There are few places in the country where commutes are as common and as time-consuming as are those in Los Angeles. A 12-mile commute “over the hill” from Santa Monica to the Valley can easily put me on the road for a good seventy-five minutes if I hit it after 3:30. And I always hit it after 3:30, because I am my daughter’s most consistent and trusted mode of transportation from her school back to our house.
I am also a math teacher: when I remind students about how 2×3 is equivalent in value to 3×2, they often reply back to me, “Oh, yes, the communative property!!” Well, close. It’s the commutative property, which I then reinforce with a brief conversation about what we do in the car when we switch locations. “What are we doing then? Is it communing or commuting?” This usually satisfies my class.
But now I commute with my teenage daughter: 40 minutes in the morning, over an hour in the afternoon. And it occurs to me, we may not be just commuting; I think, every once in a while, something magical happens, and we find ourselves, in the middle of a concrete jungle of cars, communing.
No doubt my socially-savvy, Tik-Tok following, Insta-posting teen would roll her eyes at my play on words. But, shoulder to shoulder, moving in the same direction, forced to breathe our way through brake lights and bumpers, I discover this amazing human next to me.
The 405 freeway has become the most unlikely classroom, teaching me how to connect, listen to, and celebrate my daughter. Its lessons are simple, but often overlooked, as we hurry from start to finish and activity to appointment.
Lessons that commuting with her teen has taught this mom
Giving Room to Breathe: There are long stretches where I have to wait for her to be ready to engage. Some days, she slumps into the seat, shoulders angled away from me, and says nothing. Early on in the year, I used to greet this posture with, “Hi, Tink!! How was your day?”
But most mothers of fourteen-year-olds will tell you that the reply to that question is, almost universally, an unsatisfactory “good.” That’s it. End of conversation. Don’t ask again or pry, or those beautiful eyes that have brought you so much joy through the first thirteen years of her life will roll vehemently in their sockets.
So, I started to think about how she experienced my enthusiastic question. After a good seven hours of replying to others — teachers and peers — on command, she is likely exhausted. She has been proving herself with her replies from the moment she stepped out of my car this morning until now. And this is her first chance to find respite, to not have to engage on someone else’s terms.
So instead, I start with a statement. “Hi, Tink, it’s so good to see you.” In addition to simply loving her for who she is with this statement, I am giving her room to breathe. If she’s got the energy to engage, my affirmation invites her to do so; if not, it gives her room to process and recover from the mercurial nature of a teenager’s day.
Staying Fully Present: When she’s ready, which is sometimes two minutes and sometimes twenty, she’ll turn to me. There are times when I get, “Sophie is finally talking to me again,” and other times when I’ll get, “Hey, can I play you a new song I found?” My heart leaps inside me. A foothold! A place to start a conversation!
These offerings, however, come only when I have made room for them. This means that while I wait, I remain fully present for her. No phone calls on my bluetooth, no music on the speakers if she’s listening to her earbuds, and certainly no angry words to fellow drivers. There’s only one person listening to my rant or road rage, and she knows when it’s safe to open up and when it’s not. So, lots of quiet, deep breathing, fully present for her while she recovers from the day.
Remaining Quietly Curious: When she invites me in, all of my love for her causes me to want to jump out of my skin, pull over, look her in the eye, and enthusiastically tell her how much I love hearing from her and will she please tell me more. (Yes, I know: preposterous. But don’t tell me you haven’t felt that way when yours finally lets you into her social life or her thoughts on boys.) Instead, I thank God for the fact that this commute means that we remain shoulder to shoulder, in close proximity but without the forced intimacy that might shut her down.
Instead, I pick up on what she wants to talk about and get curious about that thing. I get to respond to her instead of forcing her to respond to me, and I do so without going over the top in my demeanor. And this quiet curiosity pays dividends, for I have found that it grows trust, and that trust emboldens her to share more and more with me.
Recognizing, Apologizing, and Recovering: Sometimes it’s not easy. I lose my temper, I have bad days, I get overwhelmed thinking about all that I have to do. I get afraid for her, recognizing that she has so many more pressures than I did when I was her age. I want to power through, plan her evening for her, and give her loads of unwelcome advice learned from years of experience.
But we have had enough commutes now that I can tell when things are going south. So can she. And we will breathe, apologize, and recover. There are days when I am thankful that the road is long enough to see us through that entire cycle.
The rewards: Occasionally, there are times when, the entire length of the 405, we talk about art, friends, social trends, crushes, classes, and music. I know on those days that the seeds of learning to wait well, to stay present, and to follow her lead with curiosity have blossomed into something remarkably sacred.
On those glorious days, our commute doesn’t even seem long enough.
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