A war broke out over a lost T-shirt on our summer vacation.
I had spotted a vintage-looking tee at a hipster shop in the historic Distillery District during a recent visit to Toronto. It featured a graphic design of a bucket of poutine. For the unfamiliar, which we were until this trip, poutine is Canada’s heavenly version of hangover food -- fries drenched in gravy and loaded with cheese curds. My teenage daughter had already ordered the dish twice in the past two days. I suggested it would be a good souvenir that she ought to buy for herself.
The girl balked at the price -- $30 Canadian, or about $23 American. That seems pricey for a T-shirt, she said. I pointed out that she had money saved from babysitting jobs, and it was worth it to splurge on a memento that would remind her of a delicious highlight of the trip.
I mean, I wasn’t going to pay for it, but she should.
She did really like the shirt, so she shelled out the money.
An undercurrent of tension had been building on the trip over maternal expectations and the inevitable teenage daughter resistance to them. Typical things like her looking at the phone when I felt like she should have been more engaged with us. When it was time to pack up our stuff and move on to the next leg of our trip, I told both kids to make sure they had all their things. So, of course, at our next stop the girl said she couldn’t find her new shirt.
I advised her to look through the dirty laundry bag, which I saw her rummage through. I felt like I was being blamed for the misplaced item, and she snapped at me when I asked a question about the upcoming school year.
It escalated from there. I yelled, she cried. We eventually talked it out, but it kind of ruined the morning. Before we headed out for the day’s activities, I went online and found a similar shirt and decided to order it and surprise her at home.
Our family met up with the friends we were traveling with, and on the bus ride to a Niagara Falls attraction, I confided in my friend about the scene that morning. As a good friend ought to do, she called out the exact doubt that had been niggling at me. Was it wise to replace an item lost to a child’s carelessness?
“Would your parents have replaced the shirt for you?” she asked.
“No way,” I said. In fact, my own mother would have considered a $25 T-shirt a big waste of money. Are we enabling our children when we bail them out like this? Shouldn’t they suffer the consequences of their mistakes so they are more careful next time?
She wasn’t judging me, and confessed that she had done similar things for her own children, but it was worth thinking about what was driving us to diverge from our own upbringing in this way.
I had rationalized the purchase by reminding myself that I had pushed her to buy it. Her anti-materialistic, anti-consumption nature can seem a bit alien to me, since I have to actively fight the urge to buy things that are clearly not necessities.
Fights about trivial things, like the shirt, escalate when they become an indictment against which one must defend one’s self. Parenting is actually a series of these little moments. A harsh exchange that is really about a million other things than the argument at hand. Making things personal that aren’t. And then trying to make up for falling short of our best selves.
Replacing the lost shirt was a peace offering.
It was also a way of granting her forgiveness that I can’t give myself. I relate too closely to misplacing things. In the space of a week, I had left my FitBit in the gym shower (it was never returned), a favorite pair of wedges in a hotel room (lost forever), and a new book I was reading in transit somewhere. This sort of absent-mindedness has haunted me since I was a child. It makes me feel guilty and mad at myself. So much so that I often refuse to replace the lost items as a self-inflicted form of punishment.
It feels so wasteful, which, growing up, was one of the worst possible sins in our home. When I see my daughter lose track of her things, I worry that I’ve passed on this defective gene.
I asked my husband later if he would have bought another shirt for her. (His parents would have reacted the same as mine.)
“Yes, probably,” he said. “But you would have gotten mad at me for doing it, so I would have done it secretly.”
That sounded uncomfortably true.
My daughter overheard me talking to my friend.
“Wait. What did you do?” she asked.
“I found the shirt online, and I ordered a new one for you,” I said, expecting a warm hug.
“Why did you do that?!” she said. “I found the shirt in the dirty laundry bag this morning!” I had told her several times to check the laundry bag.
“Oh my God, why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I thought you were already so mad at me.”
Then, she did hug me.
Perhaps we have more in common than matching poutine shirts.