“Dad,” my teenager daughter asked one recent morning as she picked her way through over-easy eggs, seedy toast and Earl Grey tea. “What have you eaten for breakfast?”
At a quick scan it’s an innocuous question, but down, deep down, subterranean with stalactites, a parenting victory glints in dim light.
Here’s what I mean.
This year in Norway is a steep climb for both H, my 13 year old daughter, and W, my 9 year old son. The mountain is rockier for the teenager. At 9, you still orbit Mom and Dad, so if they’re around and happy (and we are) then you’re pretty much OK. But at 13, particularly for girls, your identity foundation is your friends.
H’s friends are back Stateside. Sure, she has made new friends, but it’s not the same. The temporariness of our 10-month stay here in Bergen makes it hard to set fresh intimacies in concrete.
One unplanned but happy product of this for me and for K (my wife) is that H is closer to us than she would have been back home. At a moment when she’d pull away it turns out that she doesn’t have that far she can go. So even though sometimes it’s like living with a werewolf, at least this is a werewolf I know.
Both kids are busy. They do Norwegian immersion school from 8:30 until early afternoon, then come home to do Math and English from an American home school curriculum. Even though it’s about the same number of hours of schooling and homework as they’d have back home in Oregon, the daily rupture from one learning environment to another rubs at them, but if we put them in Norwegian school they’d be learning material they’d already learned back home— and they’d be bored. School in Norway is slower than in the US. That’s both bad and good, but if they’re going to be up to speed when they get back to Oregon then the home schooling is critical.
Take a generous helping of busy, add it to a heap of lonely for the BFFs who get her, toss in a language barrier, short days and a lot of different cultural presumptions and that equals a steep climb. Add puberty to that mix where the daily baseline of her body swerves and bobs like a New Delhi taxi driver fighting post-work traffic… and that’s why it’s harder for the 13 year old.
So back to breakfast and when H asked me if I’d eaten. What prompted the question was when I made a move to filch W’s second piece toast— mostly as a way of motivating him to stop reading and finish breakfast already, okay, sheesh — before I walked him to school.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I had a scrambled egg, coffee and I’m now eating this banana.”
“Okay,” H said, and went back to to her own toast.
This is a paternal victory because it shows two things. First, and less importantly, a thought about somebody else (in this case dear old Dad) send ripples across the pond of adolescent narcissism. H noticed — while I was making over-easy eggs, toast and tea for her and making scrambled eggs with cheese, toast and coffee for W, plus lunches — that she hadn’t seen me eat anything myself. Huzzah!
I now have dim hopes that one day she’ll realize that clean laundry doesn’t magically waddle into her room, scale her bed like a mountaineer and then fold itself into neat piles. But I’m not calling my bookie on this one.
The second, more important, thing is that the message about eating a good breakfast because it fuels you for the rest of the day has seeped through the skeptical, plastic wrap outer layer of the teen brain and tinted the reflexive reptilian core. If H is giving me a hard time about eating breakfast, then that means she has internalized the lesson enough to throw it back in my face.
When I realized this an hour later, I nearly cried with happiness.
There are no “one and done” conversations with kids. You keep having the same conversation over and over, keep suppressing the audible sighs (again? I have to talk you through this again???) and finding the tiny tree-lined place of inner calm before starting over.
Here’s the other paternal victory of this morning.
W has mild A.D.D., and so progress from bed into clothes to breakfast to teeth brushing and then jacket zipped and shoes on and out the door can be challenging before the coffee hits his bloodstream (caffeine helps A.D.D. kids focus). I was juggling stuff in the kitchen and so K (also known as Mom) was helping him with the teeth and hair brushing.
As I came down with his lunch and backpack, I said, “Okay, big guy. It’s isn’t raining so put your Nikes on—”
“No—” K interrupted from the other room.
“—And if it’s raining when it’s time for me to pick you up I’ll bring your boots with me,” I continued smoothly as if K had said nothing.
But my face registered that her interruption bugged me.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t just my face. My two itchy middle fingers might also have given me away.
“Dad?” W said. “Why’d you—”
“Later,” I said. “On our walk.”
We zipped up, put our reflectors on our arms and headed out into the pre-dawn morning. 10 steps later he turns to me with a “fess up” expression.
I explained that when I told him to put the Nikes on I had the situation under control: I didn’t need input from Mom at that moment. Plus, the way she had said, “no” irked me. There were nicer ways she could have said what she was going to say, which was that it could rain at any moment and that she didn’t want W’s feet to be wet and cold.
“Are you still mad?” he asked.
“Nah, I’m over it.”
I explained that before I told W to put his Nikes on I’d looked outside and seen that it wasn’t raining. Since he woke up with aching feet (at 9 his feet are nearly as big as mine: he’s going to tower over me before he can drive) I thought he’d be more comfortable walking to school in the sneakers that give his feet better support. And if it’s wet then I’m happy to lug his boots with me to school when I collect him after school, or when he meets me at Chaos, our Tuesday afternoon hangout. My morning kid footwear strategy, to use lingo I didn’t share with W, had already taken potential precipitation into account.
So here’s the victory.
After I’d explained my rationale to W as we walked he thought about it for a moment and said, “Huh. Actually that was really smart.”
“Thanks,” I replied without a hint of dryness.
Unlike the breakfast question from H, having my 9 year old see the benefits of thinking ahead — and also understanding that Dad isn’t just the guy who fetches breakfast but also has a brain — didn’t make me cry.
But it sure made me smile.