A cloud of marijuana smoke drifted by as my 13-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, can I walk around and meet people?” We were standing in an outdoor line for Warped Tour, a music festival with acts typically described as “pop punk” or “metalcore.” That is, hardcore heavy metal. Men in ghoulish masks playing electric guitars and growling lyrics about the devil.
It was 2018, long before the pandemic brought us the concept of social distance. Festivals like this one involved spending hours in extremely close range of other people’s breath and sweat as they screamed along with the bands. My daughter loved this music. I did not. I have no idea where she picked up a taste for it. All I knew was that she wouldn’t hold my hand anymore — she was too old for that, she said. She still had her blonde hair, but in a few months, she would dye it deep red and start adorning the corners of her eyes with eyeliner “wings.” She’s a smart kid — and even though she’s her own person, she’s also at the point in her development where it’s normal for her to “follow the crowd,” which scares me a little.
She asked me again if she could go explore. I said no. She asked me why, just as a car drove by with a shirtless woman hanging out of the sunroof screaming, “Unleash the beast!”
“I need to get inside and get my bearings before I feel safe enough for you to walk around on your own,” I told her.
“I know, but still!” she pleaded.
How many parents parent the way they were parented? Probably a fair number. Many of us also deliberately push back against what our parents did. I do both, perhaps because I was raised by two women — my mother and grandmother — who had very different parenting styles.
My mother, elated with the freedom of her fresh divorce, wanted to make me strong and independent, an adult before my time. Her mother, the martyr, shielded me from the world by giving me a nest of comfort and safety. Which parenting philosophy would inform how I raised my newly teenage daughter?
My own preteen years were intense. On my 10th birthday, my mother, whom I called “Mama,” gave me a private birthday celebration. She’d started her period at 10, so she expected mine any day. She told me that as soon as I started bleeding, I’d go on the pill. She’d had the traumatic experience of getting pregnant as a teenager, and then being whisked away by her mother to a town where no one knew them, giving birth and putting the baby up for adoption with Catholic charities. She’d insisted that the pill would give me freedom.
Not only was Mama my mother, she was also my best friend. I felt fortunate to be positioned as her confidante, even though that meant, according to her, that I was “too old” to hold her hand in public. In the months leading up to my 10th birthday, I heard all about her newfound dating life. This included a one-night stand with a 19-year-old bartender. Since she was 36 and he 19, she said, “we were both at our sexual primes.”
On my birthday, Mama served pink champagne and she-crabs — the egg-bearing females — and dared me to eat the roe. She played Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World,” and when Helen sang “when one of us is gone / and one of us is left to carry on,” we cried in each other’s arms. I felt aching nausea at the fear of losing my mother; it started in my stomach and spread up across my chest.
When my period finally came, I was 13, but by then Mama no longer needed my friendship and confidences; she’d met the man who would become my stepfather. I became part of the wallpaper. Mama moved miles away to their new house. And I moved in with my grandmother and started drinking.
When Mama was 13, Grandma had left her with her mother for nearly a year so that she could try to find her husband who had run off with another woman.
By the time Grandma was 80, she was ready to make up for how she’d abandoned my mother, by providing the safest, warmest, most loving home possible for me. I hid my drinking as best I could, so I wouldn’t disappoint her. That limitation most likely saved my life, because I was, shall we say, wild.
Grandma doted on me. As soon as I got out of my bed, she’d make it. She woke up at 3 every morning to do my laundry, press my clothes for school, and make my meals. Living through the Depression made her a workhorse for ensuring everyone was properly clothed and fed. She was the opposite of my mother, who’d insisted that I cook for the family and do the dishes, but didn’t care if I made my bed or not. In return for everything she did for me, however, Grandma made sure I knew it: She’d show me the bones visible through the soles of her feet after she’d stood on them all day. I hated when she did that, almost as much as she hated it when I unmade my bed right after she made it, just to spite her.
By the time my daughter and I squeezed into the festival, pulsating with bass and throngs of leather- and spike-clad metal fans, my wild days were long gone. This was her heaven and my hell, but I was happy she had found something she felt passionate about. My wife and I have tried to bring our daughter up in such a way that she knows she is loved, and that we are happy when she is happy.
As we made our way toward our eventual meeting spot, I surveyed the landscape of the three stages and thought about what kind of parent I wanted to be. Should I nurture her independence to ensure she can survive this often-cruel world, or should I protect her for as long as I can to show her that I am always there? The truth is that although my mother was selfish and irresponsible, she cared that I would grow up to take care of myself, and I have. And although my grandmother martyred herself with her overabundance of attention and selflessness, she cared that I would be safe in the world, and I am. My parenting can be informed by both of my “mothers.” I can nurture my daughter’s independence and give her boundaries to make sure she is safe.
“Can I go now?” she asked impatiently.
I looked into her eyes. “Yes,” I replied. I’ll be right here.
I found the “parent tent,” also known as “reverse day care” — a cool, comfortable lounge perched atop a hill with a vantage point that allowed me to see all three of the stages, with the audience pumping heads and tattooed fists to the various screaming guitars. I was afraid. I wanted her to hold my hand. I wanted her to need me. But I reveled in her sense of freedom. The joy of her budding independence rippled through my heart and cracked it wide open. At one point, I caught a glimpse of her running through the crowd to make it to the next show. She was smiling and laughing. “There’s my daughter,” I told the mom next to me.
“They grow up so fast,” she said.
“I know,” I said. But still.
Susannah Bell is a teacher and writer who lives with her wife and teenage daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area.