Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

My daughter was home from college during the winter break of her freshman year. All her hometown friends were also back. A bunch of them decided to go on a skiing trip to Vermont.

They planned to leave after dark. The four-hour drive from our home in Connecticut would be on increasingly slippery snow-covered roads. From previous visits to Vermont, I recalled deep green woods, soaring mountains and deep valleys, interspersed with sparsely populated quiet towns. Images from noir films, youngsters getting stuck in the cold dark wilderness, crowded my mind. They planned to stay in the vacant vacation home of an uncle of one of the friends. I was reminded of movies in which teenagers’ parties get out of control.

Parental Control No More

Knowing that my daughter would resist mightily if I refused to let her go, I pleaded with her to make just one change to the plan—leave earlier in the day so that the roads would be less icy, and they would get there before dark. She would not hear of it.

And so I found myself driving her to her friend’s house, fuming silently. The thought ate away at me. I would be unable to forgive myself if something untoward were to happen. As the adult in this relationship, wasn’t I supposed to be the one with more perspective and more say?

We were both so mad at each other we barely said goodbye. She silently unloaded her gear from the back of the minivan, slammed the door shut and ran to join her friends.

Ah Ha

On the drive back from her friend’s house, as I replayed the scene I had just witnessed, I had my “ah-ha!” moment.

I had observed the parents of my daughter’s friends as they laughed and talked among themselves and helped the kids load up the cars. It was clear that they were not worried about the teens’ personal safety or their youthful excesses.

In contrast, my worries were informed by my own formative experiences and how different they are from those of my parenting peers.

It was about risk tolerance.

I came of age in a society that was marked by scarcity of opportunity and zero second chances. My parents didn’t spare themselves in providing for the family. Making choices that might cause them worry or let them down was unthinkable. I was aware of the multitudes around me who faced their hard lives with stoic grace. Squandering my middle-class privilege was also unthinkable. There was simply no room for youthful risk-taking or rebellion.

Youthful Rebellion

As I thought through how I was different from my parenting peers, I felt calmer. I was raising children in a village whose values did not completely align with mine. There was only so much I could do against that force.

During the four days that she was away, my daughter did not call. Neither did I call to make sure they had reached safely. I figured I would hear soon enough if something were to go awry. 

She returned home bearing a pile of magazines, among them The Economist and The Atlantic—intellectual magazines that she would not have picked up six months previously. She said she had enjoyed reading the magazines more than she had enjoyed being with her friends.

I realized that it really was time to start cutting the apron strings—as much to set her free as set myself free. I resolved to trust fate, my eighteen years of mothering, and the person my daughter was becoming.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

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Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....