Wild Years: "Modern Love" Makes Us Feel Bad About Our Teen Years

When moms and daughters have to bond over Tom Waits? It must be Mother's Day!

The author, Debra Gwartney, has experienced a parent's nightmare of difficult teen years with her daughters.

Our estrangement, the not speaking, had come after years of trouble with Amanda and her sister Stephanie...To even mention their father in our household meant a dose of scorn from me, and when the two oldest girls and I began arguing about friends they hung around with, about skipping school, about staying away from the house for days on end...One night when they were 16 and 14, the girls loaded their army packs and headed for the front door, where I stood with feet planted and arms crossed. We collided there, pulling and pushing and grabbing while their two younger sisters cried, "Stop it! Stop!" from the other side of the room.

The two girls ride the rails, go missing, fall into drugs and trouble, and obviously their mother knows pure hell. This essay recounts a tentative detente, a Mother's Day bonding over a Tom Waits concert. Tom Waits, the author explains, had been the soundtrack of her divorce, and for her daughters, of their period of their wild emancipation

"the only adult who could possibly understand why they had hit the road. At least that's how they thought of it. Tom Waits knew what it was like to be torn apart by people who claim to love you; Tom Waits knew why they chose to abandon their home, their sisters, their town, their mother.

When she arrives at the concert, the author realizes her daughter's bought her a ticket some six rows away. But she's glad just to be there, to be speaking, to feel her daughter will allow her in her life. It's unspeakably sad. We've all seen or experienced these relationships: the shift in power whereby a parent becomes pathetically grateful for any contact or any sense of normalcy. To the child, it can seem inexplicable;forget authority or respect - when things get to this point, a parent is eager for crumbs of friendship, happy to walk on eggshells for the privilege of being in a child's life, eager to bond over the music of an artist who may express many things, but for whom normal parental responsibility seems fairly alien. The burden of the love is stifling and reassuring, and something about this essay expresses it perfectly.Even those of us past those tumultuous years have heard that note in our mothers' voices sometimes - eager for our time, grateful to hear our voices - and had moments of sadness at the power shift that's taken place.

I remember riding in the car with my own mom as a pre-teen and her saying how she used to know Tom Waits a little bit in the 70s and how he'd prey on young girls. I wonder if it was true; back then I didn't question it, of course. But either way it made him seem like an especially meaningful choice for a mother-daughter reunion. What's so sad about the essay is that one doesn't know if the author's relationship with her daughters will be repaired, because she clearly has so little control over the situation; she pours her 18-year-old a glass of wine, does her hair, bites her tongue. All the reader can do is hope with her that things will be okay, marvel at the power of parental love, and maybe make a mental note to call home a little more often, if only to help repay the karmic debt that teenage years seem all about amassing.

The Long Way Home
[NY Times]