Last night, something real happened between my daughter and me.
As a friend said, “everyone’s regular patterns are just getting louder right now.” As my therapist said, “Strategies are going to show up.” As another friend said, “I don’t think we can expect to do this better; I think we can only try to be kind to ourselves and each other while we struggle. Cuz we’re going to struggle.”
Of course, one of the biggest strategies that is showing up in response to socially enforced isolation is substantially increased screen-time, at least for those of us with ready access to internet. This is something I’m hoping to write a lot about, because it feels like the leading edge of the social experiment our culture is running right now. At the same time, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t write so much about it, because the direct experience of seeking to get relational needs met through screens is triggering to me. Maybe I should just go back to the garden.
So this unfolding interaction occurred between me and my daughter, but it also occurred between me and my device and the social media platform that I primarily use on my device, and – maybe? adjacently? non-consensually? – the people who follow me closely enough on that social media platform to glance at my story while this messy fleshy thing was happening, right here in my house, between us. We know our interpersonal neurobiological relational complexity is both magnified and blurred through translation to high speed pixelation – right? But here is a specific moment: just a small normal set of interactions between a mama nearing 40 and her tween daughter, spending long days in a house together, feeling not totally consenting, seeking connection and release through the internet…
This great kiddo, who is in sixth grade, who has had a smartphone of her own since the beginning of this school year, and who has multiple social media accounts, including, most recently, Instagram, has, over the last few months, like many of her ilk, experimented with baking. A while back she made some chocolate chip cookies that were a hit, and she has made them several times since. Yesterday, I asked her to make them. For me. Because I feel grumpy and sad and confused. Because it is the beginning of the third week of our new not-normal and maybe a cookie would help. She agreed.
Then her good friend came over (this is something else I want to write about specifically here, which is that, in the midst of a call to retreat completely into our – very separate, very often hetero-normative monogamous family units – we have chosen to remain un-isolated from a small version – 9 people total – of what we consider our chosen family) and they proceeded to goof and giggle their way through the recipe. I was on a work Zoom call, and they were throwing themselves on the floor in the background, gasping and cackling. It was vaguely irritating. But they are eleven, they are cooped up, they were having fun together and I was going to get some cookies.
Off the call, I discovered what had been so funny: they didn’t make the cookies quite right. Melted too much butter. Poured it all in anyway. Didn’t mix the wet ingredients before adding the dry. I mean, screwing up baked goods is something I can really understand. And the cookies were still very much edible, if lumpy and a little burned-butter flavor on the bottom. But I was sad. Another expectation not met. If I had made the cookies, I would have pouted, maybe even shouted. I might have gotten a little sobby release out of my disappointment that this small thing couldn’t be normal and comforting.
But I didn’t make the cookies. And the people who did were still cackling. I suppose I could have tried to laugh with them. Or just eaten a bunch of the disappointing, lumpy, slightly-burned-butter cookies. Or gone for a walk! Or smoked a joint! But what I did was take a picture and complain on my Instagram stories about how my kid made “gross” cookies. I said, “and I can’t even throw a tantrum” – even though I was throwing a digital tantrum (albeit without any of the physiological benefits), for an unknown number of people, both instantly and for the next 24 hours.
I wanted some allies. I wanted to just quickly bitch to someone who would get it. Be snarky. I wanted to take some of the irritation out of the space between me and my kid, and stick it on a digital shelf somewhere, to see if it had a half-life.
This is not the real thing that happened. But it was necessary to the real thing.
A few hours later, my kid came to me, upset. She had seen on my stories what I had said about the cookies. Gross. She had seen that 45 other people, most of whom she does not know (and some of whom I do not know) had seen what I had said. She was clear that I had crossed a line; that the joke I had tried to make was a mean one, and mean at the expense of my own kiddo, in the company of strangers.
Getting a lesson in the nuances and dangers of social media from an eleven year old is a real thing! After weeks of watching her spend more and more time with her sweet, broad face tipped down in the green glow of the internet, inwardly rehearsing my fear-prayer that her nervous system was rewiring at top speed in the time of corona, I was being called in – by the very victim-child I had projected on – to a more careful culture of emotional-digital overlap.
I consider myself pretty good at getting feedback from my kids. In a relationship where the power dynamic is this extreme (in which I – The Mother – will live on as both shadow and sun, whether I like it or not, in their bodies and minds, even into a future I cannot imagine), there is little to be lost in seeking to open to their reality when they seek to share it. At the same time, I must be true to the reality I experience, or risk handing them a power they cannot hold. The dance between these is an inner one, of slowing and softening. Of feeling ground and opening to the precious temporality of an honest encounter with another being, wherein she exists fully, without erasing me, and I exist fully, without erasing her. I know from many, many tries that to choose this quality of presence is to have already begun to heal the rupture, whether the rupture that is healing is current or deeply past.
Still, I admit, it took me a minute to sense the full benefit of this opportunity. “It was a joke!” I tried. Also: “That wasn’t for you. Or for your friends. It was exaggerated, and silly, and for other adults, who can judge me as a mean mom and also laugh at me for being sad, and also have compassion for me as I grasp at straws in the sanity-suck that is our current moment.”
My girl held to her incredible communication skills, and let me know that as I said these things, she felt angrier, because I was pushing away her real feelings of hurt and exposure that she was trying to tell me about. She squeezed out some tears and we held each other and looped back. I tried some I Hear Yous. I tried reflecting, naming what I was hearing with a willingness to be corrected. And in that, she found some space to hear me. “I guess it is hard for me to think of you as more than just my mom. I can unfollow you on Instagram.”
She talked about a good friend of hers, who has helped her understand how easily people can get hurt on social media, and about her desire for privacy when it comes to mine. I clarified that I would ask for her consent on images or stories that directly involved her if I was going to share to a broad public. Before I punish this blog, I’ll have her read it and see if it feels ok.
I requested that her friends not follow me on social media and said I wouldn’t follow them.
Gradually the charge dissipated. I deleted the offending story segment, in a teaching moment wherein she saw how to delete story segments. I took an unflattering picture of myself and put some text on top apologizing for my rudeness and correcting the unfair slander on her cookies. She laughed some, and sent the clip to a few adults she is close to, via direct message. We touched a lot, and she washed her face. I stayed with her until she felt complete, and thanked her for being clear and direct with me.
I don’t know what this interaction will mean to her in time; if it will be significant because she felt heard, or because she felt hurt. Or, possibly, because her mom wrote a long blog post full of “very fancy words, mommy” and asked her to read it. In the overall arc of this strange time, maybe it won’t stand out at all.
There are days – moments – when this prolonged pause feels similar to a meditation retreat. The lack of distractions, or the obviousness in the effort to be distracted, brings me home to the subjectivity of my moment to moment reality. The proximity of death feels more real, more tangible: a common experience when we get closer to life. The falling away of the illusion of choice (oh the way I used to just water the grocery aisles, touching things I never intended to buy) exposes the depth of my interdependence. And the boredom, the increasing proximity of nothing happening, is a precursor, I know, to a new level of trust.
Where silent meditation retreats take us deep into relationship with our own minds, though, this one seems to be emphasizing my relationship with domestic intimacy. On retreat, we get the time to see how our projections of reality are not reality, and yet nothing exists outside of the mind. But here, at home all day long, the reality of cookies, of Instagram, of tender touch and tears – seems only more real. My mind balks and scrambles, but 7am dawns, and everyone is back in the kitchen again.
I wonder: if Z and I did not do the repair, would we exist differently? Would there be less air in the house? More strategy? When I say that what happened between us was real, I think I mean that through it, we were each made more real for the other.