My teenage daughter is the only person in Australia who, if offered a beach holiday as an escape from rolling days in lockdown and the claustrophobia of living together in a small house, will decline. And she did not refuse me thoughtfully or with polite regret. She rebuffed me and my holiday with casual savagery.
There is a funny clip on the internet of Tina Fey on The Tonight Show that I find very soothing these days, in which she is talking about her teenage daughter and comparing the experience to having an unrequited office crush. In it, Fey has disguised the pain of these rejections with the lightness of knowing the foolishness one feels when chasing the unattainable. But the rejection of my holiday came unexpectedly.
Like one of those cagey lovers who never broke off the relationship outright, but who increasingly required a magical set of circumstances for the timing to be right, my daughter avoided packing for the trip. Determined not to ruin the holiday mood, I waited with determined patience and instead, naively tried to cajole her with descriptions of the cottage I had booked, the beaches nearby, and all the things we would enjoy together.
It was not until we were loading the family bags and dogs into the car that she announced she would not be joining us. She said it with an edge of contempt so that you understood the choice before you. I could drag this out, force the unwilling to spend time with me, and ruin the joys of a beach holiday, or I could accept the parting, semi-graciously, and attempt to resurrect something for myself out of what remained. But either way, the fantasy of this family holiday was over.
Few things have surprised me about motherhood quite as much as the speed at which the work of all the holding and carrying shifts to the work of letting go. The holding, which began with the weight of a baby growing inside me and once born, only seemed to require more of my body, has been experienced as an uncompromising call to care. And while that caring has been largely instinctual and more rewarding than expected, I had not understood the assumptions I was busy making about its limits and who would set them.
I have always been comfortable with the idea that my children will eventually move away from me but I had assumed it would happen slowly and somewhat later. In my head I had worked backwards from the number 18, give or take a year either side, when in reality the first signs of my daughter’s separation happened much earlier. And so it was a shock to see that at 15, my daughter’s desire for family holidays had expired.
I might have moved faster with some unfulfilled plans had I been warned of a pending finality to this part of motherhood. Or, at the very least, it would have been a sobering question to have asked myself what dreams I was still carrying for our time as a family and what was preventing me from carrying them out. Still, it is possible that the real insight would not have been the speed at which children grow but the enduring mismatch between the fantasy and reality of one’s mothering.
Teenagers have a bad reputation but the truth is they can be vivacious company. My daughter has developed an unearthly quality to her appearance. She, like the visiting teenagers I watch in our home, look like figures straight out of mythology. They are all sceptical stares, faraway gazes and watchful leaning against walls, as though ready to spring into battle. She is also incredibly entertaining when the mood takes her. The rejection of us as parents by teenagers hurts, in part, because while we are becoming ever more delighted by the increasing sophistication of their humour and the boldness of their thinking, they are simultaneously becoming less enamoured with ours. But the pain is also undeniably existential.
The foreshadowing of an end to parenting is unsettling because to some degree it also speaks of contending with one’s aloneness and, ultimately, one’s mortality. I cherish time together with my husband, and I also never quite get enough time to myself, but it is nonetheless a life’s work for us all to make peace with solitude and with our relationship with self. The degree to which we successfully face these challenges is often played out through our children who, as literal creations of ourselves, set off our god-like complexes.
I have more sympathy now for how much of that denial of the child’s attempt at delineation is sparked by fear but I still remember how stifling it felt from the teenager’s perspective. Last summer, holidaying without my daughter, was a realisation for me that this passage of mothering was going to be critical to my children and how they become themselves.
In some ways, the test of letting go is similar to the test of all that attachment at the beginning of motherhood. I often feel I am surrendering to a force bigger than me, and that I am being called upon to go deeper than I am ready for or feel I can endure. And much like that first year, I am not sleeping well.
My daughter is my first child and so, as it always has been, she is making me into the mother I am.
• Andie Fox is a freelance writer who writes about motherhood from a feminist perspective