Published on August 15th, 2023 | by Charise Alexander Adams1
I have never kissed any scraped knees to make them better. I did not hold her small squirming body, reassuring her that it would be okay, as the doctor gave her a round of immunizations. I have never been her safe refuge, the one she called out to – “Mommy!” – when she was scared or hurt. Though I would never wish pain on my daughter, sometimes I feel sad when I think about the fact that I have never been That Mom to her, the one who can heal wounds with a band-aid and a kiss.
My husband and I adopted her when she was eleven. Suffice it to say, we were Plan Z for a girl whose life had tossed her about recklessly, leaving her estranged from her biological parents and siblings, adrift in foster care.
Now my daughter is a teenager, so cuts or scrapes have become less common than social and academic challenges. Fortunately, she is in good physical health. But, of course, emotional and social challenges can be more troublesome and persistent, and slower to heal. All three of us are still working on emotional health, something I rarely thought about before we all became a family. My emotions about being a mom – both day-to-day and as a whole – are more intense and complex than I ever imagined they could be.
The one time I ever had to take my daughter to the emergency room, in the middle of the night, she said she had woken me up to tell me she was in pain only because my husband, Travis, didn’t wake up when she tried. As she cried from the bed in the emergency room, I asked her if I could hold her hand or do anything for her. Not that she knew what I could possibly do to help, but I certainly didn’t either. She hollered that she wanted Travis, who came quickly after I called him. Everything was fine and we were discharged early that morning, but I still felt a little bit jealous of him, that he was the one she wanted, who would make her feel better.
She doesn’t call my husband Dad and she doesn’t call me Mom. She calls us by our first names, though she does call us her parents. I think of myself as more of a “parent” than a “mom” – not a Real Mom, anyway. Sometimes it seems like she is closer to one of us than the other, sometimes we all feel close to one another – like a Real Family! – and sometimes it feels like none of us are very close to each other at all. I asked her once if it was hard to try to create a bond with new parents at the age when many of her peers were becoming less focused on their parents as they formed their own identities.
The answer was yes. In some ways, she has developed, or has had to develop, a stronger sense of her identity than some of her peers. One day, we heard a radio DJ asking listeners to call in to share their greatest inspiration, “the person who made a way for them when there was no way.” She stopped to think about this question, and I looked at her. She said, for her, that person is herself. She has seen herself through many hardships, and the main constant throughout was, well, her. I smiled – I felt both proud of her and a bit sad, as her answer belied the lack of consistent, positive adult presences in her life.
My daughter’s biological mom is her Mom, whom she will always love, but could not depend on. I, on the other hand, can call my mom and talk with her about my problems, tell her I love her. I depend on her to this day. My daughter cannot do the same with her Mom. She may never fully believe she can depend on me, either – she has been let down too many times. These things are part of the gulf between us that can never be closed – but it can be bridged.
One day during the latter half of Covid-induced semi-isolation, my daughter said, unusually politely, “Do you have a minute?”
Less politely, I said, “Not really,” because I was working.
But she said, “I think there is something wrong with me.” That got my attention (though for a teenager this could indicate any number of things on a long spectrum of harmless to disastrous), and she sounded worried, so I redirected my attention.
She showed me her big toe, which was starting to turn yellow, looking inflamed and soft at the corner where the nail meets the soft tissue. I cringed because I could see that it was painful. But inside, I brightened, oddly, because I thought, “I know how to fix this!” I said, “That must hurt.” Duh. I told her to soak her foot for a while and then file the nail down – it would hurt, but you need to dig in there anyway to make it any better. She accepted my directions without any eye rolling, argument, or expression of doubt that accompanies her response to most of my attempted interventions (“Whatever.” “But…” “It’s fine,” “Cha-RIIISE!”). Her trusty cat sat beside her while her foot rested in the bathtub.
I’m not proud to say, I went back to my computer. I have begun to understand those parents in kids’ movies who dive into their work at the expense of their children. I know how to do my work, and how to do it well. I am not sure, on the other hand, how to be a good parent to my teenage daughter who has endured the deepest of pain. Sometimes I do nothing because I’m afraid of getting it wrong, of not being good enough. After all, my husband and I actively chose her, but she didn’t really get to choose us. We were Plan Z. Ever since I have known her, before she was even my daughter (who can say they got to meet their daughter before she became their daughter?), she’s had a level of independence that makes it too easy to fall into this trap.
But this, I knew how to do! My daughter had asked me for help! After she dried off and filed down the nail, I dabbed ointment on her toe and slid a piece of floss underneath the nail to separate it from the soft tissue. We put a bandage over it together. She said thank you.
When later I asked her how it felt, she said, “Better.”
Tomorrow, when she asks for something I can’t give, when she bemoans something I don’t understand, I will say, again, “I’m sorry, that sounds hard. I wish things were different. I wish I could do something to help.” (I already know the answer to “Can I do anything to help?”) I’ll feel useless, and she will feel misunderstood or frustrated. But I’ll give my daughter a hug and remember her toenail. I’ll smile gently and tell her, “I hope it gets better soon.”