The door slammed hard in my face and I slumped against it. This wasn’t the first time a conversation with my 14-year-old daughter about leaving dirty dishes on her bedroom floor erupted into screams. When Covid-19 hit NYC and we relocated to our house upstate, our formerly close relationship unraveled. Our contact became stilted and tentative on the best days, explosive on the worst. She was exasperated by everything I said. At a particularly low point she didn’t come out of her room for 12 hours. (I used a screwdriver to pick the lock and peek in on her when she was asleep). We may have escaped the storm engulfing the city, but it was clear there was no avoiding the one we had precipitated under our own roof. For the first time in our relationship, I was at a loss.
Deep down we all carry the versions of ourselves we learned as children. Mine was: you’re not good enough as you are. One withering look of disdain or mere mention of disappointment from my father was enough to send me into spirals of shame. I grew skilled at finding ways to please him, but in the process lost the ability to please myself. It was not until much later that I learned the importance of being known-to myself and others--as I truly am.
By contrast, my identity as a parent to my first daughter came smoothly. I was determined from the outset that her needs would come first, and our bond made that easy.
We were that irritating unicorn mother-daughter duo--the ones giggling in the grocery store and sharing inside jokes. I knew how to soothe her. We got each other’s humor. When there was a Gilmore Girls pop-up in Park Slope we woke at 5 am and waited in line for two hours to sit at a replica of Luke’s diner, pretending to be Rory and Lorelai. We snickered when someone sitting next to us marveled, “You guys have the dialogue memorized?”
I learned Tik-Tok dances and hosted sleepovers. Far longer than might have seemed appropriate, she wanted me to sing her to sleep. Over the course of yearly trips to Burma, she developed an intense friendship with a former political prisoner, a dear friend, who taught her art while I was conducting trauma trainings. Once, he caught me off-guard: “You know she might not always want to come here?” he said. It was the first time it began to occur to me that she might one day choose her own path, even foregoing these beloved trips to Burma, over the one we shared.
Eyes flashing, she snarled “You don’t understand me, and you never did!” The explosion came after I had suggested she sit at a desk during online school rather than in the dark corner of her bed. She knew how much those words would hurt.
One day, the first time she had left the house in days, much less showered, we passed by a swan in a lake, her neck improbably high and elegant as she floated by. Absently, I commented on her beauty.
“Swans, seriously, swans? You think I want to look at a swan? You are so clueless. You disgust me.” She charged ahead.
Back at the house, we faced off.
“Now what, where do we go from here?” Even as I asked the question, I knew she had no answer. Wearing a Harry Styles sweatshirt two sizes too big, her dark brown eyes heavily lined in black, she flashed a look of disdain and stormed off, slamming her bedroom door behind her. This was no ordinary teenage temper tantrum, even in the time of Covid.
The next day, I was scrolling through Facebook when I landed in my neighborhood chapter of “Buy Nothing,” a national group based on sharing what is already owned rather than owning more. Typical pre-Covid requests included a pirate costume in need of a sword, a specific French board game, a seatbelt extender, or marshmallows (made urgently at 9pm by a member about to make Rice Krispy treats). As the pandemic wore on, posts displaying the group’s interconnectedness began appearing: A free pumpkin pie because “maybe someone needs one?” Legal advice to a woman who’d inquired about a divorce lawyer. A woman proudly showing off the blanket she’d knit using “buy nothing” wool, and free beer from someone who had received a homebrewing kit from the group. One particularly poignant post came from a woman who had requested a carpet to fend off a neighbor’s noise. Not only did she receive multiple rugs, but also noise-canceling headphones. Later, she disclosed that the group’s gifts had helped her better manage her PTSD.
The moments of kindness on Buy Nothing became a counterpoint to a world that felt increasingly small, fragile, and self-absorbed. I spent my days slogging through my patients' worries, my children’s online school, the tedium of wiping down groceries and finding toilet paper. After my fifth colleague died of Covid, someone offered a brand-new vibrator to the group with the caption: “self-care takes all forms during a crisis.” After I’d attended yet another Zoom funeral, someone offered their apartment to a stranger who was a first responder. After an extremely hard day during which a patient, an ER doctor, had broken down describing the horror he was witnessing, someone asked for help clearing out the room of the baby she had just lost. The group offered her comfort, solace, and concrete help.
As the true horror of Covid descended upon us, we reached a kind of unspoken consensus that what we all needed was one place where people were nothing but kind. Times had changed, and so had the group. Noticing this change helped me understand something about my daughter. We had to become something new, too.
Underneath our closeness there had probably always been a cold fear lurking based on my own experiences as a child. Growing up, my father’s needs defined my identity. I checked out books from the library on how to excel at Scrabble because I knew it would impress him, the Scrabble champion. I’d wake up hours before everyone to study in order to make sure I got good grades. My coach cut me from the track team because I chose to attend my dad’s college reunion rather than the important state meet. My mother told me it was a mistake. I didn’t listen.
Realizing that pleasing my father would never actually make me happy was a punch to the gut, but one I finally accepted. After two years of deferring, I decided against going to law school. “But that’s what you always wanted,” my father snarled, before adding the coup de grace: “I’m so disappointed.”
At the time it didn’t occur to me that he hadn’t bothered to ask me “Why?” Nor could I, in my shame, ask him why he cared so much. Choosing an indeterminate path over the security of law school was the most rebellious thing I had ever done. It took many years of therapy to untangle what this meant, and even longer to find my way to an identity on my own terms. Then I became a parent and endeavored to create a new story.
All this time, I had thought that by encouraging my daughter to express her depression, anger, doubts, and fears, I was offering her an alternative to my own experience. I felt so connected to her whenever we had an argument and worked it through or sat up late under the covers while she cried. I felt I understood her. I went out of my way to not express disappointment. What I didn’t see was that I had simply exchanged one identity for another: the dutiful daughter had become the hovering mother. My need for my father’s approval had transformed into a greed for closeness with my daughter. Somewhere along the way, my connection to my daughter had become more for me than for her.
It began to dawn on me that my daughter’s anger wasn’t the problem, it was my own need to save her from a fate from which I had only barely saved myself. But her fate was her own to discover, not mine to bestow. Unsurprisingly, my expectations were just as oppressive to her as my father’s had been to me. Unlike me, she wasn’t going to submit to them so easily.
“I’m trying—I am trying to understand you,” I told her one day as I sat at the foot of her bed, careful not to make eye contact.
“I just don’t want you to know me anymore,” she responded. “ I don’t even know myself!” She was right.
A day after Thanksgiving, I posted on the Buy Nothing group asking for a turkey wishbone. For years my mom would save the wishbone for my daughter, and they would delight in the ritual. Someone responded, and, after a contactless pickup, I walked the wishbone home, carefully wrapped in a paper towel.
As I unwrapped it, I was prepared for my daughter to scoff.
Unexpectedly, she lit up. “I want to make a wish,” she said.
“Hold on tightly.” She pulled on the wishbone and it separated. Our eyes met, and I let go.
As a psychologist, Sarah Gundle uses poetry and writing prompts with her patients because she's found that written words can often access what spoken ones cannot.
Sarah has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University. In addition to her private practice, she teaches courses on trauma and international mental health at Mount Sinai. She is also a member of Physicians for Human Rights and works in their Asylum network, where she evaluates the mental health of persecution survivors seeking asylum.