I love writing for The National. It is hard for my family to access– certainly for my kids– so it is easy to be open. This one is a piece on a topic that is so close to my heart (and heartbreak). It goes out to all mothers with teenage daughters. As for the Dads with daughters, all I have to say is: You lucky dogs!!! My kids, by the way, don’t read The National, and I am not about to correct this situation.
She pulls away when I hug her, my teenager.
She is like a butterfly, my 15-year-old child. Has a lock on a corner of my heart that I didn’t even know existed. Gives me mixed messages. Sometimes she needs me but usually she doesn’t want me anywhere near her.
When a friend asked her with whom she was most comfortable, she replied, “my friends.” As her mother, I felt hurt, even though I have told myself that it is normal for teenagers to turn to their peers.
The strange thing is that I am the same way with my mother. I pull away from her enveloping warmth; her protectiveness; her eagerness to help, to do things for me. “Leave me alone,” I want to say to her. “I can handle it.”
I don’t say these things, of course. After all, I am grown now, no longer a rebelling teenager. My mother too is old. She complains of knee aches.
I cannot accept that she is growing old. After all, she smells the same and her touch can still comfort me instantly. How can this woman grow old? I cannot stand it.
What is it with mothers and daughters? Why is it complicated? It cannot be mere dysfunctional personalities. It has got to be more than that for the difficulty to be so pervasive.
Fathers have it easier. There isn’t that much angst or expectation from the father. The mother, on the other hand, can do no right.
My daughter needs me in a deep, unspoken way. This I know. She doesn’t realise that she needs me but she does. I know this because she seeks my touch or my comments, usually when I least expect her to.
Sometimes she calls me into her room to see how she has combined a new top she got at Esprit with a pair of leggings she picked up in Paris. “Look,” she will say as I walk in. I immediately take on the deer-in-headlights look. “Please, God”, I think to myself, “let me not say anything wrong”.
“Wow!” I say non-committally. “You look nice.” “Ma, I am not after ‘nice’. I am after edgy,” she will reply. “Do I look edgy?”
What is edgy, I wonder. How can a child be edgy? She is no punk-rocker, my daughter. How can she be edgy? “Well, you look sort of edgy,” I hedge.
She gives me that look that happens when kids roll their eyes and then stop themselves at the last minute, if only because they have heard enough outraged screaming from affronted mothers: “I saw that. Don’t you roll your eyes at me!” She is good at stopping herself, my daughter. When she wants to.
What she wants to do today is organise her wardrobe. I am delighted to do it with her. I would be delighted to do it for her, but over the years, I have realised that she views this whole “doing it for her” thing as overbearing.
So I hang back. I sit down on the floor and ask her to throw down to me any clothes that she wants folded. Overbearing? Nah. Not me.
“How was school today?” I ask. “Good,” she replies and cranks up the music some more.
I get the message. After all, I am the same way when my mother comes and sits beside me on the sofa, just as I pick up the newspaper, and asks, “Have you planned the menu for the party?”
I know she wants to help. She is good at it. But I don’t really want to talk about the party – or anything else for that matter – just that minute. My shoulders tighten. “Oh yeah,” I say lightly, and attempt to ignore my mother.
What is it with mothers and daughters, I ask again? Is it that this particular relationship has so much invested within it that the whole thing gets complicated?
I should pull back from my daughter just so she gets breathing space. I know this intellectually but am unable to put it in practice. I want so much to be part of her life; her thoughts; her worries and sorrows that it is hard for me to hold back.
You know the worst part? In two years, she will fly away to university.
Shoba Narayan is the author to Return to India: a memoir