Girl Meets Family: Teenager in the House

In the fall of 2002, shortly before the arrival our two baby boys—carried by a gestational surrogate—I told a friend that I wasn't sure how good I would be at caring for babies. I was the youngest in my family, had never been around infants—had never even babysat anyone younger than three.

"Here's the thing," my friend said. "Within 24 hours after those babies are born, you'll know them better than anyone else on the planet does. Lots of other people will know more about babies in general, but you will be the expert on your children."

This turned out to be true about our boys, and it became true a year later after we adopted our then-three-year-old daughter from Russia. But in the summer of 2006, our 14-year-old teenage host daughter from St. Petersburg, is another story. I know nothing about her, only know a few words of her language. I'm unfamiliar with her temperament, her moods, her body language, her needs, just as she's unfamiliar with mine.

The good news is, Olga loves to laugh and tease. The bad news is—she loves to laugh and tease. Sometimes I step in. Sometimes, I let the horseplay unfold. I genuinely like Olga; I feel for her, realize how hard all this must be. She is trying to cope in a difficult situation, and in doing so treats everything as an opportunity to tease—or, at times, to taunt and torment. Her attempts are good-natured, but they are taunts, nonetheless. My children don't know whether to laugh or cry in response. I don't either.

Her choices—to tickle, to scream, to demand, to mope—startle me, make me uncomfortable. I've never parented anyone older than six. I don't know how to act like the kind of authority figure she needs. When I say "No" to her, she doesn't listen. I feel small, young. Too young for this parenting teenagers gig, even though plenty of women my age have fourteen-year-olds. What am I doing wrong? Our family feels like a bottle of pop that's been shaken. I wait for someone to unscrew the top, for us to explode.

* * * *

The 14-year-old in the attic sleeps until ten or eleven (at least) every morning, which gives me a bit of a reprieve. I get up when the younger children do; I toast waffles and pour cereal and milk.

"Shh," I tell the kids as they begin to thunder around the house. "Olga's still sleeping."

The playroom has become a guestroom, but our children don't mind. A few times, they sneak up the stairs to peek in on Olga. She reacts to the intrusion like any teenager girl would: snapping at them sharply, an animal defending her den. During the day, the kids are allowed to go upstairs and retrieve various toys. But at nighttime and in the morning, the room is Olga's. No trespassing allowed.

When Olga comes downstairs each morning, she declines my offers of food. No, she doesn't want waffles. No eggs. No cereal. Thinking she's simply being excessively polite, I push the issue, but her will is an immovable wall. No food. No, thank you. Nyet.

When Craig and I traveled to Russia to adopt Eugenia 31 months earlier, the first thing the orphanage director said was: "When Zhenya comes into the room, you can give her the candy you brought." Upon learning that we hadn't brought any candy, the direktor reached in the cupboard and gave us a fistful of sweets with which to ply our new daughter. Back at home after the adoption, books about bonding advised that we feed our three-year-old treats from our hands, regress her back to babyhood and give her chocolate milk in a bottle. Weighing just 29 pounds just shy of her fourth birthday, Eugenia ate everything we put in front of her: meats and candies, bananas and soups, vegetables and breads. We bonded by providing both sustenance and love.

I can't do this with Olga. She won't have it. Toward the end of her visit, another parent will tell me that orphaned children often eat very little. They don't get much at the orphanage. Ironically, at a point when they finally can have all the food they want, they aren't able to seize the opportunities; their bodies don't feel hunger. But at this point, I don't understand. I try to tempt her, but she doesn't want anything. I'm far from an accomplished cook, but I try my best. Olga's refusal to eat leaves me feeling like a failure.

* * *

I try to ease Olga into our lives slowly, knowing that her trip was a long one, that she will be tired for days. I plan short shopping trips to get her the things she needs. At one store, she disappears into the dressing room with several swimming suits while I wheel the other children around in a cart, killing time. After ten minutes, Olga emerges, shakes her head, collects another armload of swimsuits and disappears into the changing room one more time.

When she comes out minutes later with a smile on her face, I'm relieved. I couldn't have kept the smaller children occupied for much longer. I give the plain black two-piece a cursory glance and plunk it down on the counter with the handful of shirts and shorts I've chosen for her.

The next day, I pack up the kids to take them down to a fountain in the city. I try to use the online translator to tell Olga what she needs to wear: typing in the words "swimming suit." But they translate back as "floating suit," and she has no idea what I'm talking about. I pantomime swimming, flailing my arms in the air.

"Ah!" she grins and runs upstairs, coming back down with her suit on under her clothes.

My friend Bridget joins us with her children: three-year-old Isabella and baby Tessa. The three three-year-olds and six-year-old Eugenia run for the fountain, while the baby plays in her mother's lap. Olga lays down one of our beach towels and peels off her clothes, revealing a nubile young body nearly bursting out of a silky black bikini. Bridget meets my eyes, her eyebrows raised. "I had no idea!" I whisper, as if Olga can understand me. "I just thought it was a two-piece suit!"

I try to look at Olga and the suit objectively. Am I overreacting? The park is filled with people wearing hardly anything in the heat. Is the problem that the suit is too sexy for a teenager—or that, after several years of raising little people, I feel lost at the prospect of trying to "parent" a sexy, young almost-adult? Is Olga showing an inappropriate amount of skin? Or am I just cranky because, having gained about 20 too many pounds, I'm no longer comfortable peeling down, myself, as much as I'd like? I suspect that the Russian chaperone, if she were here, wouldn't approve of Olga's attire. But Olga is in this city with us, on her own. I'm the only one who can make these decisions and, more importantly, enforce them. I'm the "mom." So, why don't I feel like the expert? Why don't I know what to do, what's best for her? The temperature is in the 90s. I decide I can't make her cover up now.

"Yikes," I say, and settle down on my own towel. "Here." I toss Olga the sun block.

She raises herself up on one elbow, scrunches her eyebrows together, and considers the bottle. "Shto eta?"

I point at the sun. "Nyet. Sun," I say and rub my own bare arms.

Olga shakes her head, puts the bottle down, and lies back against her pink beach towel.

I sigh. And as I slather my exposed limbs with SPF 30, I wonder what I'm going to do now.

column added on 2008-01-06 :: ::

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Shari MacDonald Strong

Shari MacDonald Strong is a senior editor and "Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance" columnist for Literary Mama. Her essay, "On Wanting a Girl," appears in the anthology It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and she has been published in a number of publications, including Geez magazine. She is the editor of the anthology The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers on the Intersection of Motherhood and Politics (Seal Press, May 2008). She writes a blog from her home in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, photojournalist Craig Strong, and their children: grade-schooler Eugenia, born in Russia, and preschool sons Will and Mac, born via gestational surrogacy.

Read more of Shari's Girl Meets Family column.

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