It was 8 pm on my daughter’s 15th birthday, and I remained a Mama on a Mission, gearing up for the home stretch.
The mission, of course, was making my daughter feel as special and loved as possible—a mission that’s more challenging, I’ve discovered, when your children are teenagers and less likely to buy into the enthusiasm in your voice as you sell them on some random idea: Bowling would be a fun birthday treat! If my daughter had her way we’d be seeing Broadway shows in New York for her birthday, but in reality I had less to work with.
By 8 pm on this particular birthday, we had already completed our typical activities: a mother-daughter outing (which in this case involved a new ear piercing); a birthday dinner at the restaurant of her choice, with the seven people who make up her immediate family (mom, dad, sister, stepmom, half-brother, stepdad, step-sister); and finally dessert and presents back at home. My now-15-year-old already had a big party with friends the night before, so now what?
“Do you want to go anywhere?” I asked.
“No, I just want to be home,” she said, smiling contentedly.
“Should we rent a movie?” I suggested. “Or play a game?” I know very well that games are not her favorite pastime, but I couldn’t help myself. In my family experience, both as a child and an adult, this is what you do when you’re together: You play games. Sitting around a table covered with the pieces of a game is my family’s quintessential definition of togetherness.
“No, I just want to be home and do whatever,” she said, a trace of exasperation edging into her voice. “I’ve had an amazing birthday! Can’t we all just be here but do our own things?”
As an extrovert, I (not for the first time) had to pause and forcibly wrap my head around this less structured version of “Together.” I could see my other daughter re-calibrating as well, as we tried to imagine that the birthday girl’s idea of a fun birthday might not look exactly like our plans for her. After all, we were there to serve! To entertain! To focus all of our time and energies on HER! And she wanted to go up to her room and try out the new guitar pedal she just unwrapped? We had to let that sink in.
“Well…OK. If you’re sure,” I said.
She was, of course, sure.
As the sounds of reverberating electric guitar and my daughter’s pure voice serenaded us through the ceiling, the rest of us looked at each other in somewhat sheepish agreement: Let’s play a game. In her own way, she was right there with us.
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While I probably wouldn’t choose “alone in my room” as a way to spend my birthday evening, upon a bit more reflection I realized that I know a thing or two about this desire my daughter often has: to be together yet alone.
Since February 2002, after nearly a decade of working in populated office settings, I’ve worked essentially alone, as a writer. When I was in the process of deciding whether to take the leap and start my own business, my biggest fear wasn’t Will I have enough clients? or Will I make enough money? It was this: Will I be able to work alone?
Not only am I social—someone who is energized by being in the mix, having people to go to lunch with, and feeling connected to others who are dealing with the same bosses and projects—but I’m also most creative in collaborative settings. In other words, I worried not just that I would be lonely working by myself, but also that the very skills I was selling might fall flat if there weren’t people around to bounce ideas off of and provide critique.
I decided to take the leap anyway, and was lucky enough to discover that technology was my safety net. It was the growing availability of wireless Internet, in particular, that prevented me from gradually slipping away from myself, sitting day after day at the desk in the corner of my living room. Wireless Internet meant I could take my laptop—all that really comprised my “office”—to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, where I could be together yet alone.
In that coffee shop, I learned it was the mere presence of bodies and voices—being surrounded by activity and the gears of many brains thinking and creating—that I craved more than anything else. In the unnatural silence of my empty home I felt slightly on-edge and easily distractible, but the buzzing white noise of the café allowed me to dive into my work and ride a stream of creative flow for hours.
There’s simply something powerful—at once comforting and freeing—about being autonomous yet in community, whether that community is family or strangers at a café. It’s an experience that carries a certain rightness and balance: In a single moment and place, it acknowledges and respects both our “sameness” as humans and our “difference” as individuals.
Ultimately, both identity and empathy are strengthened through that single form of togetherness. When I think of it that way, I can see what a wonderful gift it was to give my teenage daughter on her birthday—and what a wonderful reminder it was for her to share with me.
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Photo of the game “Carcassonne” by Aslakr. Coffee shop photo by Kristin Tennant.