“Seriously, Mom, all we’ve done this week is fight! I don’t want to fight with you!” She might be right. My high school junior and I have disagreed a lot this week, and it’s been really unpleasant.
But she has to learn to budget her money/not leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight for me to find in the morning/tell me where she’s going before she gets there/keep her wet towels off the floor/fill-in-the-blank-with-any-other-life-skill-she-will-need-for-college. My mind retorts sarcastically.
For some reason, this last bit is what snaps me to attention. I have been so hard on her this week – rolling my eyes at her excuse that it’s Finals Week or that she has been busy with rehearsals lately or, or, or. That’s life, my inner voice says. Get used to it. When I have a lot on my plate, I don’t get to opt out of making dinner or walking the dog. And I don’t, but for some reason, the knowledge that my daughter is in her junior year of high school has thrown me off.
Generally, I do my best to strike some balance between reminders to get things done and acknowledgment of the things my girls are managing to handle really well. If I’m about to nag them to pick up their shoes or unpack from that school trip that happened almost a week ago, I try to start with, “Hey, thanks for helping me clean the kitchen last night after dinner. I know you had a ton of homework, but it was really nice of you to pitch in like that.”
Somehow, though, I have lost my footing with Erin. She has had almost unfettered access to the family car for the last few weeks while her dad was out of town, stretching her independence by driving herself to and from school and rehearsal and SAT prep and friends’ houses to hang out and it has become all to clear to me how soon she will be truly on her own. During her junior year, she will still have to tell me where she’s going and she has to be home by 11 and let me know if she won’t be here for family dinner. But soon enough, she will be in college and I won’t have any idea what her schedule is unless she tells me. She can stay out all night if she wants to, start that research paper the night before it’s due, and decide when to do the dishes she used to make pot-stickers for a midnight snack. And it turns out that the voice in my head is telling me that time is running out to make her a good roommate, a good citizen, a good person. I am panicking that I haven’t done enough, that I’ve spoiled her too much, that her life is too cushy, that she’ll get out into the world and I won’t have prepared her for it.
As soon as I recognize that this is what is behind my nagging, I want to laugh out loud. The fact is, she might be a terrible roommate, but not for long. She won’t go forever without learning those lessons, and in many cases, she will learn them much better (and with longer lasting effects) from someone other than me.
My first college roommate was a complete slob. She was a soccer player who ate my food, routinely exploded things in the microwave (but never cleaned it out), and didn’t do laundry unless she literally had no clothing left to wear that didn’t smell of sweat. Our dorm room had cinder block walls that absorbed every sour stench, including the pot smoke she tried to blow out the cracked open window, and reflected it back to us as soon as the sun came out and warmed the building. There were piles of clothes, crumpled bits of paper and empty potato chip bags on the floor of her side of the room that gradually crept over to my side. Before we were three weeks into the first semester, she had lost all of her pens and pencils, her scientific calculator and her shower kit somewhere in that vast pile of filth and took to “borrowing” my things – generally without asking. I implored her to clean up, do some laundry, ask before using my things. She wasn’t convinced.
She graduated from college, got a job, and became a full-fledged adult in spite of it.
My husband had never done his own laundry or made anything more substantial than a sandwich for himself before he left for college. In fact, in college, he still went home at least once a month and his mom did his laundry for him – folding it neatly or ironing things and putting them in the back seat of his car for the return visit home on Sunday night.
He is a successful businessman, a fabulous cook, and a very responsible adult.
What I realized this morning is that, if I continue down this path, I am likely to drive a wedge between my daughter and I that will be hard to remove once she’s on her own. Yes, it’s really irritating to have to continuously remind her to hang her wet towel up after she showers and it makes me nuts to come down at 6:30 AM to make my coffee and find half a pot of macaroni and cheese on the stove that’s been there since the middle of the night. But if I focus on those things instead of the fact that she is somehow juggling school, SAT prep, and rehearsals five days a week, getting herself out of bed in the morning and making her own snacks and mentoring freshmen who are struggling, I risk sending her the message that cleanliness is more important than anything. The fact is, she is a pretty amazing kid who is working really hard and if I can acknowledge that, I can lift her up and let her know that I’m paying attention to her efforts and intention. I have a limited amount of time left with her living in my house and I get to choose how we spend it – fighting over chores or celebrating the awesome young person she is becoming.
Kari O’Driscoll is a writer with a background in biology and medical ethics and has worked in medical and mental health settings. She is the parent of two teenage daughters. Her work has appeared in anthologies on parenting and reproductive rights as well as multiple online sites, covering topics such as social justice, parenting, food politics, and mindfulness. She is the founder of The SELF Project, a company dedicated to enhancing the social-emotional health of adolescents and building stronger communities.