Photo courtesy of Sue Sanders
There’s one developmental stage that’s not covered in any parenting book. There’s no book, What to Expect: Your New Adult, but there is a universal milestone: the first time parent and child change roles. It might be the first time a son takes a parent out for a meal or when a daughter insists on driving because she’s better at it. It can happen anywhere—the adult-child’s neighbourhood, the grocery store, a different city. It’s that split second where both child and adult know things are different and it’s a natural progression that happens to us all sooner or later.
It happened to me when I was in my mid-twenties. (I’m a late bloomer.) I’d moved to New York, into a tiny tenement sublet with a great view of the building next door’s brick wall. When my mom and dad visited, for the first time we didn’t fall back into our usual parent-child roles. I showed them around my downtown neighbourhood, walked with them through Chinatown and, like an expert, led them around on the subway. Back in my microscopic apartment, I cooked them what I hoped was a gourmet meal of duck confit and haricot verts. As I poured cheap red wine into chipped mugs, for the first time I saw a different side of them—freer, more relaxed, and giggly. It may have been the wine. Still, I felt impossibly mature.
As a parent, I first noticed this role switcharoo last summer, when I visited my nineteen-year-old daughter in Jordan, where she’d been working for three months. Lizzie wanted to show me “her” Amman, and we’d spent the day visiting her most beloved cafes, bookstores and art galleries. She led and I followed. Now I was trailing her up one of the city’s steep hills to her favorite restaurant. Lizzie spoke with the hostess who seated us at an outdoor table and handed us menus. When Lizzie looked up from hers and smiled, I startled. I’d known she was an adult but seeing her on her turf with me as an outsider brought it home hard.
When she’d turned eighteen, I thought of her as a “starter adult”—not technically a full-fledged adult but definitely no longer a child. That year, she pierced her nose and got a small tattoo without parental permission. (Fun fact: I discovered you’ll freak out when your kid gets into the car and says, “Mom, don’t freak out.”) At her college on the other side of the country, she was independent, figuring out how to get to the airport and around on her own. I felt both relief and tiny pangs of longing for parenting past when I offered advice for assorted teenage and preteen dilemmas, advice that might not get taken, but I provided nonetheless.
Still, whenever she was home on break we fell into our old roles: the kid, the mom.
But visiting her in Jordan changed this dynamic. Now we weren’t just out of our home, but we were out of the country—and I was a little out of my comfort zone, too. Unlike her, I didn’t know the city or the language. It felt a bit like we had traded places: I was now the helpless child and she was the adult.
I glanced at the menu. “What’s good?” I asked. Lizzie suggested a few dishes. I asked her to choose. She ordered us bottles of local beer and several dishes.
We shared some falafel and she told me about her summer and how she loved working with refugee girls and was thinking of pursuing a career involving immigrant rights. As I watched her scoop a mouthful of mouhamarra with pita, I saw her wildly waving a toddler spoon almost nineteen years earlier, mashed sweet potato outlining her mouth like crazy lipstick, giving me a gummy orange grin. She had been totally dependent on me.
Parents of young children are the sun and moon, an all-knowing omnipresence. When Lizzie was little, I knew everything about her life: how she adored bananas and how her face would crumple when faced with Swiss chard. I knew exactly when she’d start to wiggle as we read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and how she liked her peanut butter sandwiches cut into triangles instead of squares. Then, in preschool, I got hints of what was to come. At the playground, a child I didn’t know would say, “Hi Lizzie.” I’d hear bits of songs new to me as we walked home from class. I enjoyed this window into her new, independent life.
This continued as Lizzie grew older, but I still knew quite a lot about her life. Even during the blur of high school, when she was busy with cross country or speech and debate or hanging out with friends, we found time for family dinner almost every evening. Although I no longer personally knew all her friends, as in elementary and middle school, I knew their names and heard about them.
College was different. Now that she was on her own, I knew only what she told us or we saw on social media. She has friends we haven’t met and a life that’s solely hers. It’s the way it should be. Still, pieces of me long for what was: the infant I held close to my heart, gently kissing the top of her head as she nursed; the three-year-old who announced she wanted to be an elf; the fourteen-year-old who proudly showed us an axe she’d earned at summer camp by overnighting in the wild with two matches and a potato. It went so fast.
At dinner that night in Amman, I felt a simultaneous longing for the past and a thrill for her future, whatever it will be. The waitress brought the check.
“My treat, Mom,” she said, picking it up before I could grab it.
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