My 13-year-old stepdaughter still likes to be tucked in.
A couple years ago, I would twinge with impatience at her request – hadn’t she passed this stage? Her dad would usually comply, but the long sessions of reading then talking then his inevitable falling asleep seemed indulgent. Maybe even leaning toward a co-dependence that would rear up later in her therapy sessions. I twisted my mouth, sat with her for a little bit, then gave her a hug and kiss and left assuring her she was fine, just fine.
I was an idiot.
Tucking in my 13-year-old stepdaughter means lying down next to her in the mostly darkness, and talking quietly about whatever is on her mind. The other night she surprised me by asking a question her dad often poses to her.
“Do you have any questions about anything, anything at all?”
It’s a query meant to open the floodgates of non-judgement, and make the parental brain available for any mystery. But now she posed the question to me, and I was almost paralyzed by the range of possibility. I was dying to ask her so many questions, about herself. Personal questions, that were none of my damn business. Lying together in the dark allows a level of intimacy broad daylight tends to squelch, but that didn’t mean I had license to pry.
I remember being a teenager was largely fueled by your secrets. By the private life that you were trying to work out while not imploding in public.
So as my mind whirled, I stammered out some lame question about her friends. She took her time, answering thoughtfully. I asked her a couple more benign questions, just curious to get her take, wanting her to keep talking.
Then, after a silence, she said, “Can I tell you a secret? Something you won’t even share with Pappa?” I felt the air still, because there really is no greater flattery than being trusted by your stepdaughter with a secret. Even if it had been related to her shoelaces, I would have felt special.
Because when you’re a stepmom to a teenage girl, on paper, you’re the evil cliché. C jr and I have been very lucky in that she is a remarkable human being. That’s really it. She’s had to navigate some tricky waters with the adults in her life, but she’s avoided capsizing, and has even found a way to steer calmly through the turbulence.
In the beginning of our relationship, I was almost frantic with the need to entertain and divert with the many activities, crafts, and outings we could do. And she was game for all of them. But looking back, I’m sure that was as much out of her own desire to please and not a need to experience the aquarium, friendship bracelets, and making cookies all in one day. I must have been sort of exhausting.
But the one thing I never had trouble doing was being honest with her. If she asked me questions, no matter what the topic, I would endeavor to respond with answers that would meet her at her age, but also not dilute her curiosity.
We also share the ability to aggregate laughter. I used to laugh for hours, building on the memory of what had initially tickled me, and then gathering how good it felt to ache with mirth. C jr will laugh until lines are deeply etched into her face. It is a great source of pride for me to often be the cause of those lines.
That night, her secret was valuable, as all secrets are, and we talked about it, quietly, lying next to each other on her bed, each of us watching the lights move across the ceiling.
When, eventually, she stops asking to be tucked in, I will be comforted by the fact that for so many years, she was.