Out of Time by Stephanie Sylverne

When I became a mother, my daughter’s own teenage years were nothing more than an abstract concept. Like many parents I could not envision life a decade or more down the road, particularly when my own life had not yet taken shape. Though I had a vague idea what kind of person I wanted her to be when she eventually started high school, I couldn’t imagine that day actually happening.
As the years went on, and the life I wanted for both of us became a reality - I went to college and got a Master’s degree, she became a brilliant student and caring individual: the image of her as a well-adjusted teenager became more tangible.
As versed as I am in the root causes and warning signs of teenage problems like depression and pregnancy, I was not concerned in the least that she was headed down any path except maybe that of valedictorian. That is until eighth grade graduation came and went and the first day of high school was staring me in the face.
Suddenly all of the truths I had long taken for granted didn’t seem so certain. I was shocked to discover that maybe I didn’t know who she was anymore. She didn’t like the clothes I chose or the books I thought she would enjoy. Not only that, but without any basis for it, I didn’t trust her as much either.
A psychologist might call this a textbook case of projection. After all, I was the one who had the rocky teenage years. There had been no lying, no red flags, and no friends of hers that I was suspicious of. Nevertheless, I started harping on her about her Facebook profile. I became nervous about her cell phone use and texting habits. I told her in no uncertain terms that she was not allowed to drive in the car with her friends when they got driver’s licenses. The mere thought of sending her off to Homecoming with a strange boy provoked panic.
It wasn’t only that I didn’t know who she was anymore; I didn’t know who I was as a parent either. What happened to being the cool mom who understood the independent teenage spirit?
Then again, perhaps the prospect of having so much to lose was behind my anxiety. Many years of tough choices and determination that she would be everything she could be led to this moment. I began my own (short lived) high school career with many hopes and dreams that never came to fruition; at least, not as I had intended. And here she was, beginning her own freshman year less than two decades later, enrolled in honors and AP courses and holding on to dreams of acceptance into top universities. Could it all go wrong now?
When Samantha was four years old I went to take pictures of her preschool Halloween costume parade. As the youngest mom - by far - I never felt comfortable around the other parents. Feeling out of place was not new to me as I had been through many years of bullying and social isolation as a child, but it was still tough to be asked whether I was her sister or nanny, or questioned about my age and marital status (then subsequently ignored or talked about behind cupped hands and whispers).
That day, I stood alone outside the group of moms who gathered to squeal at their little princesses and superheroes. When my daughter finally came around the corner, she scanned the crowd for my face and lifted her fingers in the slightest wave when she found me. Before I could take her picture I caught a particular turn of her head and a glimpse of uneasiness in her expression. Suddenly she was me.
I was five years old, and I was already anxious and self-conscious. I felt like I didn’t know how to play with the other kids; their taunts - even playful - stung, and I didn’t understand the social hierarchy of who was supposed to play with whom and when.
That year I was a bumblebee for Halloween. My costume had a pillow stuffed in it for bulk. A little boy in my class said I was fat. I hid the pillow under a table and wouldn’t confess when the teacher asked whose it was. I sat alone, unsure how to interact with anyone. I felt sad and lonely but I didn’t understand why.
I rushed to the car the moment the end of the preschool parade turned the corner. And I sat and sobbed until I couldn’t cry anymore. The combination of once again being out of place amongst my peers and seeing my younger self in my daughter’s face made it feel like everything that had ever happened in my life just came to a head. It was then that I realized, as my mother had been telling me from day one, she is not me. She might be a lot like me. She might be a reflection of me. But she is not me. And her path is not my path.
Turns out, my mom was correct. Maybe I did something right. Or maybe I just got lucky. Either way, her experience growing up was nothing like mine. She is shy but not socially inhibited. She is sensitive but not overwhelmingly so. She is brave where I was afraid. Instead of being ashamed of her quirks she is empowered by them. Anyone who meets her has nothing but nice things to say about her.
Again I am faced with a turning point in our lives, and again I have to realize she is not me. I have to realize that the seeds of my adolescent dysfunction had been planted many years before and were sprouting before I ever began high school.
I can’t parent her the way I needed to be parented because my problems are not her problems and vice versa. When she was a baby and a small child, the answers were easy. I knew how to avoid creating the issues I had, but now that she is nearly a grown woman, I am no longer sure how to navigate the world for her, or what it looks like through her eyes.
Like all parents I only have my personal experience to guide me and mine is not as relevant to hers any longer. And I fear that for every day from now on that I continue to treat her like a clone of teenage me, she will actually become teenage me - sullen, angry, and rebellious.
Compounding this dilemma is the realisation that I am, effectively, out of time. What’s done is done. She is who she is. Nothing much I do at this point can reverse the sum of an entire childhood. Whatever mistakes I made or accomplishments I can take credit for cannot be changed now.
I can only step back, give her the wheel, and nag her with directions from the passenger’s seat. As painful as it is, I cross my fingers and move aside.
In between managing three kids and collecting college degrees, Stephanie Sylverne spends her free time reading dystopian YA and brainstorming ways to convince her mom to babysit. You can find her in all her brash and ornery glory on Twitter @kvetchingyenta. Or if you prefer fewer cuss words, check out her recent 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom commentary at MomHouston.