By Zoe FitzGerald Carter
It took crashing the car while texting for my college freshman daughter to start being nice to me again. It happened three weeks into her five-week Christmas vacation, a period characterized by carelessness and defiance on her part and irritation on mine.
From the start, the vacation was a saga of aggravations. There was the brand new sweater I loaned her on New Year's Eve that was left balled up and stained in a corner, the expensive hair conditioner that disappeared from my bathroom only to be found completely empty in hers, the milk that sat on the kitchen table all night, the doors that were left unlocked, the lights that were left burning.
And then there was the continual stream of off-handed but pointed remarks such as, "You know, it's amazing to me how dysfunctional this family is at Christmas." Or, "Well of course I left the milk out all night, Mom -- I was drunk!"
All this from the daughter who never gave my husband and me a single sleepless night throughout high school -- who worked hard, got good grades and spent the summer after her sophomore year hauling rocks out of a river in Ecuador. The daughter who, much to my surprise, actually liked hanging out with me. Even with a boyfriend and a demanding course load, she'd found time to take walks or go to the beach where we would lie in the sand talking about books and music and how things were never quite what you expected them to be.
I'd grown complacent, even a little smug. While my friends' teenagers were ducking away from them at every turn, my daughter actually complained when I left to go on a book tour for a couple of weeks, welcoming me home like the prodigal mother.
But then, a month before she left home to start her first year of college, the warm feelings came to a screeching halt. Our sense of mutual understanding, our easy rapport, seemed to evaporate. With her departure just a few weeks off, my once-doting daughter turned into a snappish, mean-tempered monster. The only thing that comforted me -- and it was small comfort indeed -- was that the monster was familiar: I had been just such a creature back in my teens. But why, I wondered, had this ugly beast appeared now, just when I most longed to soak up the last tender moments of having my child at home?
"Are you kidding me?" my agent said. "I was never so happy to see the backs of my two sons as when I dropped them off at college! I love them both to death but they were horrible to me. It's how kids leave home."
"Whatever you do, don't show her that you're needy," warned my friend Diana, whose daughter was heading to the same college as mine. "It just makes them meaner."
Taking their advice, I stopped asking my daughter what was wrong or complaining when she was rude. Instead, I did my best to ignore her jibes and stay neutral. Wary and distant, we limped through the final hot days of summer.
On September 1, I dropped her off at her college on the East Coast and flew back to California, frankly relieved to get away. The plane had barely landed when my daughter seemed to magically convert back to her former self, calling me up to chat, sending me funny texts and emailing long and hilarious dispatches from her new life. With three thousand miles between us, we quickly re-established our warm, close-knit bond.
Once again, I grew complacent. Her end-of-summer volatility had been an anomaly, I told myself. An aberrant blip on an otherwise smooth journey. Three months later, I excitedly prepared for her winter break -- five glorious weeks with my daughter! But when she ordered me to go to bed so she could entertain her friends in our living room the second night she was home, I realized that my expectations had been wildly over-confident.
Suddenly, five weeks seemed like an awfully long time. What was her college thinking anyway? Surely two or three weeks were plenty for everyone to have a good catch-up and return to their own lives. We did manage to have some good times together -- snuggling in front of the TV, enjoying a fancy lunch out together in Berkeley's "gourmet ghetto" -- but her need to prove her new-found independence by blithely ignoring basic household protocol continued to roil the waters between us. I knew I'd miss her like crazy when she was gone but will admit I was looking forward to a return to a more peaceable home life with just my husband and youngest daughter in residence.
And yet, as it turned out, I was grateful for those last two weeks. The accident seemed to throw a mysterious switch that returned my daughter to her former considerate and charming self. Unhurt after rear-ending a young woman in a pickup truck, she was clearly remorseful and upset with herself. She helped my husband sort things out with our insurance company and -- more importantly -- stopped pushing us away. Her last days were spent picking her younger sister up at school, helping around the house and, well, being nice.
I'm really looking forward to her spring break. It's only two weeks long.
Zoe FitzGerald Carter is a journalist and author of Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Story of Life and Death (Simon and Schuster). She lives in Berkeley, California, and is at work on a novel. Visit her on Red Room, where you can read her blog and buy her book.