Adventures from Our First Week with a Teen
She wasn’t happy.
Sitting with us at the dinner table, she moved a few pieces of lettuce around on her plate and stared down the chopped vegetable and tuna salad in front of her, her mouth not quite at a full-out pout.
I had knocked on her door: “Dinner’s ready,” I’d spoken through it. She’s a teenager and we allow her this privacy whenever she needs. “I’m not really hungry.” she’d replied.
“Well it’s dinner time and time to eat, can you come out please?”
“I’m talking on the phone,” she replied.
“Well, maybe you can call them back later. Why don’t you go ahead and come out and join us for a little bit.”
And so she had. But she wasn’t happy about it.
We sat there, J and I, talking about our day, asking family participatory questions – “what was the BEST part of your day,” – and speaking to engage her. She wasn’t so much interested, one-word simple answers in reply (BUT she WAS answering and with the sullenness wafting across the table from us, that was enough).
She took little bites, looking up occasionally but mostly down.
We ate our first round and then I looked at J. “Honey, I think she’d like to be dismissed from dinner. What do you think?”
“Oh, I think she’s wanted dismissed since she sat down.” We said these things lightheartedly.
I nodded. “I think you can take your dishes into the kitchen and go back to your call,” I told her. “It’s OK- we understand.”
She paused then and looked at us clearly for the first time. “It’s just that I’m not used to this.” She meant this eating together, this family dinner time every night. “I’m used to eating alone. Well, except with my sister. She and I would eat together.”
J replied: “We like to have dinner together because it’s an hour each day when we can spend time together and talk and catch up,” he said.
“Life gets so busy,” I added. “There won’t always be time to do this.”
And she stayed. Just a little while longer, with just enough hesitancy to indicate that maybe she could have done it differently from the start. “I feel bad,” she said, as she got ready to get up.
“Don’t feel bad or guilty. You are absolved of having to feel that way. It’s OK. We understand. We will even absolve you of kitchen duty (in our house, whoever doesn’t cook or prep dinner cleans up afterwards).”
She picked up her dishes and walked into the kitchen. “OK, but I’ll do my own dishes.”
So many conversations this past week: with her, with social workers, with doctors. And between J and I. Are we making the best decisions for her? What might she be wrestling with that she isn’t giving voice to? What’s the best course of action when X happens – for example, asking to hang out with a friend we don’t know?
We want her to stay. She wants to stay. But, as so often happens in the Foster care system, it’s not necessarily a choice we get to make. There are systems and processes and things to figure out, and these things are still getting worked out. Yesterday a glimmer of hope from the social worker- yes, it would be best if she stays with us rather than going to another home before she goes back for a “trial home visit” with Mom. BUT. But this is different, there’s some admin things to work out. It still might not happen.
And so a week and a half into it, where she will be come July is still in question. There are no assurances, just this glimmer of hope- for her and us.
I’d like to say this doesn’t happen often, this being in-between for the kids. But I think it does.
She is beautiful inside and out. She looks older than her years. She is an expert at makeup, used to post application videos on YouTube and had enough followers that companies would send her free samples. She has these amazing insights on life and herself that take J and I by surprise and also make us think she’s going to be OK whatever happens. She likes school, but she doesn’t. When she doesn’t she knows why. She is so much a young woman growing into her own.
But she also likes Captain Crunch cereal and looks at some of our meals of whole grains and new vegetables she’s never had with great doubt. She wrinkled her nose nearly imperceptibly at the raviolis covered with a non-tomato marinara, one made out of beets and carrots. She was polite and didn’t say she didn’t really like it.
She loves the dogs, greets them each day as she walks in. She loves the birds, too. When I pointed out that Garreth the parrot was exhibiting behavior indicating he liked her, she brightened up with delight and said, “Really? He likes me?”
Last night after dinner her giggles and laughter ebbed out of her room. She could have been an 8-year-old kid.
She is a teenager at 15, but in so many ways also still a child, flitting back and forth in a day the way teenagers do. And yet, this foster system asks her for such adult things: express your emotions calmly and clearly. Advocate for yourself, for what you want. Do this in front of a room full of adults you barely know. Be patient in not knowing what will BE next week.
She is a teen, but also a child, but also being asked to handle a life that has suddenly become a bit more adult.
Some things are inextricable and solvable only with patience.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll go eat a bowl of Captain Crunch. She might be on to something there.