A few months ago I was driving in the car with one of my sons, and I realized that he was giving me the silent treatment. This isn’t always an obvious punishment because he’s pretty quiet a lot of the time. But this time the silence stretched longer than usual, so I asked him what was up.Silence.Feeling a little anxious, I asked again.
So I pulled over the car and said we weren’t going any further until he told me what was wrong.
He threw up his hands in exasperation and said, “Mom. I’m a teenager. I’m not supposed to like you.”
Foolishly, I asked why not.
“Because you suck.”
And then my beautiful boy was on a roll and began to describe all of the ways I’d ruined his life since he was born. He had reached about age 5 before I said, “Never mind,” and started the engine again.
There’s nobody like children who can make you feel the depth of your inadequacy as a human.
As I drove away, somewhat amused, somewhat sad, I remembered a moment decades ago with my mother. She had been ill for a long time and was learning how to use her hands again after a long paralysis. To build strength and re-learn movement, she was learning to write and play piano.
I don’t know why I thought her piano playing was funny, but one day I started laughing at her practice. I still remember that hurt look on her face. She stopped practicing in front of me.
I’ve always been sad about that, even these decades later.
Tonight I am at camp with some of our church youth. We were supposed to have a big campfire in the meadow after a long day of activities. The students were tired because they stayed up too late last night. They were tired because they’d been running around all day. And they were tired of being told what to do.
So when the drizzly raindrops started falling, and we still made them go to the meadow, they got aggravated. And when the thunderstorm rolled through, and we moved inside to the fireplace, they got downright mean. And they told us what was what.
They wanted to go home.
They shouldn’t never have come.
They weren’t coming again.
This was boring.
This ain’t school!
They even cursed a little bit.
And I sat down and said, “I’m just gonna sit here a minute, because I got my feelings hurt and I don’t want to say anything I might regret.”
And they sucked their teeth and rolled their eyes.
There are a thousand ways to say it, and our children find everyone one of them. They find the ones that cut deep and then they leave you there to bleed out.
And it isn’t anything you’ve done. Not really.
And there isn’t anything you can do.
If you laugh they hate you more.
If you cry they loathe you for the guilt.
If you don’t react they’ll keep going til you do.
If you overreact, things can escalate. Things get said.
It’s my birthday, you know.
And I don’t suck.
And these kids don’t hate me.
And my sons don’t either.
And I didn’t hate my mother.
Just, sometimes things get mixed up.
And sometimes children get angry.
And because you are there–precisely because you are there–they lash out to make themselves feel better.
And if what my children mean is “I hurt and you can’t fix this,” then they’re right. And maybe that’s what hurts the most. I can’t fix any of this.
And I’m learning to just say, “Yeah, you’re right.”
The Rev. Katie Mulligan currently is a youth and young adult pastor for three churches in and around Trenton, NJ (Ewing, Lawrence Road, and Covenant Presbyterian Churches), and a chaplain at Rider University. She is the author of “Queer” in There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and “A Ministry of Discomfort” in From Each Brave Eye: Reflections on the Arts, Ministry, and Holy Imagination. Her writing on lgbtq concerns, intimate violence, and theology can be found at http://insideouted.blogspot.com and she is otherwise known as @grammercie on twitter. She is the mother of two sons. Also, cats. The reverend adores cats.