I’d been standing in the checkout line at CVS for about five minutes when I realized I had poop on me. I smelled it before I saw it, and, in the absence of anything obvious to wipe it off with, I proceeded to place my items on the counter, pay, and walk home. It had been at least four days since my last shower, so I figured a little diarrhea smudge was pretty much par for the course.
This is a scenario, I’m sure, most parents can relate to.
But the thing about parenting a kid with a kid is that when I spend an entire weekend cleaning up explosive baby poop, it’s not for the baby.
When she moved in, P had no reason to trust me. I was just one more adult in a long line of adults who had walked into her life. Most of them, for one reason or another, had turned around and walked back out. So, yes: P liked me. She thought I was nice. But she had learned that a key part of taking care of herself was to build really big walls. And, as a mom, those walls wrapped securely around her baby, too.
I figured that out pretty quickly. Most notably when, a few weeks after we met, she needed to go to work and had no one to watch L. I offered to help, but P looked at me like I was insane. “I like you and all,” she said, “but I hardly know you. I’m definitely not leaving my baby with you.”
My background checks and training be damned. I was a stranger. And strangers aren’t safe. Her analysis was totally fair, and I respected her for it. But I think there was more to her sentiment than a surface-level distrust.
P has had to figure out a lot of life on her own. So that’s what she does: she figures things out. Alone. She navigates the heavy, hard stuff by herself. She’s learned that if she doesn’t let people in, they can’t hurt her—and they can’t get in her way.
But she’s still just a kid. And that’s a lot to ask a kid to manage.
So, when a stomach bug takes over our house and knocks all three of us out, I drag myself up and down the stairs to do seven loads of laundry in two days, willing myself to the laundromat to tackle the really big items. I scrub floors and clean up puke and snuggle the baby for a few minutes so P can take a shower in peace.
And, obviously, I love L, and it breaks my heart to see her sick. But I do it for P. I do it because she’s a kid, and it’s my job to protect her. Sometimes that means yelling at police officers who are out of line, and sometimes it means sitting on hold with the child support office for three hours so she doesn’t have to. Sometimes it means setting boundaries she doesn’t like and enduring the silent treatment for a week when my rules make her angry. Sometimes it means listening as she unpacks her trauma, even though it stirs up my deepest insecurities and leaves me feeling weary and overwhelmed. And sometimes it’s literally sitting in the shit with her because her baby is having blow-out after blow-out and my washing machine can only handle so much.
Often, it’s just showing up and making sure she doesn’t have to navigate the hard stuff alone. Because the system treats her like an adult. People in authority say things like, “She needs to step up,” and, “She needs to realize the impact her actions are having on her baby,” and, “She needs to take responsibility for her situation.” But those are crazy things to say to a child. Her prefrontal cortex didn’t just develop overnight because she got caught up in the moment and believed some teen guy was going to heal her. She didn’t magically gain access to robust parenting know-how because she made one choice. She didn’t instantly learn how to rearrange her life and change her priorities because she got pregnant.
But that’s how the system looks at her. Society thinks that one choice defines her, and she should just figure it all out. We’ll applaud her if she pulls it off (patting ourselves on the back because she broke the cycle), and we’ll blame her if she doesn’t (looking at anything other than the systemic injustice that perpetuates poverty and abuse).
But she’s a child who is raising a child, and as fiercely as she loves L, she still needs someone to show her what it looks like to show up even when it’s hard and to love unconditionally. Those aren’t things we just intuitively know. And it’s insane that we expect people like P to figure it out on their own. Because she’s a kid who has never really felt like she is worth it, but she needs to believe she is before she’ll ever live up to the insane expectations our culture has placed squarely on her shoulders.
So I make her breakfast and pack her lunch. I do her dishes and pick up after her—trusting that the fact that she lets me take care of her in the small ways means we’re building trust in some of the bigger ways, too. And I speak the hard truths even when it makes my life oh-so-much more miserable, because someday I hope she is equipped to do the exact same thing for L, for sure, but most importantly: for herself.