My boss, who has a daughter who is about to turn 15 years old, says to me,

“I wonder, what were you like, at 15?”

And as my brain is immediately spiraling down into tangled dusty-grey memories, I retain enough presence of mind to keep the expression on my face fairly normal as I formulate a response...

Okay, let’s keep this short and relatable, perhaps she’s not so much curious about my life but trying to start a conversation about her daughter, or maybe she’s just bored with work and this is an attempt at making small-talk.

Keeping the tone of my voice light, I reply,
“Yeah, that was sorta... a time of identity-crisis for me... My Dad still saw me as a little girl, my Mom wanted me to be a miniature copy of herself. But I just wanted to hang out at the mall without parental supervision. I wanted to talk on the phone with girls my own age, and flirt with boys. I was into makeup and hairspray and current fashion. Since my mom was very conservative and I wasn’t allowed to do or be interested in those things, I pretty much locked myself up in my bedroom for a year or two, drawing and painting and reading tons of books.”

Well, I’ve severely edited my experiences, but still I’m thinking that’s way much more about me than she wanted to hear.

But then she replies, “Oh, yeah... my girl’s totally like that. Not that we forbid her to do the fun things, and she’s hanging out with groups that are both boys and other girls, but I’m always wondering why she’s shut up in her room all the time.”

I arrive at the conclusion that she sees me as belonging to the generation between herself and her daughter, and thinks I could identify with both of them somewhat. Maybe she’s seeking insight into the ways of young people, or perhaps she wants reassurance about her own status as a Good Mother.

Wishing we were only talking about which projects are due next week or how we’re glad it’s Friday, I respond. “Back then I would’ve loved to have an adult who I could trust, someone who’d just listen as I spill out all my questions and fears and confusion to, and not be scolded or judged. My mother felt like she owned me, that I was her creation, her project... I was alternately either longing to be left alone to be me, without feeling shame about who I was, or trying to really connect with her and failing.”

Oh, that’s way farther than I wanted to take this... hopefully she’s only half paying attention and concentrating instead on her own mother/daughter relationship... Why am I still talking?

“Once in a while I sought out other adults, teachers and other kids’ parents... feeling too awkward to initiate much conversation, but hoping to pick up cues of how to become self-sufficient and respected,” I explain. 

My boss is still looking at me attentively. Then she smiles and says, “OH! Sometimes you’re kinda like my daughters, so sweet... I have to remember not to try and mother you.”

Social interaction skills, I learn them slowly. 10 years ago, a guy said to me, “People love to give advice, or their opinion: ask questions about a topic they’re passionate about, then pay close attention, and they’ll think you’re a great person to talk with. Oh, and a story that somebody tells isn’t just a chance to tell a similar story about yourself.”

So, trying to steer this back away from the abyss of my own teenage years and the lack of a sympathetic mother-figure in my own past, I re-direct with: “What do you think about going shopping with her tomorrow, just the two of you, and how would she react if you gave her $200 to spend on whatever – clothes, earrings, makeup, art supplies? Then go out for lunch, and let her choose the location and whatever she wants to eat?”

“She would totally love that. But she’d also feel weird that it was me with her, and not her friends.”

“You have a lot to offer that another teenager doesn’t. Patience. Experience. And a $200 spending spree.”

“Your own Mom...”

“Was not cool. But you are. Give her space, be available to listen whenever and offer advice respectfully, and be that cool adult you wished you could turn into when you were 15.”

I’m now proud of managing to express myself so clearly, and hoping not to have overstepped or seemed preachy, so I continue with, “What are your views on balancing independence for teenagers, still living at home, with the parent’s desire to be constantly involved in their lives?’

I don’t really care all that much what she has to say, I’m never going to have children myself. She started this topic, I’ve said more than I’ve intended to, it’s her turn to talk. I’ll listen and thank her and get back to work.

“That girl! I think I trust her. She’s not the type to get involved with heavy drugs and partying, she’s actually really judgmental about the other kids who are into that, but she also hates on people who she sees as geeky or stuffy... I never want to be the kind of parent who’d try and pry into whether she was actually at the library, I don’t approve of those mothers always policing... and really she probably was. Does she want to be at parties and stuff, and feel bad about being stuck in books? Or is she okay with that?”

Ah, yes. This conversation is really intended to be about her daughter. Good.

And, really now, come on!! Ask her this stuff, not me!

“Yeah, there’s that nervousness about all of it--evaluating and comparing, wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out as unique and superior. We look back on who we were then and cringe a little. But there’s also that weird longing to do it all over again and experience everything we missed out on... to be 15 and have your life in front of you... but without that regrettable hairstyle and without having to deal with a 12 p.m. curfew.”

Oh, dear, I’m talking about me again.

“Wow. I know.” She fluffs up her hair.

“Spiral perms and poodle bangs.”

“Ack! I remember that, but those girls I wanted to be like in the 80s, all carefully feathered and streaked...”

We’re almost in safe territory here. I can talk hair and clothes and shoes. But let’s wrap this up.

“Your daughter, if she wanted to dye her hair green?”

“What the hell. You’re only 15 once.”

“Totally... You know, I should get back to that Boat Show scheduling project, it’s due Monday.”

“Our work is never done! And I have to get home and make dinner before too long. Agh. I’ll ask my girl to help. And try not to stare at her and wonder what she’s thinking.”

“Good luck with all that.”

She smiles, gets up from her desk chair a bit, but then sits back, saying, “I know better than to try and hug you, well...”

Oh, crap.

I give her a brief hug.

Then, with a mumbled “Thanks!” and a half-smile, I head back to my cubicle to immerse my brain in the Boat Show design schedule.

In front of the computer screen, the numbers are swimming in front of my eyes.

15, 34, 51. We’re all still muddling through life.

That girl is lucky. If I can get to here from where I started at her age, imagine what someone with understanding and supportive parents could achieve. And I am, in a way, lucky as well. I’ve managed to become a successful adult with mostly-hidden insecurities. Every year, more courage and less doubt.

The person I was as a teenager would still recognize the woman/girl sitting here. I look more mature, professional, and passably stylish. I feel almost as awkward and desperate to impress. I‘ve created and achieved, but there’s so much more I still dream of doing with my life.

Who will I be in 10, or 20 years? A top-level executive, and mentor for newly-out-of-school interns? Or sailing around the world, living off of savings but picking up a bit of design work here and there to help fund my journey?...

When I was 15, I saw the ocean for the first time.