Some non-advice for the parents-to-be as I look back on my daughter’s first 21 years

Last week, my daughter turned 21. The ups and downs of my life with her came cascading down around me as the day caused me to reflect on the role I’ve played in getting her to this point – which is now, for me, one of my best friends.  

She was a great baby, sleeping through the night very early with an exceptionally happy disposition by day. The toddler years, although hectic for me as a full-time working mom, got off to a good start too. But just when I thought I was going to escape the feared “terrible twos” they arrived late…at three. 

The “terrible threes” stuck around for what seemed like an eternity when they collided with a dose of “terrible teens” as soon as she reached double digits.  Challenges seemed to escalate from there. I was reminded of well-meaning friends’ warnings of “the bigger the child, the bigger the problems” and actually longed for the days of diaper changing and 2am feedings.

The day we met. Hackensack, New Jersey. April 2000

She was headstrong and had her own way of navigating her world which always seemed constantly at odds with her parents. We tried our best to guide her in the right direction while respecting – even admiring – her opposition to the status quo, questioning nature, and persuasive negotiation skills.

After her father died a month into her freshman year of high school and it just came down to me verses her – ah, me and her – emotions became more complicated. I found myself very alone in the decision-making process as the single parent of an even more vulnerable teenager.

Earning my coaching credential during this time is probably one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done. Initially, it helped me achieve exactly what I wanted. It allowed me to expand how I could work with consulting clients and also gave me an added bit of credibility. This was something I felt I needed if I was going to remain self-employed and maintain the flexibility I wanted as a single parent.

Then I noticed it had helped me become a better listener, and a better communicator. And while those skills are important to any professional, they were most useful in my role as parent.

I started training to be a certified professional coach about the time she turned 16 and learning how to take a “coach approach” was a game-changer in our relationship. I think what happens with parents of teenagers is that we begin to miss the little people they once were and start to feel they no longer need or want us. Their need for independence at this exact moment and the push back they’re giving us adds to the conflict. Not taking it personally is step one!

Coaching is step two. Rather than coming at problems with anger (as in “why can’t you pick up your things?”) or resentment (“all I see is your face in that iPad all day!”), I learned to be more curious and look for understanding – mine! “What kind of a system do you think would work so we can find a home for this stuff” and “I really miss you at dinner. What would make having dinner with me/us more interesting?” Even if they still don’t put stuff away or show up for family dinner, at the very least, you haven’t fired the first shots of World War Three. My house just became a calmer place. Teenagers need space to find themselves. And as long as they’re safe, space is good.

I only wish I had taken this approach earlier. Younger children can benefit from having a parent-coach, too.

Coaches celebrate achievements and acknowledge difficulties. They hold a safe space for learning and growing. I remember simply saying to my daughter “I imagine that’s difficult for you” when she told me about some problems with a kid at school. She paused and said how nice it felt just to be acknowledged. As parents, our first impulse is to take away their pain and solve all their problems. Most of the time, that’s not what they are asking us to do. They simply want their feelings validated and acknowledged.

First Birthday portrait. 20 years ago this month.

My daughter’s 21st birthday occurred just as Kurt’s son and daughter-in-law are coming up on the last few weeks before their first child makes his appearance. So I write this with a little forward thinking for them too. Parenting is by far the most difficult job anyone could have and no matter what you do, you will make mistakes. 

While I felt I improved upon my parenting skills as a certified coach, I still made mistakes. And I never stopped second-guessing every decision I made on her behalf and fearing that she would be talking about me in therapy long after I’m gone. That’s part of the job. Thankfully children are resilient. And they grow up.

They forgive us for the mistakes we made and they eventually appreciate all we’ve done to launch them from the nest. The fact that my daughter is now one of my best friends and also looks out for me as well is some satisfaction that maybe I did a few things right. 

Best advice I can give to the parents-to-be is perhaps no advice. Parents should understand that all kids are different and what will work for one doesn’t for others (the reason why so many contradictory parenting books have been written). All kids progress differently; don’t compare and don’t listen to anyone who does. Be yourselves: caring, thoughtful, intelligent, creative and resourceful. You got this! It’s kind of like the marathoner’s creed: there will be days when you don’t know if you can do it; there will be a lifetime knowing that you have! 

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