On a recent trip to Melbourne, Florida where my daughter is a graduate student at the Florida Institute of Technology, I received an unexpected gift. That of having been right about something. Two things, actually. With my daughter.
My relationship with my now adult daughter was a fairly typical one. As an infant and a little girl, I was her world. Then middle school happened. Slammed doors, tears and anger dominated the years before she went to college. There were a few rare moments of love, humor and deep conversations during her senior year as we both tried to declare a temporary truce. I used to feel tortured by the state of our relationship – my own relationship with my mother at that age was nothing like this. We were not necessarily close but I did not have these intense fights with her.
[More about teen girls from Dr. Lisa Damour, author and psychotherapist, here.]
I knew we loved each other, but being around each other without upsetting each other was a challenge.
I also know I had passed on my own fears and anxieties to her, subconsciously. This is my biggest regret in life. For the most part, I tried to be a good parent and encouraged her in everything but there were many times when I did not hide my own impatience and anxiety when she needed me.
Then she went off to college. She missed home, she missed her brother and dad, and yes, she even missed me! I missed her like I missed a life-sustaining organ that I had no idea existed. It was a gut punch that took my breath away. At Indian parties, I would feel incredibly sad when I saw other teenage girls with their moms. The most mundane things like shopping for groceries brought tears to my eyes when I remembered how she would keep calling me every two minutes to come look at something. I used to get impatient with that but would have given my right arm to have her annoying me in grocery stores and shopping malls again.
[More about the pain parents feel when they take their kids to college here.]
This was my little girl. I have no human words to describe the bond I feel with her. But we had grown apart over the years, and there is a big gaping hole when I think back to her middle school through high school years. We lived in the same house, we went shopping together and occasionally watched movies together. But the connection was missing. I didn’t know what she thought during those days. I didn’t know if she had crushes on any boys. I wish I had been more in tune with her needs and done more things with her.
But slowly, things started to change. Over the next four years, she started calling me on her way to class. Asking me for advice, telling me about her day. Surprisingly, I started getting her thoughts on my problems—my problems with my friends, hometown gossip, and we slowly started healing. I began to consciously develop patience – a slow and painful process and it certainly did not happen overnight. For her part, she started to open up to me slowly.
Then she started her graduate program close to home. On a recent weekend visit to see her, I was playing with Kashew, her adorable mini dachshund, and she was cleaning her closet. She came out of her room and said, a little sheepishly: “You know how you told me to keep the folded clothes with the fold facing outside? I started doing it and it saves so much space. Also, I can actually see what I have.”
That same day, at lunch, she had said that she took my advice on buying smaller tomatoes instead of the big ones she used to. She didn’t always use them up, and would save the unused portion and always ended up throwing them out.
Little things. But they are filling up the huge chasm that’s between us. If someone had told me this would happen a few years ago, I would have asked what they were smoking.
Aside from these little unexpected moments, there are also slight shifts in our roles. Both of my kids have started to worry about my exercise and water intake habits (both practically non-existent). My daughter even made a really cute rewards chart to get me to drink water. The rewards were feeding her puppy, watching him eat—yes, I love to watch him eat, and other such weird things that she knows I love. It worked for exactly a week, but that’s beside the point.
We have come a long way, my little girl and me. We are planning a little weekend trip, just the two of us, a mother-daughter weekend. My goal is to replace every bad memory she has of family vacations with new ones she will cherish the rest of her life.
I feel that I have been given a second chance. I hold in my hand something very precious, delicate and full of light. This time around, we will make it work.
Why Parents and Children Become Estranged
Srilatha Rajagopal is an IT Project Manager. Her past lives include programmer, stay at home mom, back to programmer. She lives in Florida with her equally middle-aged husband of 26 years. Their lives are somehow fuller and busier now with the kids having flown the coop. She spends her time volunteering, writing, cooking, gardening and at her job. In that order. She also writes a blog about parenting, finding your groove when you’re middle-aged and an empty nester.