A strip of yellow CAUTION tape stretches from one side of the bedroom door to the other on a diagonal. That door is often shut. It isn’t locked or barricaded, but the message is clear to all who may dare to enter: proceed with caution as you can never be sure about the state of affairs, emotional and otherwise, on the opposite side.
My 12-year-old daughter only installed the CAUTION tape this past summer, partly as a symbolic gesture and largely because she thought it was an edgy touch. She was overhauling the aesthetic of her bedroom, which was essentially a thorough microdermabrasion of anything that smacked of Little Girl. Unicorn paintings and posters were deemed recyclable. Certain stuffed animals that napped on many a preschool cot were stored in containers. The bunk bed for her dolls was relocated to the cellar.
The month following the installation of the CAUTION tape, my daughter spent a week at sleepaway camp. During her absence, I entered the lair. The room had become a fire hazard, a borderline “Hoarder’s: Buried Alive” case ripe for intervention, with piles upon piles of uncatalogued stuff where gift cards, clothing, and library books had gone missing. I appointed myself the search party of one, knowing I would make myself the least popular parent upon her return.
Psychologist Carl Pickhardt believes that the adolescent messy room is a “function of personal disorganization brought on by more growth and change than the young person can easily manage.” Which is why I thought I could help.
But my help wasn’t offered — or accepted. It was imposed.
As expected, my daughter was irritated to walk into a room that was virtually unrecognizable, with new contact paper covering her craft table, new shelving, and an entire Jackson Pollock canvas worth of acrylic paint scraped off the floor. If the K-Pop squad BTS had been waiting for her in there, I still think she would have been upset at the transformation.
I couldn’t blame her, as no one likes to feel violated. But we had reached an impasse. After an entire year of weekly cleaning sessions on her own that amounted to little more than a dent in the detritus, with repeated naggings and a symphony of sighs and eye rolls, things had gotten too grim to bear. She conceded that if she hadn’t let it get so bad, my interference wouldn’t have been necessary.
This is the part in the HGTV special where the cameras stop rolling. This is the scene where all the glitter hits the fan.
After the cleaning intervention, it seemed like I saw the CAUTION tape more than I saw my daughter’s face.
The door to her room and the door to her thoughts were often closed. She had experienced things at sleepaway camp that I would never hear about and she would begin middle school with more independence than in any school year prior. My inquiries about this friend or that subject were met with one word responses, the familiar grunts of adolescence. I wondered whether this was simply a developmental milestone in tweendom or was this the consequence of my interior intervention?
I think it’s safe to say that the distance was a combination of both. She was spending more and more time by herself, and talking to close friends on FaceTime, and was less and less interested in family movie night. She was experiencing new rites of passage and I was looking for a guest pass back into her room. Not to sort or sift through her personal effects, but to find a way back into her world.
My ticket in the door came with hot water and a bag of tea leaves.
One Saturday evening, we were returning some clothes she had received as a gift that were much too small. The errand became a totally fun outing because we were together, just the two of us. We shopped and joked and she posed with ridiculous clothing and we laughed and laughed. On a lark, we entered a tea shop and sampled some of their blends, purchasing a box of a flavor we both liked. It remains the best twelve dollars I have ever spent.
Once the weather turns cold, it is always tea season in our house. This year was no exception, and with our new tea flavor on tap, I enjoyed turning the kettle on and knowing it would be shared.
A knock on her door followed by, “Tea, here…” was always welcomed. I wasn’t henpecking her about whether she had finished her homework or picked up the dirty clothes from the floor. I wasn’t trying to mine information about her social circle. For a moment, I wasn’t asking anything of her. I was bringing her a cup of tea, and nothing more. By offering this simple comfort without expectation, I gained a few minutes of proximity to my daughter. While quality time may be at a premium, I’m settling for small quantities as often as I can sneak—or steep—them.