I am learning very quickly that rehosting is like sailing with a trusted crew through new and dangerous waters. I think that is probably true of every new phase of a valued relationship: adoption, marriage, sending off a child into the world, bringing a friend into the circle of family.
Moments of revelation come more quickly this time around. I stroke her hair comfortably as she tells me more of her truth. She recounts that she somehow felt like she could always tell me anything and that I would understand her.
How hard I have worked to gain that trust, and how preciously I guard it now. I have made mistakes, but I have also learned the things that matter to her and the ways she desires to be respected. I gladly give her these things. She has full veto power over any image of her that appears on Facebook or in any other forum, including this blog. I have taken things down and revised wording more than one time based on her desires.
My goal all along has been to give this girl a voice. I wanted her to have a safe place to say anything and everything. My own comfort and preferences often take a backseat when she speaks. I want it that way. I want her to learn how to speak truth and in doing so, trust the one to whom she speaks. I want her to know that I love her no matter what.
This is where we left things when she returned home in January. And now she knows that nothing is off-limits, and she can trust me to listen. It is in that context that we went to buy Sunshine some supplies, namely clothing, shoes, and a bathing suit.
As we got ready to go, she asked about the “rules,” as in what types of clothing would she be allowed to buy or not buy. She knew the rules for winter clothes—in fact, she acknowledged that we had the same sorts of requirements so there were really no issues—but these are summer clothes, and shorts are short and bikinis can be quite racy. She compared me to another host mother who had hosted a friend of hers. As she mimed different clothing lengths and styles, she said, “This mother say no, no, no. But I think this and this and this, okay. But this, no okay. What you say?”
She wasn’t asking me if I would say yes or no. Not really. She was asking me if I would hear her voice. She was asking if I still valued her thoughts and opinions.
The answer to that is yes. Always yes.
But I expected her to hear mine, too.
This is what a strong woman does: she not only asserts herself, but she desires to hear and understand the thoughts of others and give them consideration. It takes a stronger woman to recognize and give up her preference rather than push through a preference as if it were a requirement/rule.
But I also realize that there is another component here as well: she is testing to make sure that the rules are the same. That she can trust that my word still means what I say it means. She is navigating these new waters, too, and she wants to make sure I am still confident of where we are going.
It’s not about modesty, really. It’s about giving her a voice and truly hearing her. It’s about making sure she knows that her opinions matter, but also showing her that opinions need to be held for the right reasons.
It’s also about respect—of one another, of our relationship, of our own bodies. And these conversations are not and should not be simply about clothing. They should be about why I value her, and why she can value herself, too. They should be about teaching our culture, both American and Christian.
But most importantly, they should be about me showing unconditional love when our preferences differ. I say that I love her no matter what. So do I love her when she chooses something that is not my taste? Do I still love her when she picks something I have to say no to? How do I balance loving her and teaching culture without making “laws” seem to be the most important? Because they aren’t. She isn’t from here, and her worldview is very different from mine. And I still love her. It is certainly important to make sure she understands what would be acceptable in our social circles. But I think to me, the most important thing is for her to know that the value of clothing is more powerful when used as personal expression instead of social acceptance. I want her to be wholly herself and I want to help her dress to express that, even if it is done with clothing I would not choose myself.
These are choppy waters to navigate together, and very hard things to communicate when it is often distilled down to “yes” or “no.”
And so I simply told her the only cheeks I wanted to see were on her face. That was the only rule I articulated.
Of course, this made me a horrible dictator and fascist hater of all things beautiful. It doesn’t really matter if she would have chosen cheeky items or not. The exercise of having a rule is, in and of itself, tyrannical to a teenager.
And so we went to the first store. She holds up some shorts. Yes or no? Uhhhhhh…I have no idea, because I never would have pulled them off the rack. I never would have thought about it. Ummmm…maybe you try and I look and see?? I need a visual measuring stick or something, I guess. I don’t know what I’m doing!!
And she huffs at me and puts them back on the rack. “I no even try. Maybe I try them on and you say no, but I already love them and then I cannot have them. So no try.” Clearly, I am the trial of her life.
I am surprised. This is not the fight I was expecting. I am not even given the chance to say yes or no. AND I’m seen as a harsh ruler. What is this?!
Then I realize.
She wants me to say yes. She wants me to be happy and pleased with her. She loves me so much that she will give up the things she wants—sassily, of course—because she trusts me and wants my approval. She wants all yeses.
Oh, my dear girl. Don’t you know that my love has nothing to do with what you wear or how many times you may disappoint me or please me, or how much we agree or disagree? My love is something that flows far beneath any of these surface waves.
And suddenly I find myself in a far more dangerous battle. These clothing choices are not about modesty or style. They are about us expressing how much we each value the other. And I see in her eyes how desperately she wants to be valued, and how very powerful one word from me is to her heart.
So we go from store to store, and she carefully selects items. She shows many of them to me before she even tries them on. I measure my face just as carefully. Dislike of a fashion choice is wholly different from disapproval, but they are being read the same.
I love you. Yes, I say. Over and over. Yes. I never say no. I literally only have to tilt my head, or wrinkle my nose, or simply pause too long in deliberation, and back on the rack it goes. Her words are all sass. “Yes, yes, too short. I see. I understand. Ugh! So stupid.” It doesn’t matter that I was simply trying to get past the wild print before looking at the actual use of the item. Even when I say this, she argues, “No…it’s okay. I understand. You no like fashion. You no understand what is style.” I am a fuddy-duddy missing the fashion track.
And so I just laugh. Oh, how I have missed this attitude, this salt in my life. Yes, yes, I will play your role of mean mother. Because I know that it means I am mother. And because apparently shopping is more fun with drama and a mock-war that she is always losing. Oh, how I love this girl.
And I laugh because these are the things I know are true. She may not always agree with me. She will likely not always do as I suggest. But she will trust me. She will know that I love her with everything that is within me, that my heart strains toward hers with all that I have. And that carries weight.
I need to pay attention to how I wield it. That is my responsibility and my privilege.
So, yes, yes, yes. Sass, sass, sass. Laughter. I know from the twinkle in her eye that this is a false battle, but that she likes her position as victim to my tyrannical ruler.
And after two days, we come home without a suit. She would not risk trying on more than maybe five or six. She only showed me one so that we could laugh together about its horribleness. And how somehow this was the fault of my stupid rules.
Later, my mother came over to bring Sunshine some flowers and welcome her home. She asked about shopping. Sunshine sighed dramatically and shook her head at me. “No good,” she says. “These rules. I will never swim again.”
“Oh dear,” my mother says seriously. “I think I might have an old swimsuit you can have. Would you like it?” Old lady AND second-hand? Well sassed, mom. Sunshine laughed at that, then quickly donned her mourning face again.
But my mom wasn’t finished yet. Very concerned, she says, “I think that she wants you to buy a swimsuit that goes to here”—the neck—“and here”—the calves—“and maybe hood, too?”
And I look at my mother, and I work hard to keep my somber expression in place so that I can nod with gravity, and I love this woman. I think at first, she gets it. She understands this girl, too. And then I realize…she gets it because she’s done it. She gets it because she’s taught it. She’s stood in a kitchen much like this one, sassing back to a saucy daughter, knowing that the trust that has been built carries weight, knowing that respect matters, knowing that she needs to listen and truly understand the voice she helped foster into feeling free to speak. I know how to do this because she did it with me first.
And then Sunshine tilts her saucy head, and with her shoulder shrug for resigned emphasis, says, “Yes. And the suit must be to here, also,” pointing at her wrists and shooting me a mock glare of disapproval and disdain.
Her voice, speaking aloud to the one who taught me how to use mine. Each sassy word that fills the room bringing shades of color, melodious personalities creating a beautiful harmony.
Three generations of women, voicing themselves. Sassing out their thoughts because they all know that between the cracks of the conversation there is a mortar made up of trust and love.
How the gratefulness threatened to overwhelm me in that moment.