About four years ago when she was a college freshman home on winter break, my daughter went on a skiing trip to Vermont with a few of her high school friends. They planned to leave after dark. The 4-5 hour drive was on increasingly snow-covered roads, and they were driving to a place with which none of them was familiar. On top of concerns about their personal safety, I worried about other freedoms the kids would have like sex and alcohol. Reminding myself that they already had these freedoms at college helped only slightly to assuage my fears.
Knowing that she would resist mightily if I refused to let her go on this trip, I pleaded with her to make just one modification to the plan: leave earlier in the day so that the roads would be less icy and so that they would get there before dark. She would not hear of it.
And so, I found myself driving her to her friend’s house, fuming silently. The thought that ate away at me was how I would feel if one of the unthinkable scenarios in my imagination was to play out. How I would castigate myself for having (in a sense) enabled this trip. Wasn’t I supposed to be the adult in this relationship? The one with more perspective, and more say?
We were both so mad at each other we barely said goodbye. She silently unloaded her gear from the back of the minivan, slammed the door shut and ran to join her friends who were busy loading the cars.
On the drive back from her friend’s house, as I replayed the scene I had just witnessed, I had my “ah-ha!” moment.
I can still see them in my mind's eye - the parents of my daughter’s friends as they laughed and talked among themselves and helped the kids load up the cars. Far from being some old beat-up heaps, the cars were shining late model SUVs. I realized that the parents were not concerned about any of the things that worried me: the teens’ personal safety, their youthful excesses, financial losses if the cars were to get damaged.
I realized that my worry had much to do with me and my own formative experiences and how different they are from the formative experiences of my parenting peers. I saw that it’s not about culture and tradition as we typically think of those constructs. Rather, it is about tolerance for risk. In general, the parents of my children’s friends have a higher tolerance for risk than I do.
I came of age in a society that was marked by scarcity of opportunity. In the India of my childhood, there were no second chances. And, there were two additional considerations: one, a complex combination of love, fear and respect towards my parents which made unduly challenging them and/or letting them down unthinkable; and two, a desire to make something of the middle class privilege that I was fortunate enough to have, and that multitudes of have-nots who I saw everyday not only lacked, but also faced, with grace and dignity.
The difference in my attitudes and those of the other parents also stemmed from the fact that I simply don’t have personal experience of this level of autonomy at this young age. Neither do I have personal experience of this kind of rebellion – bordering (in my eyes anyway) on disregard for one’s parents’ express wishes.
As I thought through these differences, I found myself getting calmer. In a sense, I was able to let myself off the hook. I realized that the phase of hands-on parenting was drawing to a close. I needed to trust my daughter. Equally, I needed to trust myself and the eighteen years of mothering that had come before.
During the four days that she was away, we did not call each other. I figured I would hear soon enough if something was awry. She came home bearing a pile of magazines, ranging from the Economist to Harpers Weekly, magazines that she would not have picked up six months previously. She said she had enjoyed reading the magazines more than she had enjoyed conversing with her friends.
Both she and I came to know ourselves a tad better. Not a bad outcome for letting go and letting her go.