There is no love like the love between a parent and child.
And though the depth of the love doesn’t change, the life stages of both parent and child do. Sometimes these changes are challenging and painful, leaving both parent and child to wonder if they will ever have a close relationship again.
I am the mother of a 15-year-old daughter who is a sophomore in high school and a 24-year-old son who graduated from college and is in the process of figuring out his life path, much as many of us in the older generation still are (or maybe that’s just me). I’m grateful and exceedingly blessed with healthy and mostly happy children. But while I used to believe the rigors of raising an infant and toddler were the toughest part of parenthood, I’ve learned that navigating relationships with an adolescent and young adult can be just as hard.
As a therapist, I understand the process of individuation, theories of separation and self-mastery, and that loss is part of life. I understand that standing on one’s own two feet is essential to creating a healthy self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. Most of all, I understand this was and is my job, to teach my children to fly. But when I’m wearing my mom hat, the theories don’t matter because it is my heart, not my brain, that brims with the love of years and the hope that my children and I will always be integral parts of one another’s lives.
When my son was getting ready to leave for several years of study overseas (not just the usual semester abroad), a mood of ambivalence and tension settled over our family. These feelings were about more than just him leaving — his father and I were going through a divorce. After his move, in addition to being thousands of miles away, my son became emotionally distant. When we did connect, I’d get the impression he found talking with me more of a nuisance than a joy. It was a rude awakening and left me thinking, “What the heck! I’ve just spent my whole adult life being the best mom I can be and now I’m obsolete?”
As a therapist, I understand theories of separation. I understand this was and is my job, to teach my children to fly. But when I’m wearing my mom hat, the theories don’t matter.
Coexisting with these painful feelings was the knowledge that this was exactly what I wanted for my son — for him to live his life to its fullest, to be self-sufficient, emotionally healthy and most of all happy. Believe me, I wasn’t the hovering mom trying to Skype or text each day; I just missed being a part of his life. I carried around a great sense of loss, and had to wallow for a while in self pity (which still creeps in on occasion) before getting to the other side. Today, he and I are on an easier path, settling in to a more relaxed and predictable routine of communication.
Everyone says relationships with daughters are different than with sons, and in my experience this is true. The other day I had to call my own mom and ask how I acted when I was 15. “Did it ever seem like I hated you?” “Yes!” she exclaimed, adding, “You barely talked to me, acted like I was a space cadet, and were a proficient eye-roller and door slammer.” Who, me?
My daughter doesn’t leave me guessing — strong-willed and quite vocal, she tells me exactly what she thinks. If only I had the death stare my mom used to give me! One minute she’s smiling and asking what’s for dinner and the next sullenly declaring she was never hungry in the first place. Then there are the moments when I’m sitting in her room thinking we’re having an awesome chat, and she says, “Okay, you can go now,” dismissing me as if she were the Queen herself. I’m sure my fellow parents of teenage girls can relate!
But truly, I cherish my relationship with her more than anything. She just got her braces off after three long years and is becoming a beautiful young woman — on the inside and out. I love hearing about her dreams, values and the day-to-day experiences with friends, her boyfriend, teachers, her brother and father, the world. In fact, I hang on to every word, hoping to remember these moments, learning to appreciate even the more difficult days because I know this time is fleeting.