- By Jill Smolowe
In the painful days after my husband’s death in 2009, I crafted a eulogy that concluded with a thought from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. It went like this: “Milan Kundera once wrote, ‘Love is a constant interrogation.’ That was the marriage I shared with Joe: a constant interrogation that to the very end was animated by a mutual sense of discovery.”
Given my admittedly lousy memory, it should be amazing that I remember Kundera’s words — accurately! — almost 30 years after first encountering them. Given my befogged state of mind at the time, it should be even more amazing that I was able to latch onto those words to encapsulate our 24-year marriage. But I am not amazed. Kundera’s idea of love as a constant interrogation resonates so deeply with me that I agree with him that there is not a better definition of love.
Far from experiencing my interest as love, she regards it as a disrespect for and violation of her personhood. Parents are to be seen, not heard.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that the best expression of my love is to convey a keen and sustained interest in my loved one’s life, pursuits and concerns. To do that, I ask questions, try to give the responses my full attention and ask more questions.
So imagine the pickle I’m in. My beautiful 22-year-old daughter has recently arrived home, college diploma in hand (yay!), to resume residency under my roof after an intermittent absence of four years. She arrives not only more mature, but more certain of who she is — which is, among other things, someone who does not want to hear, let alone entertain, her mother’s questions. Far from experiencing my interest as love, she regards it as a disrespect for and violation of her personhood. To her, parents are to be seen, not heard.
Close and Yet So Far
While she lived at a remove, I was able to make my peace with this style of emotional distancing. Over the four-year trajectory of her college career, I, too, scaled a learning curve. It taught me that posing questions of any kind by email, text or messaging (phone calls, needless to say, bit the dust first) was pretty much an act of futility. They were not going to get a response. My daughter would tell me what she wanted to tell me only when she was in the mood to tell me.
To my relief and delight, when the mood struck during those college years, she often gushed a fount of information that afforded a vivid snapshot of her life and concerns. Like many Millennials, she was comfortable sharing details that I, like many boomers, would never in a million years have shared with my own parents. Such intra-generational intimacy is, I know, a source of boomer pride.
But I often found (perhaps you do, too) that by the time my daughter was ready to share, the information was past its flyby date and did not reflect her current preoccupations. I had to find a way to live without knowing. Over time, I made my peace this way: If I didn’t see it, I didn’t worry about it.
Now, we’re once again occupying the same space. Though I have an obstructed view, I cannot ignore what I am able to see: the comings and goings, what she’s doing, what she’s not. Her last three summers home familiarized me with the kinds of questions I best steer clear of, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Too Many Questions
When I see her walking out the door, it’s hard not to ask what to me seems the most natural (and polite) of questions: “Where are you headed?”
When she returns home from work looking exhausted, it’s hard not to ask, “How did your day go?”
When I see that she’s taken pains with her attire and makeup, it’s hard not to ask, “What’s the occasion?”
More challenging, I am now once again inhaling the oxygen of her moods. I learned the hard way that asking “Are you OK?” is an unwanted violation of her boundaries. I am trying to stay on my side of the line. But not expressing interest, let alone concern, when I perceive that my child is distressed feels about as natural to me as not breathing.
In search of parenting and coping strategies, I’ve read voluminously about “emerging adults.” I’ve also sought the counsel of friends whose kids are a few years ahead of my daughter on the emerging curve.
It’s been heartening to learn that I am not the only parent walking on eggshells strewn by a returning Millennial. It’s been reassuring to discover that mine is not the only child to erect a brick wall of tetchy, often angry, silence upon returning to the parental home.
One friend told me that her therapist advised, “Preface every question with, ‘I’m curious.’” She then demonstrated the appropriate tone: tentative, undemanding, one that conveys, I’m not being nosy, but … .
I have my own version of this, honed during my daughter’s college years. “I don’t know if you’re willing to talk about this,” I often preface a question, “but I was wondering … .” Experience has taught me that this strategy is a 50-50 crap shoot: I may get an answer; I may get a snarky look.
Or Maybe Too Few?
My friend’s mention of a therapist recently inspired me to reach out to my old therapist for a session. “I want advice,” I told her bluntly.
She offered several helpful observations: The transitional moment into the adult world is “terrifying” for a lot of college kids. A parent’s offer of help, large or small, is often heard as a “vote of no confidence” in her child’s ability to figure it out for herself. A parent’s question, no matter its intent, is often interpreted as “a reflection of the parent’s anxiety” about his child’s future.
At this stage in a Millennial’s life, my therapist cautioned, “Questions have a heavy price tag. So choose carefully.”
That is now my mantra: choose carefully.
My attempt to muzzle my instinctive questions is the most difficult act of love I have ever undertaken. It not only feels unnatural, It feels unloving.
Stripped of my habit of constant interrogation, I am uncertain how to express my interest, my curiosity, my concern, my keen desire for an ever-expanding field of mutual discovery.
I can’t help but worry that one day my daughter will wake up with her own set of questions: Where did you go? Don’t you care? Geez, Mom, why don’t you ever ask me anything about my life anymore?