June 25, 2014
“So Mom, we should do something fun this summer, just the two of us,” my daughter remarked. We had just listened to our neighbor tell us how he and his son had visited as many baseball parks as they could in two weeks. His son would be going off to college in a couple of years; they had wanted to do this for a long time, and felt this summer might be their last chance. He told us about their time together—how they’d had a chance to talk about life, girls, and, of course, baseball—and how they’d learned some new things about each other. He also said that they’d try to sneak into a few ballparks next summer while they were visiting colleges, but he seemed a little sad as he said it, knowing that the purpose of that visit would be quite different. My daughter knew it too.
As a child psychologist, I’ve watched hundreds of families negotiate the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adolescent who is soon to become an independent adult. The journeys I’ve observed are sometimes marked by anger, resentment and confusion. “Why is he like this?” parents will ask me. “What happened to the little boy who loved to be tucked in at night? Now he just seems angry and depressed.” Their kids, meanwhile, tell me how misunderstood they feel, how their parents don’t “know” or “get” them—or worse, don’t seem to want to know them (even though that is almost never the case).
So far, I’d been lucky enough to escape the worst of what I had observed in some families, but there was one thing that I hadn’t escaped—a profound sense of sadness and loss, feelings which I think are universally experienced by parents as their children mature into adolescence. In each stage of development prior to adolescence, change is typically replaced by something new and more exciting. Crawling is replaced by walking. . . being read to is replaced by reading independently . . . riding in the bike seat is replaced by riding a two-wheeler all by oneself. However, once a child reaches high school, these changes are not always positive. Thinking for themselves may lead to adolescents disagreeing with what their parents believe. Growing independence typically leads adolescents to spend large amounts of time away from home. Even in the best of situations, changes at this age always lead to the child pulling away from the family. It’s normal, but a loss nonetheless.
So it was from this vantage point that I pondered my daughter’s question. “Of course we could do something like that, but what?” I asked her. Sitting at a spa for a week seemed too decadent. Neither of us were sports fans, so stadiums and ballparks were out of the question. We did, however, share a passion for music, and a few months before had been lucky enough to snag front row seats at a Sting concert. It had been a bonding experience for both of us, so when she suggested we “go to a bunch of Sting concerts,” it seemed like a good idea to me.
We picked a couple of cities where I had friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. We ended up going to New York and Houston (places I’d lived before she was born), as well as our hometown of Boston. What made our time together so special was that not only did we enjoy our time singing with each other at the concerts, we also enjoyed our time reconnecting with people I’d lost touch with along the busy path to motherhood. In addition, we had a few moments of sheer excitement along the way.
During one concert intermission, while Hannah was getting an autograph from Sting’s guitarist, she remarked to him that her mom was a big fan of Kipper, Sting’s producer and keyboardist. Somehow, due to the guitarist’s generosity and good fortune, we found ourselves backstage the next night in a private audience with Kipper—and an unexpected meeting with Sting! To say the least, it was a fun-filled moment for both of us.
As we left the backstage area that night, I couldn’t help but give my daughter some motherly advice. “Hannah,” I said, “Don’t expect life to be like this. You won’t always find yourself backstage ‘just because.’ Things like this don’t happen that often.” But as I spoke these words, I realized I wasn’t talking about her life; I was talking about my own. My life hadn’t been filled with these types of serendipitous opportunities, but maybe her life would be. Who was I to say?
Even more important than the concert experience was what Hannah learned about my friends and my life before I became a mother. She heard about my first post-college job by listening to the stories from my coworkers. She saw the first apartment I lived in, the places I used to shop at, and the people I’d lost touch with along the way. My friends doled out advice on boyfriends, marriage and sex, and how the importance of good girlfriends can help you weather the shortcomings in either of those areas.
One night, as we sat at my girlfriend Kim’s kitchen table after our “last” concert, Hannah remarked that it was fun to see the friends I’d had when I was young. “Yes,” we said, “we had lives before we had kids, before people were transferred to other towns, before we needed reading glasses.” My friend Elizabeth remarked, “You’re not just seeing your mom’s life in these travels you’ve shared with her, but looking into your own life as well.” It seemed that by providing Hannah with a tapestry of the people who enriched my life, I was unwittingly providing her with a roadmap for her own.
I wish I could say that there have been no bumps and bruises in the years since our “tour,” but unfortunately life has pulled us in different directions now and then. I’d like to think, though, that this experience has established a depth to our relationship that’s allowed us to be more fully present at those times. We have our own special smile we give to one another when a Sting song comes on the radio, and when we hear him sing the words, “The spirit moves on the water, takes the shape of this heavenly daughter. She’s rising up like a river in flood, the word God made into flesh and blood,” we know it’s a metaphor for what we experienced in one brief summer between Hannah’s childhood and adulthood. The process of watching her grow into adulthood has been exciting, and a bit sad, but I’d like to think our special time together gave us both better directions for the exciting roads that lay ahead.