My younger daughter, in high school, exhausts me. In the throws of adolescence, she is by turns angry, loving, filled with biting condescension, totally dependent, and a host of other equally extreme emotions. Entire days can be taken up negotiating homework, curfew, transportation and activities, leaving me physically and emotionally spent by nightfall.
There are moments I long for her simpler, toddler days when we would sit and read together for hours, or her elementary school years when we could bake or build something, working as a team.
Wading through the fog of nostalgia, though, the reality is that the terms of our relationship haven’t changed much over the years. From watching her find new ways to play as we walked down a street to riding the subways of New York on her own, I nudge her steadily towards independence and remove myself from more and more of her life decisions.
“That’s my goal, the place on the horizon I’m aiming for, where I have adult relationships with my children, where they’ll invite me over for dinner or go see a movie with me, not because they have to but because I’m fun and different from all the other people they know.”
This high school phase is rife with conflict as limits are pushed and she strives to separate from me, turning increasingly to friends for guidance and support. I believe in the process, though, having seen it through with my older daughter, now in college.
Now a sophomore, her departure for campus life brought about a delightful shift in our relationship. With most of the touch points for conflict gone, she seeks advice when needed and, more importantly, enjoys visits, whether on her turf or at home. Of course there are moments she still wants to be cared for, asking for a special breakfast or having her laundry done, when home is a refuge from the pressures of school.
Towards the end of her last school year, I drove up to collect some of her larger items, like her bike, and took her out for breakfast. We had a lovely time, chatting about school and people. Afterwards, as we got in the car to return to campus, my student said, “That was really fun, almost like talking with a friend.”
That’s my goal, the place on the horizon I’m aiming for, where I have adult relationships with my children, where they’ll invite me over for dinner or go see a movie with me, not because they have to but because I’m fun and different from all the other people they know.
The only way to get there that I know relies on my ability to watch my students take risks and be ready to help with the consequences. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, exploring a playground, she managed to climb onto the outside of a jungle gym, eyes gleaming, a look of concentration and confidence on her face. My wife’s palms got sweaty and her maternal alarms went off. “She shouldn’t be climbing there. She might fall! We should get her down before she hurts herself.”
I watched my adventurous child experience the thrill of risk, with Band-aids in my pocket and ice packs in the freezer just in case. That day she didn’t fall, but there have been bumps along the way for both my daughters, throughout childhood and on into high school and college. They manage to get up and move on to the next adventure or challenge. My older daughter, for example, found living with a family in another country a much harder adjustment than she’d expected but, after initial difficulty, she had a wonderful experience. My younger daughter lost a year of sports due to a knee injury, spending afternoons at physical therapy instead of practice. Finding her skills rusty when she returned to play, she didn’t quit but worked hard to catch up.
I admit there are moments I truly look forward to the empty nest, when my younger one is a little farther away and we aren’t bumping heads all the time, but only because I’m anticipating what comes next in the ever-changing role of a parent.