By March of her senior year of high school it was clear that any skills or competence I had achieved as a mother had completely disappeared in her eyes. Everything that I said was “wrong” or “embarrassing.” The timing of my utterances was “totally off,” even the way I breathed was “irritating.”
When I gave a task back to her to complete, she insisted that a good mother would have finished it for her child. When I completed a task for her, she made it clear that I was encroaching on her turf. And the worst of it was that this was the child with whom I had always gotten along; this was the kid who was easy-going, flexible, good with grown-ups, and appreciative. I felt simultaneously sucker punched by her kicks and fit to be tied.
I was sure that the good times with her were gone forever.
But then I remembered my high school swim coach and his instructions on flip turns. “When you reach the side of the pool after completing a lap,” he instructed, “curl, flip fast, secure your feet, flat and firmly against the side of the pool and KICK OFF strong and hard, like your life depends on it…The harder you kick off from that surface, the farther you will go forward.”
And then it all made sense.
My daughter knew she needed to leave us shortly. She knew that she could not stay in the safe and cozy harbor offered by her home and school. She realized she needed to secure her feet firmly against us and kick off, strong and hard. Somehow she understood that the more strongly she kicked off and away from us, the farther she could go.
Cognitive dissonance theory would argue that holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time distresses us, so we strive to reconcile those thoughts. You cannot simultaneously feel safe and secure with your idealized parents and leave them; you must somehow make them seem inept and inadequate in your eyes in order to effectively separate. Once I understood this, the whole thing got a lot easier.
As I thought about my relationship with my daughter, memories of an unsuccessful flip turn attempt came flooding back. There was the time I tried a flip turn against a flimsy, rotting dock at summer camp. I curled, I flipped and I secured my feet against the side of the dock crib. But, and importantly, as I attempted to push off, strong and hard as my coach had taught me, the dock crumbled and broke and I did not move forward any significant distance.
In fact, I only made a huge, extremely ungraceful splash very close to the dock and ended up in the infirmary with bleeding feet. This memory helped bring clarity to my current role in my daughter’s life. She needed me to remain firm and strong and allow her to kick off of me without my crumbling or breaking from her force. She needed to use my strength to catalyze and reinforce her own pushing away. She also needed to know that, unlike the dock at camp, I would remain intact and solid despite her kicking me in the gut.
So I began to seemingly ignore her criticisms and corrections and learned how to keep the conversation going. I joined her in her efforts to push off. I listened as she planned what she would purchase, what she would pack, how she would travel, who would travel with her. I laughed with her at the craziness of it all. I told her about my own career and my personal aspirations for her after she left.
And, when I sometimes still felt punched in the gut, I remembered my swim coach and silently thanked him.
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Leora Heckelman is a licensed clinical psychologist who currently serves as Director of Psychology Education & Training and as Director of Psychotherapy Training in Psychiatry at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and West Hospitals. She has small private practices in both Manhattan and West Orange. Leora studied psychology at Brown and Harvard and later completed a three-year post-doc in Anxiety Disorders at Payne Whitney (Weill Cornell Medical School). But far and away, she considers her greatest accomplishments to be the three children which she and her husband raised (two of whom are now happily ‘grown and flown’). Leora lives in New Jersey with her lawyer-turned-rabbi-husband Aaron, their high-school aged (not yet grown and flown) son, and their two cats Sesame and Poppy who promise never to grow or fly.