"Don't freak out but I'm getting my bellybutton pierced after work. Just letting you know."
That's the text my 18-year-old daughter sent me from her summer job at a frozen yogurt shop, while I was in our living room, aka: College-Packing Central. I read her message while surrounded by heaps of laundry, half-filled duffel bags and the move-in information packet from the university whose dorm she and her mountain of stuff would somehow be squeezing into the following week.
When it comes to teens and any body piercing that goes "beyond the earlobes," I fall decidedly into the "Just. No!" end of the parenting spectrum. Still, I controlled the urge to hop in the car and confront her amid the frozen yogurt dispensaries. I focused on the fact that she hadn't actually pierced her bellybutton yet -- she had sent me a warning that she was planning to. This meant something. Didn't it?
I once interviewed a psychologist who claimed that you could decipher the underlying truth of a parent/teen relationship by viewing the content of their text messages. It was supposed to be a great sign if these interactions didn't just convey information but were attempts to initiate conversation. I didn't like hearing this because if you scrolled through my hundreds of text messages to my daughter you'd find that 80 percent contained just three words: "where are you?" while the remaining 20 percent read, "WHERE ARE YOU!!?" Despite such texts, I like to think she and I have a relatively healthy and standard parent-teen relationship -- meaning, she hardly tells me anything, except the really important things. So, surely, this text was her way of starting a conversation about piercing. Viewed in context -- a mere week before she'd be leaving home -- perhaps this text wasn't really "about" belly piercing at all. No! I thought... it's a cry for help. She wants me to stop her. She wants to know she still has a parent who sets limits.
My interpretation made sense. Piercing her bellybutton despite my objections is hardly my daughter's style. She's the kind of exemplary kid -- kind, loving, level-headed, brilliant -- who could turn me into an offensively smug parent if I actually thought my mothering skills were wholly responsible. But I have too much respect for the impact of random circumstance, background and biology to take much credit for my children's successes. More than once when confronted over a minor infraction she has said to me, "You have no idea how lucky you are to have a kid like me." Truth is, I do know. And I know I'm going to miss her. It's been bittersweet this summer, watching her transition from a high school student to a full-time young adult who has to get up every morning, don that frozen-yogurt-selling uniform, get out the door, and drive herself to and from work. It was a beginning taste of adulthood for her, and a daily reminder to me that we are centuries past the days when I could keep the TV permanently fixed on PBS and the catchphrase "because I said so" said it all.
But motherhood is forever and, as her text implied, don't "good kids" still like to know that there's a strong parent available to bump up against? So I messaged her back: "let's talk about it when you get home." My plan was to sit her down for a calm discussion of the pros and cons. Unfortunately, the night before, she and I had begun to binge-watch the hilarious but short-lived sit-com Freaks and Geeks. So as soon as she walked through the door I found myself involuntarily channeling one of our favorite characters, the cranky Dad (played by Joe Flaherty) whose over-the-top admonitions to his teens included lines like, "Janis Joplin didn't do her homework. And where is she now? Dead!" So the "calm discussion" was somehow replaced by The Parental Rant: "You CANNOT pierce your bellybutton! It's an abomination against your body! You could get a blood infection! Boys will think you're a slut! You'll have a hole in your stomach for life! What will I tell Grandma?"
When I was done my daughter looked at me calmly and said, "If I knew you were going to react this way I wouldn't have told you."
"You told me because you wanted me to stop you!"
She rolled her eyes. "Mom, I was just being polite. I knew you'd be unhappy but I didn't want to hide it from you. I'm 18. I'm getting my bellybutton pierced."
And she did.
Apologies to anyone expecting me to wrap this up by expounding on the Parenting Lesson I Have Learned. There really isn't one. My daughter is my second and last child to leave home. If there's any take-away it's that my parenting is pretty much done. Yes, I could have threatened to withhold college funds if she pierced her bellybutton (as one friend suggested). But we would both know I didn't mean it. In the end, it's her body and in the decades ahead she's going to make plenty of independent decisions about it without consulting me. I hope she'll consider my advice, but she is no longer under my command. Parenthood is forever, but childhood is not.
Nan Silver is a journalist and New York Times bestselling author specializing in psychology, parenting and health. With Dr. John Gottman she is co-author of the books What Makes Love Last? and The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. Connect with her at nansilver.net and on twitter.