I let her down, believing my ADHD daughter had her school work under control because it was easier for me not to worry about it - father and daughter, tag-team procrastinating.
by Frank South
It’s 7:30 Sunday night when I tap on the bedroom door of my 16 year-old daughter, Coco. She looks up from the laptop on her desk, her forehead still furrowed in concentration from working on a PowerPoint project that’s due tomorrow and the thumb of her right hand twitching over her rollerball mouse.
"What?" she asks, her blue eyes under black- and purple-streaked hair darting from me to her screen and back again.
"Going okay?" I ask.
"Yep," her eyes are now firmly back on the screen. She clicks something with the mouse, nods to herself, thinking.
"Did you finish the take-home, open-book test for science?" I ask her.
She looks up, startled. “What test are you... Oh my god!”
She leaps up from her desk and bolts past me toward the stairs to get her school backpack, mumbling curses to herself. At the top of the stairs she turns to me and says, "Dad, thanks for reminding me." That was a shock. I’d fully expected her fury to spill over onto me, her mother, and anything else within striking distance. Only a few months ago, it would have. Coco, like me, has ADHD. She also has a hot temper. Ditto here. But as she’s told us, she’s working on all that – her temper, her impatience, and understanding how her sometime whirling dervish behavior affects others.
Coco's also been working on another problem we share: procrastination. Her mid-semester progress report of four A’s and three B’s suggests she working pretty damn hard, too. But tonight, when she opens her backpack, she discovers that she’s forgotten to finish a project for Art as well, and there’s reading she has to do for Lit Class and World History, and oh no, oh no, no, no - Math.
Tomorrow is the first day back from winter break at Coco’s high school. It’s a week off around President’s Day every year, and the break is filled with projects and papers to finish, so it’s more of a home-study time than any kind of mini-vacation.
One day in, I asked her about the schoolwork she’d mentioned when I’d picked her up the day before. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ve got it all scheduled.” Now, I knew that was the viewpoint of a teenager on the first day of break, but I decided to believe she had it under control. And now the week has disappeared and only disaster looms.
Life’s challenges are not easy to navigate for any adolescent, especially when we’ve brought them on ourselves. But I think they can be especially difficult for an adolescent girl with ADHD, and even more so for an intensely self-critical perfectionist like Coco.
Now looking back from this Sunday night, I’m afraid that I let her down. That I might have chosen to believe Coco had it under control because it was easier for me not to worry about it - father and daughter, tag-team procrastinating. Not that I don’t have my excuses. Coincidentally, Coco’s break week has been a particularly stressful time for the family. It’s been the week before Coco’s Aunt Liz, my wife Margaret’s sister, went in for experimental surgery for her ALS. Also, Margaret’s night class homework spiked this week at the same time her new full-time middle-school teaching job is demanding more from her. So Margaret’s tried to be available to Coco, but she’s often exhausted, overwhelmed and needing to do more work or sleep when she gets home.
Also this week, my 83-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with us, began a cycle of being actively irritable with all of us in the house, yelling and slamming her door. Maybe it’s the anxiety of her daughter Liz’s upcoming surgery. Or maybe she doesn’t realize she’s yelling and slamming her door because her hearing’s getting so bad.
Also, last Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday our dog threw up on the carpet. Coco said it’s because I gave Danny too many dog treats. She’s probably right. At any rate, on my knees Friday, scrubbing the stain with rug cleaner, I resolved that I’ll die before Danny gets another biscuit from me.
Like Coco, I’ve been working on how my behavior affects others, but this week I’ve been a cyclone of barely subdued ADHD panic. With my office stereo blasting soul music, I've worked night and day to finish compiling the 110 individual 12-page “Words About Me” books by second graders that finishes a months-long project we started with a neighboring elementary school thanks to a grant. (Yes, there was some procrastination here, but I refuse to admit it.)
Then at the end of every day I ran around doing shopping, housework, and a slap-dash dinner before calling my 89-year-old mother in Delaware and talking her down from another day dealing with my dad’s dementia. I’m usually in a dark mood for about an hour after I hang up, and not someone you’d want to chat to about homework or school.
Considering all of this, you can understand why Coco spent her break week avoiding all the family craziness, zoned out in her room watching videos. Don’t get me wrong, we’re a cheerful bunch; we laugh and kid around. But still, I’d say from Coco’s perspective, this week reeked.
So at midnight Sunday night, I sit on the edge of Coco's bed as she stews about tomorrow and all the work she’s only half-done. I tell her she’s so upset she’s made herself sick and she should stay home from school tomorrow. We argue. Coco honestly wants to go in and take her lumps, but I insist that take the day, do her work and get organized.
I also tell her how I feel that I let her down the last few days. She says no, it was her fault alone; she just didn’t care enough until it was too late. We decide on equal blame, I give her a kiss goodnight. As I turn out her light, step out into the hall, and pull the door closed, she says, "Wait – are you just letting me stay home out of guilt?"
"No. Yes. None of your business," I say. "Go to sleep." And I close the door. We’ll be tag-team non-procrastinators tomorrow.