What time do you want to head out there?”
“I’m not going,” he said.
“Okay, wait a minute. You INVITED him, right? Do you still want him to visit?” I asked. He said yes. Mistaking his refusal to do the drive for common teenage laziness, I said “You absolutely are going with us to pick him up. He’s your brother and he doesn’t know us very well. It’s his birthday and he’ll be happy to see you.”
“I’m not,” he said. “I’ll stay home and clean the house to get things ready.”
An offer to clean? MOST unusual. “Let’s talk about this.”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” he said. “He bugs me! He really bugs me! Just DO NOT make me go pick him up!” He started pacing, making tiny tight circles on the floor.
I laughed. “Well, great, now I understand a little bit better. It sounds like he’s annoying to you.”
“He’s so annoying! You don’t even know. Sometimes I even want to hit him.”
I said, “Well, yeah, that’s pretty normal. This is going to be an interesting weekend. Let’s come up with some ideas for things to do so he doesn’t get on your nerves.”
“I don’t have to entertain him,” he said. “He can just be here and do stuff. I don’t have to do everything with him.”
Uh oh. I got an inkling. After all, T. has recently mastered the art of having a social life of his own - something he was mostly unable to cultivate in his many years in foster care. “But you will be here this weekend, right?” I asked. “I mean, you’re not planning to go hang out with friends, right?”
“Um,” he said. “I’m NOT going to just be here in the house with him. I'm a teen. I need to get out and do things. And he makes me REALLY MAD. I’m not his parent and I don’t have to take care of him all the time. I did that. I had to take care of me AND him when we went to foster. He gotta do things for himself now.”
Well, there it is. There are these moments when he says something – usually when he thinks he’s ranting and raving in a sort of casual bratty way when these nuggets of pure truth pop out. You just feel it in your gut. Bingo.
“Oh!” I said. “So let me see if I get this right. You had to take care of him for a long time and you were just a kid yourself and it must have been really hard. And probably you felt like you had to be a parent and you didn't want to. So now you want to make sure you don't have to be the parent again.”
“Yeaaaaaaaah!” he exclaimed.
I said, “Okay, great. We’re the parents here, right? So he’s coming to visit, and you’re going to be kind to him. But you're right, you don't have to act like his parent. You have your own life. We'll be here and we'll be in charge.”
Home run. A flood of relief. Singing, dancing. Came and flopped on our bed and wouldn’t stop talking at bedtime. Next morning we both got huge bear hugs before breakfast. Crazy love.
This is so counter-intuitive. I know it sounds like I’m letting him get away with murder. I know he’s being slightly cruel to his brother and we’ll have to manage that. I know he’s being outrageously impolite. But I also know it’s the right thing to do in the way I know most things with him, right deep in the middle of me for no rational reason.
We’re buying a cake and an iPod Shuffle for his brother and wrapping it up with a card with T.’s name on it. I feel like we’re supposed to take away the burden of parenting, grease a sticky emotional situation with a good present and a cake and a sleepover. And the whole weekend will very likely suck big apples. But in the big picture, this is exactly what he needs – he needs to experience the common order of hierarchy in the family where everything isn’t his fault and his responsibility. He dreamed of this and longed for it for a long time and almost got too old to get a chance to turn over the burden of parental responsibility to actual parents. But he managed to get himself some proper parents and by god, he’s going to grab every minute he can get to be the kid. He's going to be jealous and immature and express his guilt and sadness about what happened in their early lives in really awkward ways, and that's okay, because it's the best he can do, and it's a whole lot better than the overly compliant, parentified, repressed kid he used to be.
But this weekend is still going to suck big apples.