We are a very forgiving household. This is why almost all my daughters’ friends spend their time here. It’s also why most of them call me ‘Mom’. I feel too young for that. Or, I feel like someone’s mother-in-law. “Hey Mom!” It’s a weird feeling to have multiple teenagers call you ‘Mom’, but it’s a sign of affection and respect. It’s also a sign that their own home lives are lacking in something. They feel comfortable here. One young woman comes here to sleep. Her home environment is highly abusive. One of her family members has tried to strangle her in her sleep numerous times. She, therefore, doesn’t sleep well if at all at her house so she comes here from time to time just to sleep. She slips out quietly in the morning. I’ve called CPS twice about that situation to no avail.
Another girl comes here to be herself. She is forced to care for her younger brother who by all accounts meets the criteria for having some sort of developmental disability. Her parents work all day so she must be his caregiver. She’s a senior in high school this year, and she’s getting out. She comes here for a break. Being a house full of girls, we usually get only girls coming here, but, on occasion, we do get a boy. He is a transgender boy. His parents hate him. They “forget” to pick him up and neglect him. They ignore him completely. They gave him a Bible for Christmas. That’s it. He comes over to our house occasionally but largely keeps to himself. He’s skittish and shy and understandably so. He’s being emotionally abused by his family.
All this is to say that I see a lot of behaviors come and go. I hear what many adults would deem “inappropriate talk”. One identifies it and moves on. Most kids who come here want to be better particularly the ones who call me ‘Mom’. They want to be respectful. They, however, may not know how to be because they haven’t been taught well, or they haven’t been given enough real opportunities. No one has believed in their goodness enough to give them a second or even third chance. Everyone fails. Everyone needs to be given opportunities to try again.
There are kids who come here, however, who do not want to be better. They do not really care. They have learned to be exploitative to get their needs met, and they’ll display rather cruel behaviors in unexpected ways. That happened last weekend. Eadaoin needed help with a school project so she invited one of her newer school friends over to spend the night. Her name was Lauren. Lauren was initially quite friendly and extremely talkative. She talked so much, in fact, that I couldn’t get a moment’s peace. Wherever I went, there was Lauren. Lauren in the evening. Lauren in the morning. Lauren in the afternoon. Lauren did not pick up on social cues either, and Lauren spoke very openly about her alcoholic stepfather and his abuse as if it were normal: “You know how adults are. They drink when they’re stressed.” She then went on to recount how she, her siblings, and her mother had to leave one night to get away from him. I just nodded my head and listened. There were other stories she told about her friends that raised red flags. To her, it was all fine. Good. She was perfect. Her life was great.
Grace’s friend, her former BFF, came over as well. That friendship has been evolving as middle school friendships do. She has been less than kind to Grace during the last year and a half displaying relational aggression. We’ve been unsure how to handle it. Does Grace end the friendship? Should she talk to her sometimes? Wanting to believe the best about her, she didn’t want to simply write her off. These are important decisions for young people.
Grace came to me on Monday morning crying. She told me that Lauren and her former BFF had called her ‘stupid’. She had been trying to keep up with them in a board game, but she could not. This is a reality for many young adults with schizophrenia spectrum disorders and for people taking certain drugs. There is cognitive slowing. It can’t be helped. When she wasn’t able to process the game as fast as they thought she should, Lauren laughed at her and said, “You are so stupid.” Her BFF laughed at her, too, and said, “Yeah, you are so stupid!” They then went on to laugh at her together. It didn’t end there. Someone began teasing her for not being as physically developed as other girls. “So, when are you gonna get your boobs?!” And, that’s when the pointing and laughing really started.
As a mother, I felt something rise up in me that might be called rage. As a woman who has watched other girls victimize girls in this way, I wanted to punch a hole in my wall. As a host, I wanted to take these girls and shout at them, “How dare you treat my daughter like that in MY house!” I did neither of these things. I had to sit there and collect myself. I had to take deep breaths. I wanted to cry on her behalf. Her face! She just stood there full of shame, tears collecting in her eyes.
At what point do we say, “No more. That person can no longer come here”? I had to ask myself that question. I may be called ‘Mom’ by a lot of these kids, but I am not their mother. I had to remember that. I am, however, Grace’s mother, and she is vulnerable. So, I made an executive decision. “Grace, BFF can’t come here anymore. She is displaying a pattern of cruelty when she comes here. I’ve talked to her about it more than once, and she won’t stop. You cry when she leaves.” I talked to Eadaoin about Lauren. She might be a perfectly appropriate “school friend”, but she is not going to be a good choice for bringing home. She lacks compassion and empathy. I am truly sorry that she is enduring abuse at home. That is probably why she has learned to normalize abuse and why she is repeating those behaviors. She is merely doing what has been done to her.
These red flags, however, must be observed, and we have to follow our instincts. This is how we learn to make good choices in our relationships. If I don’t want to raise my daughters to tolerate abuse in their relationships, then I have to make the tough decisions about who will and will not come here. They have to know that they are worth something. They are worth more than something. Do they want to hang out with people who think it’s funny to bully and call vulnerable people names? Do they want to be with girls who engage in relational aggression? This is how we develop a conscience in our children. We point out these behaviors and ask them what they think. In the end, Grace cried out of relief. She had not wanted BFF to come to our home anymore. She simply didn’t know what to do about it. She was glad that I made the executive decision for her. Eadaoin understood, too. She said that she didn’t realize that Lauren would behave so badly, and she apologized to Grace.
It was a very fine line for me to walk. I remember being 16. I tied my identity to my choice of friends. If my mom didn’t like my friends, then she didn’t like me. I had to be so careful in how I talked about Lauren to Eadaoin. I wanted her to know that she could still make good decisions. I still believed in her, and I didn’t view Lauren as ‘all bad’.
I keep waiting for life to get easier, but I think that’s magical thinking. I think we just need to increase our stamina. Life is the ultimate marathon. People praise and admire those who finish the IRONMAN triathlon or the Leadville 100. I think finishing life well should not go unnoticed. It is the greatest test of character, will, and endurance. Feel good about yourself today. You showed up for your life. I guess now it’s a matter of how we show up, isn’t it?