Mothers and daughters. Those relationships are the makings of memorable movie moments. Remember Sally Field forcing Julia Roberts to drink juice even as she despairs her daughter’s choice to have a baby? (Steel Magnolias). What about Debra Winger realizing that her challenging mother is the one person who can hold her family together once cancer takes her life? (Terms of Endearment). And Joan Crawford and hangers? (Mommie Dearest). Like me, I’m sure you may have a movie or two that reflects your own relationships with your mother or daughter. Recently, though, a new movie set me back on my heels with its too-real, too-close-to-home portrayal of a mother and daughter coping with one of the most emotionally fraught life experiences: high school. And it gave both my daughter and me a flashback to just three years ago.
Lady Bird follows a mother and daughter as they navigate moving through high school to graduation. Watching that movie together with my 20-year-old daughter was by turns charming and disarming. From the opening sequence in the car, we both felt like someone had filmed our conversations during her junior and senior years of high school. The precise way that each misunderstood the other was a perfect reflection of the challenges of parenting a teenage girl, of trying to be a mom to my daughter.
“You feel vindicated, don’t you?”
That was my daughter’s first volley to me as we hit “stop”. I did not, in fact, feel vindicated, but I did feel validated. And, what I learned, once we got past our fall-back volleying, flashing back to high school, was that she did too.
My daughter and I were tightly connected as she approached the midpoint of high school. I had been divorced since she was in elementary school and had been the primary caregiver, chauffeur, meal provider, vacation planner, and daily cheerleader, and it was usually just the two of us. Her brother is almost five years older and rarely tagged along. We had encountered bumps and missteps along the way, but nothing like the constant conflict that simmered and exploded during her junior year.
What Lady Bird so accurately captures is that what you say to your teenage daughter and what she hears are almost always in direct opposition. No matter how precisely you try to explain or speak, your careful words get churned through a kaleidoscope of teenage anxiety, emotion, and self-absorption. No amount of repeating, clarifying, or over-explaining will change that you’re speaking a language that she cannot translate.
Please don’t make me go to the mall
The shopping for the prom dress scenes in the movie are a perfect example. In the movie, as mother and daughter pick through the racks, they bicker; they sound like they are about to explode into a loud argument when Mom chooses a dress, and Lady Bird shrieks that it’s adorable. All conflict is instantly forgotten until later, when the bickering picks up again as she tries on dresses. Lady Bird steps from the dressing room, excitement in her eyes, saying “This one is perfect.” Mom replies, casually and matter of factly, “It is a little pink.” Lady Bird retreats, instantly defeated, to the dressing room, leaving Mom to wonder what she said that could cause such a strong reaction. My daughter and I laughed at these moments especially, remembering a time when I quit shopping with her altogether. Each visit to a dressing room was like entering a torture chamber. She hated everything I chose, and I despised everything she chose. After two items didn’t fit right or look right, she became so angry and I became the target for all that anger.
But our challenges became more difficult than shopping. My daughter, always a good student, began to skip school work, leaving assignments incomplete. Her grades began to drop, and she became more and more disagreeable and tired. Even though she slept A LOT, she never felt energized or refreshed. She just powered forward through school, soccer, and choir, and directed all her anger and frustration at me.
Power forward until you crash
I expected her to power forward, drop the attitude, and get over it. I mean, I had always powered through, so why couldn’t she just suck it up and stop all the drama? This was our holding pattern, our place of mutual disagreement, and for many months, neither of us was willing to move from it. But like Lady Bird and her mother, you cannot keep the lid on such conflict forever. For us, the turning point came at the end of my daughter’s junior year, when she dis-invited me to her soccer banquet and moved out for a week during the final semester exams. I was hurt and confused. She was hurt and confused. Finally, something about which we agreed.
After her week away, we managed to have a civil conversation and we agreed that therapy would be a tool to explore. We found a counselor my daughter trusted (that took a couple of tries), and I stayed out of the way as they worked together. I met once with both of them and left annoyed that the counselor took her side. Ha. What she did was challenge my belief that everyone could do what I could do, that everyone was capable of powering forward. That’s just not true. My expectations of my daughter needed to reflect what she could do.
To be clear, my daughter has done a lot of work in therapy to understand her own limitations as well as her strengths. After several months of seeking balance and after much deliberation, we decided to introduce anti-depressants into the therapeutic mix as an additional tool. The combination of regular counseling with low doses of medication have helped my daughter find a place where she can manage her emotions and focus on all the things she loves to do. And she is doing all of them again: Dean’s List in college, leading member of her soccer team, officer in her sorority.
Together, we have learned to hear each other. My daughter can tell me that I’m putting too much pressure on her with words instead of with door slams, eye rolls, and grunts. I get more than one opportunity to clarify what I am expressing when the first statement meets with a funny look. We have come through to the other side, and our relationship is stronger because of it.
Lady Bird ends in a very unsatisfying manner, at least for my daughter and me. Yes, we see that they bridge a divide, but we wanted more. We wanted to see Lady Bird and her mom find healing together on the other side of the divide; we wanted to know that they reclaimed the joy of their relationship. We wanted to see ourselves reflected for just a little bit longer on the screen.