We’re in three-part harmony, singing a South African protest song, “Oh freedom, freedom is coming . . .” when the phone rings. It’s the Friday night when my monthly women’s singing group gathers, so I ignore the phone, but a friend shouts from the kitchen when she hears the answering machine connect, “Oooh, oooh, better pick it up, it’s the police!”
“Hello, this is Officer Walton from the Shorewood Police Department. I’m over here at Pick ‘n’ Save with your daughter Katja. She and her friends have been drinking. We need you to come over here and get her.”
My protective maternal adrenaline kicked in, my heart started beating faster, and my breath became heavier. My baby drinking? How much, how drunk? Like most families, we have issues of alcohol in our family background. Did Katja get “the gene”? Is it my fault? (Isn’t it always?) In the three-minute drive to the grocery store, every dire scenario whizzed through my mind, from the girls in a car crash to 12-step meetings.
As I arrived, one girl was sitting in the back of the squad car crying, another was exasperatedly trying to explain it all to her dad, and Katja and a friend were huddled on a bench. My gut reaction was to scoop Katja up and embrace her, but I stopped myself, sensing she needed a firm response in the moment, not an affectionate one. Katja, 16 years old, was her usual understated self, insisting, “I only had a sip.”
The breath test indicated otherwise. It turned out that the girls had brought some stuff in their water bottles to another’s house, some toxic brew of whatever they could find. Katja hadn’t a clue what it was, only that it tasted terrible. They left the girl’s house when the dad came home and decided to go to the grocery store because someone really wanted an apple. The clerk at the store noticed their behavior and called the police.
“I don’t even feel that drunk,” Katja claimed, slightly indignant and, as yet, unrepentant. From her louder-than-usual voice and her flushed face, I could tell she was more intoxicated than she thought. Meanwhile, one of the girls was lurching around and throwing up, including once in the police car.
The harsh reality of her indulgence soon set in. We had to ground her, naturally. She spent the rest of the weekend being morosely dragged around to her brother’s basketball tournaments, where she sat in the corner of the gym rereading Life of Pi and listening to The Killers. In addition, she’d be suspended from the first track meet of the season and was required to make a court appearance and pay a $164 fine. She was uncharacteristically compliant with it all — relieved, I think, to make amends. She felt mortified, as a varsity athlete, student council rep, and honor role student, to have messed up big time. “The stupidest thing ever” is how her older sister characterized the event. Katja would have to save her monthly lunch allowance for a long time to pay for her transgression.
But now, the difficult work of parenting comes in. What compelled her to do this, and what can we do about it? We want her to stew in her own guilty juices for a while, but also be able to process and recover from her mistakes. And we definitely want to address any possible underlying reasons for her behavior. Sure, a certain amount of experimentation in adolescence is normal, but we want to be sure this is an isolated incident, not part of a burgeoning pattern. What’s our next move?
Here’s my idea of family therapy: I buy a pair of scissors. Not just any scissors, but blending scissors. A special kind I had to go to the beauty supply store to get. You know, those scissors with teeth. What’s cool about these scissors is you can snip away and make mistakes without grave consequences.
I haven’t gotten around to making a haircut appointment, and my hair is badly overgrown, so I sic Katja on it. I place myself in her scissored hands, letting her know I trust her. She’s totally game, as I knew she would be. “I don’t care what you do with it,” I tell her, “just cut it nice and short.” So late one night, during her period of grounding, she slashes away at my hair in the kitchen. I listen to the rhythmic snipping and the scissors jamming when she tries to take too much hair at once. I try not to be very directive, trusting she’ll come up with something I can live with. When all is said and done, the haircut is good, if a little spotty, suiting my messy style, which I like to describe as “fuckamucka.”
The girl loves scissors. Katja cuts up her clothes, resewing her shirts into assemblages of color and texture. She cuts her own hair and her friends’ hair. After ten years of Waldorf school and daily immersion in music, painting, drawing, drama, and movement, she’s now in a traditional high school where students sit at desks most of the day, memorize material, and regurgitate it. She doesn’t have time for art classes, singing, or drama.
So I figure she needs more creative ways to express herself. She needs to take stuff apart and reconstruct it in new ways. Otherwise, her creative drive can become a destructive drive, with much more serious consequences than uneven hair.
When your teenager is grounded, she finds all kinds of things to do at home. I come home one night, and Katja has the sewing machine out. “I hope you don’t mind, Mom,” she says, “I cut up one of your shirts.”
Katja is converting a flannel shirt — actually, an old pajama shirt I’d requisitioned from my husband — into a skirt. A really cool skirt with a jagged hemline, with the arm openings becoming the waist.
This is karmic payback for the teenager I used to be, going into my mother’s closet — my father’s closet, too, for that matter — and freely stealing and altering anything that caught my eye. I remember one green plaid seersucker vest and skirt I fancied. Only thing, it was too big and the skirt too long. No problem, I sliced and diced and stitched until it fit. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, so I cut the skirt straight across, following the plaid lines, so that when I wore the skirt, it was longer along the side seams than the front and back. Flat, like a paper doll skirt. Still, taking my mother’s clothes was the least of my teenage transgressions. My mother probably understood this on some level and didn’t object much to my wardrobe experiments. And I don’t object to Katja’s.
“Hey, Kats,” I ask her one day as she’s passing through my study, “do you mind if I write about your ticket — you know, the drinking incident — for my column?”
“What column?” she asks. She pays so little attention to my life.
“You know, that column I write for Literary Mama. The column about you guys. You should read it sometime.”
“Oh, yeah. I don’t care,” she says. And she’s off, in her poofy skirt over holey jeans, unmatched socks, reassembled shirt, and streaked orange hair, willing to stumble as she finds her own way in the world. It’ll take time to rebuild trust completely, and I can’t know that she’ll never make another mistake, but I can reinforce the fences, keep channeling her appetite for experimentation, give her lots of space, and catch her when she needs me.