The Throwaway Comment I Wish I'd Never Said To My Teen
I love my daughter but we're as different as chalk is from cheese.
My 17-year-old daughter is a fairly typical teen. She reserves much of her enthusiasm for her friends, while I've been mostly relegated to the sidelines. A senior, she and her BFFs are set to graduate in June. Two months later they'll go their separate ways, departing for various colleges in all parts of the country.
For months, my daughter has talked about how unsettling it will be to see her very close friends leave in rapid succession. My husband and I know from past experience how emotionally fraught the brief interlude between high school graduation and college move-in days can be. But the impending separation from her "friend group" has already turned my daughter into a hormonal ball of angst.
All this leads me to a conversation she and I had over lunch, in which she — once again — talked ad nauseam about how difficult it will be for her to bid farewell to her friends. She told me to prepare for many "days of weeping" — and I have no doubt there will be an unsettling smorgasbord of emotions come August. But as she carried on and on and on, I said something I almost instantly regretted: “Honey, I know you may not believe this, but you probably won’t even remember half these people's names when you’re my age.” At first she looked surprised, but then she pushed back angrily, assuring me that she most certainly would remember them — every single one of them — forever.
This obviously isn’t the first time I’ve made a remark that came out wrong, only to wish I could take it back moments later, and it won’t be the last. But this exchange in particular stuck with me longer than most. Why was I so dismissive? Why was I marginalizing her feelings? Was it because I was one of those people who was so eager to get out of high school that I graduated six months early? Was it because I wished I’d been better at keeping up with friends from my youth? Or was it because I, too, have been feeling wistful about the past and anxious about the future in an empty nest?
My daughter is the youngest of my three children. My oldest has just graduated from college, while my middle son is a college freshman. Navigating all the shifts in our family dynamics as our lives have accelerated in different directions hasn’t been easy. Like other parents, I’ve struggled to deal with so many transitions at once. Four years back, and then again last August, I literally felt nauseous from loss in the days after each of my boys set off for college for the first time. I began the long letting go, mourning the end of my experience as an active mom and trying to accept the shift to a more passive kind of parenting.
I’m about to ride the same grief train again with my youngest.
My daughter’s personality has always skewed busy social butterfly, and I admire her close circle of protective and supportive friends. But I also find that I sometimes project my own unresolved issues onto her — which simply isn’t right. Just because my own high school experience wasn’t all that memorable doesn’t mean hers won’t be. Indeed, it already is. I love my daughter, and even though we're as different as chalk is from cheese, I should never belittle her sensibilities, even if I don’t always relate to them. I've often read that a daughter's first mirror is her mother's face. What we do as parents directly shapes our child's sense of self. Even now, I need to keep reminding myself of that.
Listening to her interminable worries over the departure of her friends made me wonder why some high school friendships are so strong that they still resonate deeply decades later while others splinter shortly after graduation. I marvel at those who can remember every single aspect of high school — including their teachers’ names — when there's only one friend from high school that I speak to about once a year, at most.
I have one close 50-something friend who couldn’t be paid to attend a high school reunion, and another who counts her high school friendships as key to her well-being as water.
The former told me, "I have too much going on in my life to keep up with high school people. My friends that I've made as a mother are really my BFFs today. I have no desire to go back in time." Meanwhile, the latter said, "My friends from high school mean the world to me. In some ways, they know me better than anyone else. I don't know what I'd do without them."
And so maybe my daughter will be the same, and will keep her friends forever — or at least some of them for awhile. Sure, I’ve been riding many waves of transition — but so has she. Adding my own apprehensions to her emotional stew is never right. But being a good listener — and being more deliberate with my responses — is.