A photo of a white woman hugging her mother

The writer and her daughter.


The writer and her daughter.

Why Doesn’t Anyone Talk About “The Terrible 20s”?

A winter-break visit from her college-age daughter reminds our columnist that parenting never ends—and perhaps that’s one of the best things about it.

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I sat and watched the season premiere of The Bachelor with my friend A the other night. We sat on the couch—A was drinking cider and I was drinking wine—and together we cringed at some of the contestants’ fashion choices, groaned at their corny opening lines, debated whether the hunky new Bachelor was sweet or vapid.

It was basically your standard dumb TV bonding experience, except that A is my 21-year-old daughter, home from college for winter break.

In my mind, sometimes she’s still the 5-year-old who chatted merrily with every elderly person in our apartment building, or the 9-year-old who still wanted me to carry her on my shoulders, or the 13-year-old whose gut-punched hurt and anger at being displaced by a little brother broke my heart.

But now she’s 21. And she’s smart and funny and great company to watch The Bachelor with. Go figure.

Parenting never ends, but it continually reinvents itself. And even though A is now technically an adult—she has reminded me of this fact more than once, usually right before asking me for money, or keys to my car—there are still plenty of moments between us that elicit the same feelings motherhood always does. I worry when she sounds sad or aimless, feel proud when she shows me last semester’s improving grades (I know how hard she’s worked), and melt with joy when she hugs her little brother spontaneously. Annoyance is still in the mix, too, like when she walked past the table I’d just set with a bounteous holiday breakfast (pancakes, sausage, eggs, fruit), to stand in front of the open fridge, demanding to know whether we have any sushi or edamame.

When she was tiny, A couldn’t go to sleep without my singing to her. I felt at times as if I could see the thoughts forming in her mind. Now that she’s in college, we go months without seeing each other. Every time she comes home for a visit it takes us a few days to get used to one another again. We’re so excited at first, then we fight over something dumb, and our disappointment is palpable, heavy.

It’s hard for me to figure out how to mother someone taller than myself. She loves to climb into my lap, half-jokingly (as a young adult she’s a natural physical comedian) but half for real (she was such a snuggly little girl). She’s not only taller than I, but much thinner. Every visit, she shops my closet, taking away more of what I used to wear when I was younger and slim, more like her. It’s not exactly like she’s a vampire who has stolen my life force, my youth, and my beauty—but it’s not exactly not like that.

I wonder whether my own mother felt this way.

A and I have a better, much warmer relationship than I ever had with my mom. Partly because my mother and I were so embattled, I’ve tried hard to be a different kind of mother. I work on curbing my critical instincts. I tell A how much I love her, focus on how much I enjoy her just as she is—not as a project for me to work on, or a problem for me to fix. I don’t always succeed, of course, nor do I respond well when she’s critical of me—especially when she accuses me of pampering her 8-year-old brother, M. She can be mean about it—never to him, but to me—and I remember that growing up is just a never-ending series of phases. The Terrible Twos are a cliché, but nobody ever talks about the Terrible Twenties.

Having two children 13 years apart isn’t exactly something I’d recommend. It’s always been tricky to meet their very separate needs. I know this is true of all siblings, but mine were always at radically different life stages. When M was potty training, A was learning to drive. The year he entered kindergarten, she started college. Still, I’ve come to appreciate the perspective each one gives me on the other. With 8-year-old M in the house, it’s impossible not to remember A at that age – irrepressible, enthusiastic, effortlessly funny. All that she is now, she was then (just smaller, and not yet worried about gluten). And seeing A so grown, so capable and confident, drives home the notion that one day M will leave my nest, too. It’s a reminder, more powerful than words, how fast it all goes.

She’s like a poster child for the dizzying speed of time.

I hope when she watches me with M, she realizes that I was just as devoted to her; I hope she knows she was just as demanding. I hope when they both grow up, they will understand that this dance of demand and devotion is part of life, what we owe each other, what makes it beautiful.

A’s last night here, we all snuggled in M’s bed to read to him. We started with a story from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. For no reason other than to make me cry, he picked Persephone and Demeter (you may recall that the lovely young Persephone is stolen by Hades to dwell in the underworld with him, leaving her mother, Demeter, bereft and broken.) Then we read The Story of Ferdinand, that beloved book with one of the best mothers in all of children’s literature. If I could be as understanding and sensitive as Ferdinand’s mother, I would consider myself a great success.

I turned out the light and sang M to sleep, a medley of songs I once sang to A. The next day, she left in a rush of poor packing and hastily made plans. I exhaled into the calm, then missed her all over again, my chuckling baby, my adventurous middle-schooler, my daughter, and my friend.


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