I was nine years old on 9/11. A boy came running into my class talking about what he’d seen on the news and how cool it looked. I lived in Missouri so no one got sent home from school. The biggest indication I had that something was wrong was that I had to take a note home to my mom that said that Back to School Night was cancelled. I remember my mother telling me in the YMCA parking lot before my swimming lesson that something terrible had happened and that a lot of people were hurt. But as the rest of the days, weeks, and months in the aftermath of 9/11 continued, I did not fully understand what was going on.
Cut to nine years later. My mother and I were going through the stuff in my room sorting out what things will go in the attic, what things will come with me to college, and what things will go to Goodwill or even in the trash.
Every once in a while, when we would begin to get snippy with one another or argue, my mother would look at me with pleading eyes and say “Let’s not fight – these are our last few days together. You know? This is the last time we’re going to spend together in this house.” And I would throw a wrap dress into a bag emphatically and go “GOD Mom I KNOW.” And the fighting would continue.
When we’re young, we grow up looking to our parents to tell us whether or not a situation is okay. When we hear bad words, we instinctively turn in their direction to see if they’re upset. We ask them who the good guys and the bad guys are in movies. And for a long time, we run to tell them when we feel wronged by someone because we need their validation to decide if we’re really allowed to be hurt or impacted.
Our parents, for so much of our lives, are the arbiters of severity, the people who tell us whether or not to be afraid, or sad, or excited – who clarify for us what is going on.
Part of growing up and out of the home that built us is navigating our own ability to discern life’s stakes. We are raised, slowly but surely, to take the reins of our own understanding, to feel without external confirmation, to sort out the good guys and the bad guys for ourselves.
And for a while, we do all of this with our former brains standing right beside us.
There is a special kind of frustration in having our parents tell us something we already know. On one hand, we resist a forced return to our less independent selves – and on the other, we are reminded that our thoughts, feelings, and opinions came from somewhere and may never feel truly like our own.
I knew I was going to college. I knew I was leaving everything behind. I knew I would never spend this kind or quality of time with my family for this long ever again.
I knew what was going on and it infuriated me that my mom would have the gall to remind me – as if it weren’t consuming me every moment of every day – as if I still needed to be told what things were and were not the difficult parts of being alive.
But more than that, I was angry that my mom was a person navigating her thoughts and feelings just like me. That this object of correctness, my beacon of truth was actually a living, breathing human being whom my actions and my life could affect. I knew I was leaving. She didn’t have to also know.
How could a thing that brought me so much fear and panic and excitement and sadness and joy have any effect on her whatsoever? Hadn’t I wrung out my circumstances of all their meaning? Couldn’t this only affect me?
My mom wasn’t telling me that I was leaving to remind me that I was leaving, she was telling me that I was leaving to remind me that she was being left.
One of the caveats of becoming the master of your own ship is realizing that you have to pay attention to the other boats in the water. But preparing to see your parents as people is, quite often, one of the scariest and painful parts of growing up.
So please forgive our moody, distant, snappy retorts as we prepare to leave. It’s not that we don’t understand what’s going on in the two or three weeks before we head off to college, it’s that we’re slowing starting to comprehend everything that happened in the 18 years before – all of the ways that we looked to and relied on our parents for help and guidance and validation – and the fact that they were feeling human feelings the whole time – feelings they often set aside on our behalf.
Forgive us our harsh words when you tell us something we know, it’s just that we keep becoming more and more aware of the things that we don’t.
And we know we’re not always going to be able to ask you.
Taylor Kay Phillips is a writer, actor, and comedian who grew up in Kansas City and is now rejecting the idea of being a grown up in New York City. She always follows her mother’s advice, but usually five years too late. Find her on Twitter.