When I was 16, my social living teacher at Berkeley High School had us write letters to ourselves. She told us to write a future date on the envelope and promised to send us our letters on that day, which she did. Mine arrived 10 years later when I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mom forwarded it to me, and I remember sitting in my rented basement room, having just finished rehearsing with a dance company I’d joined, unfolding the piece of yellow legal pad paper, and marveling at my teenager handwriting, letters squished together to make room for all I had to say.
Much of that letter was advice about how to live in the future. There were a lot of things like: “Don’t forget to do what makes you happy. Don’t just live to make money.” I remember looking around that room, which was dark and damp, all that I could afford on what I was making working at a coffee shop and dancing for free, and laughing. So far, I was on track with that. The second half of the letter, though, was advice about parenting. “Be the kind of parent who doesn’t stress about little things, like whether or not they clean their room. Be a cool mom.”
I thought about this letter the other evening when my 15-year-old daughter yelled at me to get out of her room, which I do make her clean. And, again, when she barked at me over the phone that I made everything such a thing! by insisting she come home when she said she would. And, again, when I accidentally hit my head on the car door on one of our silent, irritated (on her part) and deep breathing techniques (on my part) car rides to the shuttle that takes her to school each morning, and her response, when she saw I was crying, was, “God, mom! People hit their heads. You’re fine!”
For years, I prided myself on being the kind of mom my kids talked to, really talked to, not just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, or giving one-word answers to probing questions, but the kind of talks that happen in bed, side by side, or pulled over in the car, no one in a hurry to go anywhere. I had inside jokes with them, sudden dance parties, laughing to the point of running to the bathroom to pee. We had family game nights, organized by my younger daughter, walks in our neighborhoods. During Covid lockdown, we had a family schedule written on a whiteboard that said things like Creative Project Time when we would all write or draw side by side.
Right now, most of this feels like past tense, the way we were. I am filled with nostalgia writing about it. My older child is still game to talk and hang out, but is also, and has always been, fully immersed in their inner world, which they usually find to be much more interesting and engaging than spending a lot of time with other people.
The change in my younger daughter is what gives me pause and makes me look back at that letter I wrote myself at 16 and marvel that I hadn’t written, “Watch out! You may have a daughter whose brain gets possessed by a snarky, mean, ruthless demon who sees you as weak, vulnerable prey.” Because that is what is happening now.
Gone are the late-night talks, the cuddling while watching a movie, the inside jokes. I wake up each day not sure who is going to come out of her room. Will it be the utterly irritated with the world because her hair is not doing what she wants it to version of her? Or the one who cannot believe I didn’t do x, y, or z for her and walks by me, shaking her head in disapproval? Or the version of her that is under some heavy, heavy weight? Who slumps in the car, despondent, and when I ask if she’s okay, barks at me, “Mom! I just said I was tired!!”
Every now and then, an older, less burdened version appears. She has a little spring in her step, she pets our family rabbit. She may even ask me a question or two. I try not to live for these moments. I’ve been told not to be “thirsty” in my relationship with my teenage daughter, to not act like I need her, to act totally uninterested. Since when did parenting become play hard to get? But I usually fail at this. I make that fatal error of perking up when she is in one of these rare, upbeat moods. I may give her a hug or smile too broadly—whatever it is, she quickly reverts to that other self, the one that is perpetually irritated by me no matter what I do.
Why didn’t I warn my future self about this part of parenting? Was I also a demon child with my mother at 16? Was my mom as irritating to me at that age as I am to my daughter? I don’t say much about my mom in the letter to my future self, other than to hope she quits smoking (she did many years later.) Was my mom not even a thought to me at that age? And, is that what is happening now? For so long, I played a prominent role in my daughter’s life. As a single mom, I’ve played the prominent role. She needed me for everything, and I have to admit, I loved that. The codependent in me felt completely soothed by this total need that I could fill, most of the time, and especially when my kids were very young and the needs were quite simple: Don’t let them die.
Now, there are still needs, but many of them I can’t fill. In fact, my role is shrinking, and I feel it happening—as if around them, and especially around her, I am physically becoming smaller, shrinking into this unfamiliar, unknown, confusing place where she still needs me (at the very least for rides and spending money) but also needs to push me away in order to be able to figure so much out on her own, so many things I can’t be there with her to help her navigate.
This is what I should have told my future self: Don’t take it personally. Your teenage daughter will push you away, and it will feel violent and mean but it’s just normal. And it doesn’t matter how cool you are, or whether or not you make them clean their room. They will separate from you and it will be painful and horrible because you will be the kind of mom who loves to parent. And that is what will see you through the insanity of adolescence. Keep loving to parent . . . even when it’s hard.
This is my new mantra. It will take the place of the other, not-so-nice one, the one that replaces her name with various curse words.
I am learning to grow into this new place as a parent. I am learning the right balance of retreating in order to let her figure things out, setting limits when necessary, and continuing to be a steady, reliable, loving presence in her life. And it’s not about being a “cool” mom unless, in the end, that’s what being a “cool” mom is.