Stuck on the Side of a Mountain, I Saw My Daughter in a New Way

You could say, by some measures, that my 22-year-old daughter hasn’t followed a set path. Three years ago, halfway through college, she dropped out abruptly to become a farmer in Vermont. Next stop was California, where she raised goats and lived in a religious community. Now sheʼs in Costa Rica, where she manages a wellness retreat center.

She is a counselor and an empath, a spiritual seeker. Definitely not conventional. Definitely her own person. I’ve had to run hard to keep up with the changes in her life, and she’s left me breathless more than once. I can’t say I agree with everything she’s done. (Like when she shaved her head.) But we’ve built a strong basis of trust over the past few years, mainly as I’ve learned to let go and accept that her choices are emphatically not mine.

As a mom, you expect to be the wise one

I don’t think there’s a harder lesson to learn for a mother. As a parent you expect wisdom to flow one way—from parent to child. But it goes the other way too. As I’ve seen how my daughter has chosen to live her life, I’ve thought hard about my own, especially the part about jumping off the set path.

Over time my job—a pressure cooker of a position that I’d held for eight years— had become less fulfilling. As I looked at what I wanted to accomplish in the last years of my working life, this wasn’t it. I was longing for something different.

So I prepared carefully, choose my moment, and quit my job. All of this brought my daughter and me to a fraught moment on the side of a mountain in Sedona. To celebrate my new freedom, we had decided to meet in Arizona the week after my job ended. We hadn’t seen each other in four months.

We planned to eat good food, hike beautiful trails, and push the reset button. The plan that day was to hike to Robber’s Roost, also known as the Shaman’s Cave. We drove for miles through the high desert, then walked in on a dirt trail, alone in a magnificent landscape of red rocks and wildflowers.

At the summit, the trail petered out into a narrow path that hugged the sheer side of the mountain. The cave was just around the corner, out of sight. I stepped onto the path behind my daughter and glanced down at the canyon floor, about 10 billion or so feet below. (Big mistake.) I scrambled backward, my heart thumping and my stomach lurching. Sitting down hard on a rock, I started to cry, the fear escalating into a full-blown panic attack. It’s an odd feeling, when your child becomes the parent.

My daughter sat beside me, calmed me, promised not to leave my side (I was as afraid for her as I was for myself). She sang quietly, stroking my back, encouraging me to still my breathing. She gave me water and food. Basically, she pulled out all the tricks that I’d used on her when she was a child, despairing over some childhood mishap.

Eventually I was calm enough to let her leave me alone and go on to the cave. Then, after sitting quietly for a while, I grabbed up what was left of my courage and followed her. The path was shorter and safer than it looked, and around the corner was this beautiful, spiritual cave; inside was my beautiful daughter, safe and sound.

I know that my panic that day was less about the sheer drop off of the mountain and more about the sheer drop I’d just made in my life. The enormity of quitting my job was bound to hit me at some point. The surprise was that my daughter was there to catch me. It shifted something between us yet again—and that’s good, because the parent-child dynamic has to flex as they (and we) grow older, or we get stuck in old patterns and never learn to appreciate what they become.

That day on the mountain, I saw my daughter in a new way and built on the trust we’ve gained in the last few years. I know we will continue to climb together, and help each other as we both continue to become.

More to Read:

It’s Easy to Judge Until It’s Your Kid, Let’s Try Compassion

That One Kid Who’s Been Pulling Away His Whole Life

Susan Spencer is the former editor in chief of Woman’s Day. She is the author of a book about kindness—When Action Follows Heart: 365 Ways to Share Kindness (Hay House), available at Amazon and B&N.

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