A daughter's surly behavior is a symptom of something even more painful.
my daughter, Allie, is leaving for college in one week. What this means
for today — when it’s still not time to say goodbye — is that it’s impossible to
make a path through her room. The floor is cluttered with bags from
Filene’s and J. Crew: They’re filled with extra-long sheets for
her dormitory bed, fleece blankets still in their wrappers, thick dark
blue towels, washcloths, new pairs of jeans and sweaters, baskets of
shampoo and luffas.
She won’t talk about going.
I say, “I’m going to miss you,” and she gives me one of her looks and
finds a reason to leave the room.
Another time I say, in a voice so friendly it surprises even me: “Do you
think you’ll take down your posters and pictures and take them with
you, or will you get new ones at college?”
She answers, in a voice filled with annoyance, “How should I know?”
also 18 when I left home in 1970, but instead of moving to college, I was
leaving to live with my boyfriend. I had been angry with my mother for
months before I left. I flung my belongings in cardboard boxes, taking
everything with me because I was never, never coming back home
again. My mother stood in the doorway, her arms folded, and said I was
making a huge mistake. “If what you’re hoping for is marriage,
this isn’t the way to get it,” she said. “He’ll just live with you and then toss you
away when something better comes along. I know that type.”
“I’m not looking for marriage,” I responded. “I’m just looking for a
chance to get out of here.”
My daughter is off with friends most of the time. Yesterday was the
last day she’d have until Christmas with her friend Katharine, whom
she’d known since kindergarten. Soon, very soon, it will be her last day
with Sarah, Claire, Heather and Lauren.
And then it will be her last day with me. My friend Karen told me, “The
August before I left for college, I screamed at my mother the whole
month. Be prepared.”
We in our 40s have mostly learned to forgive our mothers for the
crimes they committed in raising us. We have paid therapists thousands
of dollars and spent endless hours talking with friends, going over and
over the mistakes that were our legacy, and we have figured out how
not to make the same errors with our daughters. We know just what
kind of support girls need.
In the cooperative day-care center my daughter attended, the young
mothers sat down with story books and patiently crossed out all sexist
references. We told them they could be anything they wanted to be. We
said, “Don’t let the boys win. You’re as big and strong and capable as
So they simply can’t be as angry with us as we were with our own
Yet I stand here in the kitchen, watching my daughter make a glass of
iced tea. Her face, once so open and trusting, is closed to me. I struggle
to think of something to say to her, something friendly and warm. I
would like her to know that I admire her, that I am excited about the
college she has chosen, that I know the adventure of her life is just
about to get started and that I am so proud of how she’s handling
But here’s the thing: The look on her face is so mad that I think she
might slug me if I opened my mouth.
I can’t think what I have done. One night not long ago — after a
particularly long period of silence between us — I asked what I might
have done or said to make her angry with me. I felt foolish saying it. My
own mother, who ruled the house with such authoritative majesty,
would never have deigned to find out what I thought or felt about
anything she did. But there I was, obviously having offended my
daughter, and I wanted to know. I felt vulnerable asking the question,
but it was important.
She sighed, as though this question were more evidence of a problem so
vast and fundamental that it could never be explained, and she said,
“Mom, you haven’t done anything. It’s fine.”
It is fine. It’s just distant, that’s all. May I tell you how close we once
were? When she was two years old, my husband and I divorced — one of
those modern, amiable divorces that was just great for all parties
involved, except that I had to quit my part-time job and take a full-time
position. When I would come to the day-care center to pick Allie up after
work, she and I would sit on the reading mattress together, and she
would nurse. For a whole year after that divorce, we would sit every day
at 5 o’clock, our eyes locked together, concentrating on and
reconnecting with each other at the end of our public day.
In middle school, when other mothers were already lamenting the
estrangement they felt with their adolescent daughters, I hit upon what
seemed the perfect solution: rescue raids. I would simply show up
occasionally at the school, sign her out of class and take her
somewhere — out to lunch, off to the movies, once to take a long walk on
the beach. It may sound irresponsible, unsupportive of education, but it
worked. It kept us close when around us other mothers and daughters
were floundering. We talked about everything on those outings, outings
we kept secret from the rest of the family or even from friends.
Sometimes, blow-drying her hair in the bathroom while I brushed my
teeth, she’d say, “Mom, I really could use a rescue raid soon.” And so I
would arrange my work schedule to make one possible.
Anyone will tell you that high school is hard on the mother-daughter
bond, and so it was for us, too. I’d get up with her in the early mornings
to make her sandwich for school, and we’d silently drink a cup of tea
together before the 6:40 school bus came. But then she decided she’d
rather buy her lunch at school, and she came right out and said she’d
prefer to be alone in the mornings while she got ready. It was hard to
concentrate on everything she needed to do, with someone else
standing there, she said.
We didn’t have the typical fights that the media leads us to expect with
teen-agers: She didn’t go in for tattoos and body piercings; she was
mostly good about curfews; she didn’t drink or do drugs. Her friends
seemed nice, and the boys she occasionally brought home were polite
But what happened? More and more often, I’d feel her eyes boring into
me when I was living my regular life, doing my usual things: talking on
the phone with friends, disciplining her younger sister, cleaning the
bathroom. And the look on her face was a look of frozen disapproval,
disappointment … even rage.
A couple of times during her senior year I went into her room at night,
when the light was off but before she went to sleep. I sat on the edge
of her bed and managed to find things to say that didn’t enrage or
disappoint her. She told me, sometimes, about problems she was having
at school: a teacher who lowered her grade because she was too shy to
talk in class, a boy who teased her between classes, a friend who had
started smoking. Her disembodied voice, coming out of the darkness,
sounded young and questioning. She listened when I said things. A few
days later, I’d hear her on the phone, repeating some of the things I had
said, things she had adopted for her own, and I felt glad to have been
there with her that night.
I said to myself, “Somehow I can be the right kind of mother. Somehow
we will find our way back to closeness again.”
We haven’t found our way back. And now we are having two different
kinds of Augusts. I want a romantic August, where we stock up together
on things she will need in her dormitory. I want to go to lunch and lean
across the tables toward each other, the way we’ve all seen mothers
and daughters do, and say how much we will miss each other. I want
smiles through tears, bittersweet moments of reminiscence of
childhood and the chance to offer the last little bits of wisdom I might
be able to summon for her.
But she is having an August where her feelings have gone underground,
where to reach over and touch her arm seems an act of war. She
pulls away, eyes hard. She turns down every invitation I extend, no
matter how lightly I offer them; instead of coming out with me, she lies
on her bed, reading Emily Dickinson until I say I have always loved Emily
Dickinson, and then — but is this just a coincidence? — she closes the book.
Books I have read about surviving adolescence say that the closer your
bond with your child, the more violent is the child’s need to break away
from you, to establish her own identity in the world. The more it will
hurt, they say.
My husband says, “She’s missing you so much already that she can’t
A friend of mine, an editor in New York who went through a difficult
adolescence with her daughter but now has become close to her again,
tells me, “You’re a wonderful mother. Your daughter will be back to you.”
“I don’t know,” I say to them. I sometimes feel so angry around her
that I want to go over and shake her. I want to say, “Talk to me! Either
you talk to me — or you’re grounded!” I can actually feel myself wanting
to say that most horrible of all mother phrases: “Think of everything
I’ve done for you. Don’t you appreciate how I’ve suffered and struggled
to give you what you need?”
I can see how the mother-daughter relationship could turn primitive
and ugly. One night I go into the den and watch “Fiddler on the Roof” with
my younger daughter. She’s 9, and she cuddles up next to me on the
couch. We weep over the daughters saying goodbye. “It’s a
little like Allie leaving,” she says. I hug her to me ferociously, as though I could
hug all daughters trying to break away. I am not unaware that I am
hugging my long-ago self, standing there so furiously, glaring at my
mother, unable to forgive her.
Late at night, when I’m exhausted with the effort of trying not to mind
the loneliness I’ve felt all day around her, I am getting ready for bed.
She shows up at the door of the bathroom, watches me brush my teeth.
For a moment, I think wildly that I must be brushing my teeth in a way
she doesn’t approve of, and I’ll be upbraided for it.
But then she says, “I want to read you something.” She’s holding a
handbook sent by her college. “These are tips for parents,” she says.
I watch her face as she reads the advice aloud. “‘Don’t ask your
student if she is homesick,’ it says. ‘She might feel bad the first few
weeks, but don’t let it worry you. This is a natural time of transition.
Write her letters and call her a lot. Send a package of goodies …’”
Her voice breaks, and she comes over to me and buries her head in my
shoulder. I stroke her hair, lightly, afraid she’ll bolt if I say a word. We
stand there together for long moments, swaying.
I know it will be hard again. We probably won’t have sentimental
lunches in restaurants before she leaves, and most likely there will be a
fight about something. But I am grateful to be standing in the bathroom
at midnight, both of us tired and sad, toothpaste smeared on my chin,
holding tight — while at the same time letting go — of this daughter who
is trying to say goodbye.
Sandi Kahn Shelton is the author of "You Might as Well Laugh: Surviving the Joys of Parenthood" (Bancroft Press, 1997) and a columnist for Working Mother magazine. She is the mother of three children. More Sandi Kahn Shelton.
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