Last night my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia went on a dinner date with one of my best friends Jamie, and I took Jamie’s fourteen-year-old daughter Maya out. It was Lucia’s idea. She’s been talking about it for months — how she wanted to go out to dinner with Jamie. So they made a plan and then because it seemed like such a good idea, I decided to take Maya.
It was a temporary mother-daughter swap. We’ve been family friends since our kids were infants. We’ve gone on family vacations together and celebrated holidays together. We’re all comfortable and relaxed around each other, as close to family as you can get.
Maya and I opted for dinner at a local taqueria. During our dinner of tacos and burritos, I asked Maya lots of questions and she shared what she’s doing in school, ways she’d like to spend more time with her own mom, and how she was feeling about her big move to high school next year.
After dinner, we walked to an ice cream shop and got scoops to go. We walked back to the car, much more comfortable than we had been at the beginning of dinner. It was so nice to spend this time together, like mother and daughter, but without the history, the expectations, the entrenched roles that so many mothers and daughters get locked into. When I dropped Maya off I hoped she’d enjoyed herself as much as I had.
Shortly before getting home myself, I got a few texts from Lucia, “Sorry, we’re tequila tasting right now and I’ll be home around 1 am” followed by, “Also, I love menthol cigarettes.”
Jamie is one of the funniest people I know and I could imagine her and Lucia sitting at a table in the different Mexican restaurant that they went to coming up with ways to freak me out.
When Lucia finally did get home a half-hour later she told me that she and Jamie had mostly talked about college. I’m sure that they did talk about college, but I imagined, based on the wide range of topics Maya and I covered, that they talked about a lot of other things too. But I understood Lucia’s clipped summary of her evening — it wasn’t my business what she and Jamie had talked about.
It’s an age-old truth — adolescents, especially girls, have to find a way to separate from their mothers. They have to devise tools to step out of the familiar, close-to-home image of their mothers. Unfortunately for the mothers, this is often painful and rejecting. But it’s not personal. It’s imperative to make this shift so that the daughter can make herself in her own image, not that of her mother.
I remember a few months ago Lucia came home from a shopping trip to the mall. “Mom, I saw the weirdest thing,” she recounted, “there was a mother and a daughter about my age. They looked exactly the same and they were holding hands.”
When I probed Lucia a little bit more about why that was so weird, she explained that there must be something wrong there. The daughter must be keeping some dirty family secrets, some big problems that she wasn’t expressing because it’s just not normal to be that way with your mom.
My daughter is in a phase right now where she is compelled to be her own person. She is driven in every way to be unlike me. I see that as a good thing, a developmental process that will help her discover who she is becoming.
Last night Lucia got to try out being a different self with a mother, just not her own. How brilliant to devise that scheme. She’d envisioned a proxy mother in Jamie so that she could experiment with being someone else, still herself, but different. She could engage in a relationship with Jamie with the comfort of knowing that Jamie sees her with a different lens.
I remember when I was a teenager and young adult, I had an extended period of needing to be completely different from my own mother. I was surly, sullen, and downright unpleasant. My mother’s sister, my favorite aunt, was my proxy mother. I could be who I wanted to be instead of who I was expected to be. I could be cheerful and delightful and sweet, all things that I simply could not give my own mother at that time.
We throw around the term, “it takes a village” all the time, but to put it into play means actually giving up something to let someone else step in and help. For me, it means celebrating Lucia’s need for separation and letting her explore. I can’t say it didn’t smart a little bit when Lucia first started talking about wanting to go out to dinner with Jamie. Part of me still fantasized about holding hands with her at the mall. But that’s not who my daughter is and that’s not what she needs.
Lucia is all about becoming herself. She still needs guidance and support. She needs to be shepherded gently through this time, to try out different personalities with people she feels safe with. I’m here to do the heavy lifting, to be the punching bag at times, to hold down the fort, and enforce the rules. It’s all part of the job. But Lucia needs more than this. And she figured out how to get it by creating a Proxy Mommy in Jamie.
And I got to step out of my own familiar mother role by playing Maya’s Proxy Mommy. I had the luxury to just listen to her, to be curious and interested in a way Jamie can’t because she has to be the heavy in Maya’s life. I got to be Proxy Mommy and experience the joy of sharing time with a young woman who is growing up and finding her own way.
Being a mother is hard but it’s also the greatest joy of my life. It is like an endless day at the amusement park. There’s the merry-go-round, mellow and pleasant, the roller coaster, scary and vomit-inducing, and everything in between. It’s exhausting to walk all day in the hot sun but there’s always the water ride and a break under the umbrella with kettle corn when you need a break before going on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
When we planned it, the mother-daughter swap seemed like a small thing, just dinner out on a Monday night. But reflecting on it has helped me understand that it is so much more. Being Proxy Mommy to Maya let me see how incredibly complicated our daughters are. It reminded me to make space for that complexity every day and to expand the village to make sure our girls have room to experiment and grow. I can’t wait to do it again.