As my husband, Ben, and I drove the three hours to our daughter Hannah's campus to pick her up for fall break, I wondered whatif anychanges I'd notice in the daughter we'd left behind six weeks earlier. As I parked in front of her dorm, I caught sight of a smiling, bandanna-swathed Hannah coming toward our car toting her green laundry basket brimming with dirty clothes. Then my eyes detected something else greenlime green. And it wasn't spilling out of her laundry basket. No, this lime green thing was sprouting from Hannah's right eyebrow!
Within the few short weeks Hannah had been away at school, she'd pierced her eyebrow and now sported a ring with a bright green bead on it. While getting an eyebrow ring was hardly the end of the world, it was also something I never thought Hannah would do. Shock, dismay and disappointment coursed through mereactions I certainly hadn't planned on experiencing during our first time together since August. After a quick hug, I managed to sputter, "What's up with that thing in your eyebrow?"
"Oh, that," Hannah said casually as she loaded her duffel and laundry basket into the car. "A girl down the hall in my dorm and I decided to do it together. You should be glad, Mom," she added, reading my expression. "At least I didn't get a nose ring."
The next thing I knew, I said some things I probably shouldn't have, such as how I thought it looked ridiculous, that it was a waste of money and what in the world was she thinking?
"Mom, you forget I'm 18. I don't need your permission anymore."
There it was: An undeniable declaration of independence that marked a change in our relationship. Even worse, it came with a nonverbal reminder to stare back at me each time I looked into Hannah's face. The ride home was subdued, and as we sailed down the highway, I suddenly felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We weren't in Kansas anymore. The familiar parameters of our parent-teen relationshipthe ones we'd hashed out during Hannah's high school yearswere suddenly up for renegotiation.
The good news is my husband and I survived the eyebrow episodeand Hannah's freshman year of college. Once we recovered from our initial shock and discomfort over the ring, we actually had a great weekend with Hannah. By the time we drove her back to campus on Sunday night, we hardly noticed it.
But there were other things about this weird transition time that were harder to adjust to, things that made me want to scream: "Have aliens abducted my kid?"
For instance, I was stunned during Hannah's first weekend home when she actually volunteered to clear the dinner table, unload the dishwasher and clean up the leftoverswithout my asking. This was not the teen I remembered from high school. Was it guilt over her eyebrow ring? Was it the sheer joy of having a home-cooked meal after weeks of dining-hall eating? I didn't waste too much time analyzing the motivation behind Hannah's newfound eagerness to pitch in. I simply enjoyed it.
But I learned never to assume this was the new status quo. I discovered things could change in a New York minute if Hannah felt her independence called into question. She'd clam up or act put upon.
For example, it snowed like crazy over Hannah's Christmas break, and Ben and I were tired of battling the blizzard. Hannah to the rescue, right? After all, she'd spent her days home sleeping in till noon, e-mailing friends, raiding the refrigerator and channel surfing from the family-room sofa. "Hannah, please shovel the driveway for us."
You'd have thought I'd asked her to scoop dog droppings from our backyard or something equally distasteful. She bristled, "Why don't you do it if it needs to be done? I don't want to; I don't feel like it."
I was surprised by her reaction, since Hannah didn't usually respond this way to our requests. I suddenly realized I'd ordered her about in a tone I'd used when she was a child. So I held my tongue and let slide her unwillingness to shovel.