I used to have the same anxiety dream as many people: It’s the day of my big exam but I haven’t studied or attended class all semester. Lately, my dreams have morphed into a more contemporary script. I’m traveling, armed only with a mobile device. I can’t remember my password! Disconnected from civilization, I pounce from near nightmare into wakeful panic.
I yearn to scream. For my 22-year-old daughter.
She is my savior, my tech support, my problem solver, the holder of my key to the Internet. She didn’t ask for this position in the family, but as a Millennial, she has no choice. I am, and always will be, a stranger in a foreign land. Learning the language too late in life, I’ll always have an accent.
‘Watch Me,’ My Daughter Says
“My mail stopped working!” I moan, interrupting my daughter, busy perusing a string of Snapchats. She is living at home after college graduation until she can afford her own apartment.
She leans over me at my computer, fingers gracefully stroking the mouse like a musician to her harp. Before my amazed eyes she enters Settings, dives into Internet Accounts, and accesses Mail so quickly I can’t remember the progression of clicks, even though she commands, “Watch me.”
I watch. She fixes. I forget.
“My mail stopped working!” I inevitably say again weeks later.
She tries to remain patient. I remind her how many times I held her tiny hand until she learned to walk on her own. I fear I will always limp, never trotting on my own. I’m a professor with a graduate degree. I can swim a half mile without stopping for a breather. I use technology daily in my professional and personal life, yet I remain semi-literate at best.
I grab a pad, saying: “Let me write it down.” Before my daughter can roll her eyes, I explain, “I have to do something several times before I learn.”
Negotiating Fair Compensation
She’s taught me to change my Facebook privacy settings and to upload a photo on Instagram. When I inquire about Snapchat, she says kindly, “It’s not for you, Mom.” Translation: you’re too old.
My husband is even less tech savvy. “I just lost six months of bookkeeping on Quicken!” he mournfully announces as if his entire 401(k) has crashed. “It’s going to take me months to input all the information again.”
Our daughter offers to do it. She has become an entrepreneur. Back in high school, she gladly did our tech-support work for free, aware that our freezer would always be stocked, in return, with Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy. But as technology grew more complex and we grew less informed, we didn’t want to abuse child labor laws.
I used to love typing my father’s business correspondence at a dollar per page. Besides, I was tired of paying our $125-an-hour tech guy every time we had a crisis. When my daughter updated my website, she didn’t even know coding. She figured it out, eliciting a whoop of joy at her self-taught achievement — saving me hundreds of dollars. I bought her a new sweater, believing I had the better end of the deal.
Now she offers my husband, “I’ll replace your Quicken data.”
“How’s $10 an hour?” he negotiates.
I jump in, suddenly her agent. “She gets twice as much as that to babysit.”
“Okay, 20,” my desperate husband acquiesces.
“You don’t have to pay me. Just take me out to dinner,” she says.
“You pick the place.” He’s fawning.
Serenaded by Spotify, she gets the job done, achieving a new Olympic record. My husband is awed and grateful. She emails him a list of suggestions from Open Table.
When Our Children Surpass Us
As a parent, I expected to be a role model, smarter than my daughter. What else am I supposed to do with all this life experience? I’ve learned to leverage career advancement and survive pitfalls, to navigate foreign countries, to embrace happy times and survive grief. It’s humiliating to continually fall behind my daughter’s texting fingers.
Sometimes when I try to find an app on my phone like a meandering lost tourist, my daughter seizes my device, diving in to do it faster. I grab back my phone. I want to resist turning into an old woman hobbling on a cane, my daughter guiding me across the street. Eventually we all have to accept the moments when our children surpass us. The first time my daughter won a set from me in tennis, I was proud of her skill, yet a bit sad. My father was frustrated, trying to help me with the “New Math” curriculum; a brilliant mathematician, he couldn’t understand my fifth grade homework. I had to figure it out myself.
I still regress to a toddler about to explode into a tantrum when I become overwhelmed by a technological glitch. Suddenly I feel my daughter’s hand on my shoulder, offering a stress-reducing massage.
“Why don’t you get away from it for awhile?” she asks gently. “You’ll figure it out later.”
After my time out, I call to her: “Do you remember my Apple password?”
She recites the digits.
Who taught her to be so smart? I’m stuck in the middle: more facile than my parents’ generation, some of whom have never logged on anywhere, yet dependent on my daughter, who speaks this language intuitively.
The next day, she texts me, asking if I have time to proofread a work assignment. She invites me to use Google Docs, a program I’m familiar with (she taught me, of course). I point out a cumbersome sentence, suggesting she rewrite for clarity. My daughter texts, “TY.”
For once I don’t have to Google the acronym for a definition. “NBD,” I text back, proud to be savvy, afraid she’ll view me as too ancient to speak her language. She responds with a red heart emoji. I wonder if it’s her turn to take me out to dinner for payment for my work.
Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City.
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