Because I Said So (and then Explained and Listened to You)
I have to admit there are days when I wish I had more mother-daughter conflict at home, if only for the purpose of this column.
I’d be well prepared for it: When I was 12 years old my aunt gave my mother a book called “Keeping Kids Out of Trouble” in anticipation of the teen years. The Problem was stated clearly (and only slightly melodramatically) – weird clothes, making out with spotty boyfriends, smoking and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, lying, doing badly in school, arguing with mum. Then, the paragraph titled “Ambush” detailed all the ways wily teens could trick their parents.
Finally, the author presented his solution: KISS, or Keep It Simple Stupid. (Eighties parents obviously had no issues with being called stupid or having their kids accused of cunning.) But the author must have known something because I read that book cover to cover in anticipation of any counter-trick my mother would pull on me in the future.
My mother, however, didn’t read it.
A couple of decades later, my teen and I are having a conversation about mums and daughters. I note that there isn’t as much antagonism, now, and less rebellion. I tell her there were days when I wanted to throw that book at my mum for being oblivious to what a great kid I was. Had she even seen all the stuff she’d avoided having to KISS, thanks to my exemplary behavior?
“So what did you fight with grandma about?” my teen asks.
“Everything,” I sigh dramatically.
But that’s not the complete truth. We didn’t fit into the usual categories of mother-daughter relationship drama. We didn’t fight that much about hair, weight and clothes, as sociolinguist Deborah Tannen suggests is common, in her book You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.
But every day I proved my responsible nature – and every day I was not accorded the autonomy I thought I’d earned. My mother was wary of my succumbing to peer pressure, even after I stood up for myself. She reminded me of my responsibility to my (five!) younger siblings, despite the fact that I pulled my weight. I had the tightest of curfews and was not allowed to make spontaneous plans.
In the face of any attempts at negotiation, she would turn unreasonable, immovable and impervious. Without warning, our typically easy dialogue turned into commands.
Even as a teenager, I decided that if I had kids, I would never throw down a diktat without reasoning it out. I would never justify a directive with a, “Because I said so.”
Once I became a parent, though, I realized this philosophy needed some tweaking. While I wanted to avoid frustrating my kids with blind authoritarianism, I don’t think absolute democracy has any place in a family with children. You can’t crowdsource your decisions from the same little ‘uns who’d rather be drip-fed while watching YouTube videos till they’re 60.
So the minute my eldest closed her mouth after screaming her way through her Terrible Twos, I started a work in progress: I never said anything I didn’t mean. Never made any promises I could or would not keep. Always told the most child-friendly version of every truth and then began The Negotiations.
“We need to leave the park now because mummy has to make dinner so we can all eat on time.”
“I’m going to read you only one story today because I’m super tired, but you can read me one back while I lie next to you.”
As the years passed, the pattern became ingrained. When my kids and I had an unresolvable difference of opinion, we did it my way. And if I turned out to be right (about feeling better after a hot bath, putting toys away, or finishing homework before going out to play) we came up with a silly “you were ri-iight and I was wro-oong” ditty and dance that made them laugh. (I always offered to do it if I was ever wrong – which has been all of never.)
Whether it’s taking their phones away during the week, insisting they don’t bunk Hindi tuitions or cleaning their rooms, we resolve most mother-daughter conflict with easy conversation, negotiated compromise, and dancing (even if it now comes with a smidge of eyeroll).
This isn’t to say I’m a better mother than my mother. Much research suggests my generation’s more fraught relationships with our mothers came from the unrealistic expectations placed on them: motherhood as some idealized, selfless, warm, cinnamon-scented, asexualized fount of infinite wisdom, love and hot meals. But when mothers show their fallibility, the effort put into juggling their many roles and admit their exhaustion or indecision, thus humanized, their relationships with their daughters improve immediately.
I saw this happen. Over the years, as we explained to each other our points of view, my daughter formed a clear impression of my own identity, separate from her own. We were bonded, but not enmeshed – supportive, but individuated. It may be just our tiny circle, but I see this more or less with all the women of my generation with teen daughters now. There is no constant bickering and slamming of doors and furious writing in diaries. There is no, “Because I said so!”
Those four words save a lot of time, no doubt. Because once you choose ‘the other way,’ your relationship with your daughter gets flooded with conversation and debate, the proving of your point and the admission of flaws in your argument.
“We do discuss decisions that impact you, right?” I ask my girls, needing to be reassured of our after writing this. “I do explain my point of view and ask for your cooperation when I tell you what I think should be done?”
My 15-year-old says, “Yes.”
My 11-year-old says, “No.”
I suddenly realise the 11-year-old and I have had a few more bouts of mother-daughter conflict than usual recently.
I must be careful what I wish for.
To be continued …