In my dream, my teenage daughter, my mother-in-law, and I are standing on the Golden Gate Bridge. The setting is disconcerting, as the three of us have never been in San Francisco at the same time. In fact, my teenager has only been there in utero.
My ordinarily soft-spoken mother-in-law is yelling at me. I look down and I feel queasy. Not unlike I felt when I was pregnant with my daughter.
“Send her to me for the year. She can live with us and help me around the house,” she shouts.
She said this same thing to me, more calmly, when I was awake. I was talking on my cell phone as I wandered through Office Max, running errands and sharing my worries about my daughter with her grandmother. I find people who carry on long, personal conversations in public on their cell phones to be quite rude. But she called while I was pulling into the parking lot and we were deeply involved in a conversation about the challenges of raising teens.
This was in early November, when I was struggling with being the mother of a high school senior who procrastinates, who waits until the night of the deadline to finish the Common Application, who might not apply to college in time to leave home next fall.
“Mom, I think she needs to go to college. I don’t think a gap year is a good idea for her.”
“I know, honey, but you know that I just want to help.”
I know this is true. She is the most well-intentioned mother-in-law, and, really, the most nurturing mother that I know. I’m also aware of how fortunate I am to have her in my life. When we first met, shortly before her son proposed to me, she told me that he and I would inevitably argue but that I should be completely confident in her love and support. Her exact words were, “Honey, I’ll always take your side.”
In the more than 20 years I’ve known her, she has not betrayed that promise.
Once, maybe 15 years ago, she offered me some parenting advice for this same child, who was then at a different stage in her life. Actually, I have long believed that toddler and teenager are the same stage in life. In any case, I rebuffed my mother-in-law then, as I do now.
Her father and I have raised her, since her tumultuous toddlerhood, to make her own choices and to live with the natural and logical consequences of those choices. But I realized–as I lost my patience with my mother-in-law and spoke more sharply than I had intended–that I have no idea how to parent an 18-year-old, who is legally an adult but remains a child to me. When she was little, just starting kindergarten, I would tell her, “No matter how old you are, and even when you have babies of your own, you’ll always be my baby.” Now she is not little, she is graduating high school, and I don’t know what to tell her. The natural and logical consequences of her choices seem more fraught with potential peril.
I thought I was coping with my anxiety. But, in the middle of the night, I experience the dream about the three of us teetering on the Golden Gate on a foggy, windy afternoon. My mother-in-law and I are embroiled in our dispute about what’s best for my daughter, her granddaughter, who is walking away from us. Soon she will disappear into the fish market in Sausalito. How will she find what’s best for her there?
I am aware that I am dreaming and I desperately try to stay asleep longer. Maybe I can see the future in my dream. Instead, I wake up abruptly–my heart beating wildly–and listen to the neighbor’s dog howling. It is not yet 5 in the morning.
It’s probably not too early to call my mother-in-law, I think. I need to make sure she’s alright; we were so precariously perched on the bridge, in my subconscious mind’s eye. I want to tell her about my dream to dispel the anxiety in my heart.
I can’t see my daughter’s future. Nor can I foretell my own fate, as a mother or a daughter. Still, I decide the only way to live with life’s uncertainty is to confront it in the light of day, after a good night’s sleep. I pull the comforter up to my ears and will myself back to the bridge, where I put an arm around each woman. We step carefully, and as we approach the end of the pedestrian lane, I turn to my mother-in-law and say what I should have said in Office Max: “Thank you.”