My stepdaughter’s become the victim of a common affliction. She is an active study into the minds of droning adolescents who have chosen to float about this world in mindless confusion and self-doubt. She is the poster-child for underachievers everywhere. What once was a subtle manipulation has now become a full-blown crisis of epic proportions and what’s more, it is all self-inflicted.
After speaking with her on a typically vacuous surface-level phone conversation, I found myself listening to the banal stylings of a barely functional child frustrated with her lack of progress yet unable to commit to anything with any degree of certainty or determination. I had taken the bare-breasted approach before with her and have succeeded in only getting myself exasperated and stressed out. This time, I opted for a more subversive technique, withholding my opinions and advice-giving. As difficult as this was to do, it has become an exercise that suits her more than a verbal beat-down.
The session began with some simplistic inquiries. I’ve found that if I keep the questions to a minimum and only verbalize my consent or agreement that she’s more responsive. I also come off as less invasive this way. It was a barage of goals that she must have thought pleasing in some way–but weren’t to any able-minded adult.
The event that preceeded our conversation was a text. My stepdaughter’s Dad’s birthday turned out to be a bust. She had brought him a card and an argument of some sort ensued. She seemed angry and maybe a little spent. So we agreed to chat later on the phone. We set a time, but I didn’t keep my hopes up.
I want to be clear that this conversation is typical of the arrested development of the American young adult. As is true for parents of arrested youth, the extension of the womb has stretched out until the early- to mid-twenties when in the past, Baby Boomers would be married with children already. The excuses are myriad for why this has transpired and in-depth reports and analyses have been well documented by more educated people than me–than I? Oh, you know what I mean.
So I am in no means trying to make light of the situation. I’m actually appalled by how my stepdaughter who once gave the impression that she was learning and determined to take the world by storm…hasn’t. She hasn’t even started to take the steps to be independent. She’s only managed to changed location and is now living much like she would if she were still living with me and her father. The only difference is that the place that she lives now is way more tolerant and patient than we would be.
So here’s how the conversation went (from my perspective):
While walking home (a few city-blocks away), I decided to dial my stepdaughter who had texted me at work that she needed to talk to me. So, I as usual made the first move and called saying, “Do you have a moment to talk?”
There was a lot of movement on the other end of the phone and her voice sounded muffled. “Um…let me…I’m in the middle of–”
“Take your time.”
I could hear some shuffling around and a voice in the background. Then, dial tone.
Normally, I would have called her back right away, exacerbating an already awkward conversation. This time, I’m proud to say, I waited. She returned the phone call within seconds. She was out of breath.
A beat later I asked, “First of all, are you calm?”
“Are you at peace?”
“Good. Now, I’m not going to talk. I’m just going to listen, okay?”
“I’m not going to give you any advice either. Frankly, I think you know exactly what you want out of life so my advice is useless, okay?”
“Okay. I’m going to stop talking now. Go ahead.”
“Yeah. I’m far from the house talking to you on my cell phone. There’s no one around. It’s just me.”
My stepdaughter sounded a bit skeptical but said, “Okay.” There was silence.
I was growing impatient, but I didn’t want to interrupt. I really did just want to listen without expectations. That’s what I’ve been learning on my journey.
Then, “Whatchu wanna know?”
I could tell that this wouldn’t be easy. So I stopped walking before making the turn onto my street. No distractions.
“Well…what are your plans?” I asked trying to sound upbeat, masking my parental tone. “Have you got any?”
“Good! Let’s hear it.”
“I have so many. It’s kinda hard to explain.”
“Well, just take your time. I’m all ears.”
Silence again. More shuffling.
She sighed. “Well, okay, so I was thinking that maybe…I could…get like a job, like. I was thinking more of a part-time. I can’t fit any more than a part-time into my schedule right now.”
I thought, Schedule. Right. Heaven forbid she miss drinking and video games till three in the morning…
“…but I was thinking bartending ’cause the license only costs like, eighty bucks. And I’m, like, broke so…so what do you think?”
I thought, You are so young. I said, “That sounds good.”
She continued, “‘Cause y’know, it’s only eighty bucks…”
Normally I’d interject here with a smart comment about how she was going to get the money if she had no job and no prospects. I refrained and just took a deep breath. My stepdaughter loaded her answer with maybes and possibly’s.
“I also maybe wanna go and get my license which might take me, like, two months.”
“That all sounds great! Sounds like a good plan.”
She went silent so I continued, “So…tell me what happened with your Dad today.”
This struck a nerve because she suddenly shifted and became amazingly verbose. “It’s just that he’s so mean to me and he never gives me any encouragement, y’know?! I bought him this card for his birthday and he didn’t even read it! Then, he pisses me off and he wouldn’t even read it…so I left!”
I breathed into the phone and let her finish. “It’s just that he always wants to help me and I don’t want any help because I know what I’m doing.”
“Of course you do.” She sounded annoyed, so I re-assured her.
“I left it on top of the refrigerator. Make sure he gets it, okay?”
“Well, that’s kinda it. What do you think?”
I knew from experience that my stepdaughter was looking for approval. If she had really wanted my opinion, she’d still be living under my roof.
“I think that’s great. You sound like you really know exactly what you want. Now, you just have to figure out how to get there.”
“I know. It’s like I wanna start, y’know? But, I can’t get through the first step. It’s like when I’m cleaning the hallway…”
I thought, When does she clean the hallway?
“…but if I do it piece by piece, the whole gets done. You know what I mean? It’s just that Dad…”
I thought, Sure, everyone’s to blame but you.
“And he never appreciates anything I do and doesn’t tell me, ‘Hey, you’re doing great!’ or gives me any compliments AT ALL, so I just don’t know how to start doing for myself and I’m just like, ‘Fine!’ and then I’m not doing anything.”
Truly, my stepdaughter’s intellect has become dizzying. So, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t linger any longer on the phone call.
“Well?” my stepdaughter clearly wanted to hear a response to her imaginary conflict.
“Well, what? I’m just listening, remember?”
She sounded disappointed, “Yeah.”
I didn’t want to leave the conversation open-ended, so I left my stepdaughter a nugget to mull over.
“What interests me throughout me listening to you is just how little credit you give yourself. Forgive me, but there has never been anything wrong with you. You are a bright girl that can do anything that she sets her mind to. It sounds like you have a plan but are unwilling to take the first leap to call it to action.”
Then my stepdaughter said something that compounded her deceit, “I lack confidence.”
I laughed, “Oh honey, if there’s anything that you lack, it is NOT confidence. You are the most head-strong, stubborn girl I’ve ever met!”
I continued, “Will you do something for me?”
“When you are home alone, I want you to find a quiet place. Then, I want you to think seriously about something.”
“I want you to envision a world where everyone was praised for everything they ever did.”
“It’s just that Dad never believes in me.”
I corrected, “That’s where you’re wrong! Do you remember when you graduated high school? I don’t think anyone could imagine a happier dad.”
“–And when you said you were studying to be a phlebotomist…he was so proud. Your Dad has always been your biggest cheerleader so long as you were trying to succeed. But now, you aren’t trying anything.”
“It’s just that I want him to say that he’s proud of me.”
“But, what can he be proud of? What have you accomplished lately? Why didn’t you show up to the job interviews that your dad setup?”
“I just want to do it on my own!”
“But if you wanted to, then why haven’t you? Why are you so frightened of trying? Do you think you’ll fail? I hate to break it to you…but you will and that’s okay. Think if the world were full of people who got it right the first time, then it’d be a pretty boring world…wouldn’t it?”
“Just imagine a world where everybody was always praised and always got it right. What would advice be? What would we aspire to? What would there be to accomplish or conquer? It’s a parent’s job to alert you of your flaws or ways that you could improve on something. Just imagine what life would be if we always got constant praise. Okay?”
“Okay. Hey, listen; I gotta go.”
“Okay. Talk to you soon.”
Click. Dial tone.
I secretly hoped that this phone conversation would be the one that ended our quasi-frienemy relationship. I prayed that this single phone call would bridge the divide that we had created more than six years ago. I hoped beyond hope that my stepdaughter was being sincere. But, my feelings toward her remained the same and deep-down inside, I’ve stopped carrying that candle. I thought that she would be my pseudo-daughter. I wanted us to be close, but I knew that she really never wanted that. In truth, my stepdaughter has always known my weaknesses and played on them out of convenience. Despite my best efforts, I’ve let go of the fantasy that we would be like mother and daughter. That crap only happens in the movies. I’ve learned never to let my guard down and that not everyone has the best intentions. I’ve also learned never to be taken advantage of again. So I’d buy my stepdaughter a slice of pizza, but I won’t write her a check. When I feel generous and giving, I do it with my eyes open knowing that I’m getting fleeced. The sad part is that she may feel as though she’s really getting one over on me, poor thing. If she does, well that feeling won’t be washed away in a phone call.
The fact is that I was not born yesterday, my dear. And neither were you.