Nineteen in 1968 and 2021
I don’t know how many of you have parented a nineteen-year-old college student but I am proud to say that we are almost through it. We are bruised but not broken. I thought when we got through the early, rough years of adolescence we were home free. Boy, was I wrong. For context, the world has become so complicated with the pandemic. As part of the class of 2020, my daughter’s senior year was significantly affected by the stay-at-home orders. No prom, no graduation, none of the traditional endings to a thirteen-year career in public school. This is what kids look forward to most. Then her first year of college was basically virtual. She sort of lived there with a full academic schedule online and did little else. With her increased time at home I thought it a blessing to have more time with her. However, after her returns from abbreviated college stints, she has changed. She knows EVERYTHING. She is also an “adult” now and can make her own decisions. Ok, ok, I expected some of that and in fact, I think I resembled some of that during my own nineteenth year.
You must be wondering what does this all have to do with NPEs? Stay with me – I promise I will get there.
What I didn’t expect is my daughter’s non-stop sass and boundary-pushing. I thought we covered that years ago. As an example, she’s forgotten how to greet people in the morning when we arrive in the kitchen at the same time. My efforts to model what she once knew are often met with an annoyed look usually because I interrupted her listening to a very important tik tok video. She barely says hello and good-bye when she heads off to work (I have to give her significant credit here, she works HARD). When we have time together over a meal, celebration, or holiday, things are always on her terms. I am just being myself but somewhere along the way she reminds me that I am uncool and know nothing. I’m taking all of this personally, I know that. I’m writing this post so I get to slant it the way I want it.
So, in Herculean efforts to maintain my relationship with her AND maintain my need for basic respect and boundaries, we have come to a place of near silence. I am petrified of saying something that feels real and raw that I will have to apologize for later and she walks around pretending we are not necessary (until she needs something financial). It’s quiet. I don’t like it. The opposite of quiet would be yelling and I like that even less. The past few months have been strange and I am eager to see her off to college as it may be a more normal experience for both of us. She can return to the world of academia and socializing away from home. And I can clean up all the eggshells that I have been walking on.
Also the past few months I’ve wonder about her decision-making. She’s had a couple speeding tickets, a minor car crash in our driveway, and a few beyond-curfew moments. She didn’t seem to learn from one incident (read: expensive ticket) and repeated it with the same negative results (plus points this time). This makes no sense to me but she is who she is and I have to let her grow and learn on her own. But it’s not been pretty. We’ve had lots of words over these incidents. None of it resulting in anything that makes me feel like she learned anything and none of it helpful to our relationship (that I can feel good about yet). As hard as it is, I see how much she still needs parented even if she can’t.
So (finally!) what does this have to do with anything related to NPEs? Being 3 years post-paternity shock, I had accepted that I have a biological father I never knew about. But I was not ready to let my deceased mother off the hook with my anger. The grief and loss was palpable still – how could she do this to my dad (bcf)? Me? My birth father (who was just as surprised as me with the ancestry test results)? What was she thinking?
But this summer there was a gut-wrenching, vomit-in-the-back-of-the-throat moment when I easily let go of my deceased mother’s indiscretion and secret-keeping. Turns out my mother was nineteen when she got pregnant and had me. And BECAUSE my nineteen-year-old was stressing me out, BECAUSE I was questioning her decision-making, BECAUSE I was so frustrated that she appeared to have lost social skills, I finally had empathy for my mother and understanding about how she may have been thinking and making decisions. I had always known my mother was nineteen when I was born but I didn’t have a context for this age outside of my own travels through nineteen (a long time ago at this point). When my mother learned she was pregnant, she was attending college as a Freshman and was barely into her second semester. She grew up in a middle class, intact family with a sister – just like my daughter. The context of the world in 1968 was also chaotic with the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, riots in Washington D.C., and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. My mother also became pregnant at a time when abortion was not a legal option. Reflecting as daughter and mother, I have a new appreciation for being nineteen and all that comes with the transition to adulthood along with having to navigate societal chaos. I have learned this summer that I cannot fault my daughter, nor my young mother, for who they are/were at nineteen.
In my story, I was twenty years old when my mother died from complications of alcoholism. I believe her alcoholism developed from her shame of leaving me with a man she told I was his biological child. She abandoned our little family when I was three years old but not until we had moved several hours from extended family. I saw her only sporadically over the next seventeen years. I now believe that when she did see me, I was a reminder of her shame. I craved a closeness with her that she was never going to be able to give. I know now that it was never me but what I represented about herself and her decisions. My mother wasn’t ready to be a parent at nineteen. She still needed parented. I guess this is where the loop closes because I will not stop parenting my daughter and now, even she gets a little more grace.