When all four of our children were 8 years old or younger, and I felt one, or all of them, weren’t getting the best of my attention, I’d ask them to draw me a picture of what happened during their day, so we could talk about it later. It was a young-parent method that worked. Two decades later, I’m finding that it still works with my adult children.
During the second half of her junior year in college, our daughter and one of her friends decided to find jobs and live in the city over the summer. While she spent the spring semester abroad, the roommate and another friend found the place. We both saw it for the first time the day she moved in, and it was wretched. Windows didn’t close all the way, doors didn’t lock properly, wiring was sketchy. By then, though, she had found her job, housing options were impossibly tight and she’d committed to half the rent.
I wanted her to cancel the whole thing, but she refused. I wanted her bedroom door to have a lock on it. She pointed out that there was no access to her place from the street. I said she should stay in a hotel until we found her another place. She said no.
I bugged her about it for days. Had she called the landlord yet about grates on the window? She’d left a message. Were they coming to fix the wiring? They’d probably come sometime that week. What about the lock on the bedroom door? She’d mention it.
I wanted her to get serious with the landlord about repairs. She said she would. Then she didn’t. So I did. His words told me he’d try to get to it, but his attitude said if I feel like it. I filed a complaint. I was furious.
But my daughter wasn’t. She hated the place, but the neighborhood was decent and safe. She wanted to be in the city more than she wanted a nice apartment, and she could live anywhere for two months. She told me this, in a voice I wasn’t familiar with, over the phone.
After we hung up, I had to take a walk. I knew something important had just happened that I didn’t understand yet and maybe didn’t want to. Possibly after we hung up, she stormed into the landlord’s office and owned it for a few moments, because things started to get done.
That call marked an abrupt but needed departure from our normal rapport, one of questions from her and answers from me, of problems shared and solutions offered. She was 21 and entitled to conceive and execute a decision, or not. Now my “helpful” actions were not a comfort but a log to move out of the road.
Move it, she did.
I still wince to think of how I took over, and how often, before I was relieved of my role on that stage. However, lessons like that tend to produce new responses to old situations, and I developed a keeper that brings me back to those pictures I used to ask for.
I think of it as “being the neighbor.” It’s changed everything.
Before I offer solutions that are not relevant to my kids’ times or troubles, or warn them from hardship that could benefit them more than harm them, or say anything that starts with “Well, what I used to do,” I stop and consider: What would a neighbor say? Someone who is supportive but not intrusive, caring but not worried, and generous but not forceful with ideas?
What would a neighbor, who wanted to make sure she stayed in their lives, say?
I have become that neighbor, the one who is home at the right time, has time to listen and asks questions that might make things clearer to each of us. Above all, I am the neighbor who realizes that my children’s personal stake in the decisions they make is the only one that matters.
I no longer tell my city-dwelling daughter how to stay safe on her morning commute, while I am sitting in a town with a population of 5,000 and can’t see my real-life neighbor. I don’t tell her sister how to navigate her life as a musician, or even pretend to know what it looks like up close.
Instead, I ask them to draw me a verbal picture of what’s going on.
I will always want to protect them when they are already safe, offer them money that they don’t need and dislike people who hurt them. But that’s between me and my journal now, as I practice a suggestion from a psychology teacher who specialized in child development: “Never miss an opportunity to shut up.”
I think parents try to see over challenges to easier days that lie ahead. For me, those days have arrived. I get invited for lunch. I get funny texts and shares on Facebook. Sometimes they come for overnights and bring their friends or significant others.
But more important to me are the calls that come every now and then that start with “I just want to tell you about something.” Or “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
It wasn’t that way when I was the log. But it’s been that way since I became the neighbor.
Susan Bonifant is an essayist, novelist and mother of four who blogs about life after the last college drop-off at Attic View. She lives with her husband and cat in Hopkinton, N.H. Follow her on Twitter @SusanBonifant.
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