Borat, TikTok and small talk: How my 18-year-old and I re-connected during quarantine

Tara Ellison

THE WASHINGTON POST – Over the past two years, my once close relationship with my 18-year-old daughter has taken a lot of hits. There’s been plenty of screaming and door slamming, followed by withdrawal and silent treatment. The fights blur together after a while.

Was that bad one over Coachella? Or was it when I said no to additional ear piercings? Or was it because her stepdad and I moved to a house further away from her school and friends? The fights often end with her driving off to school mad at me for the day – or possibly the week if she’s leaving for her dad’s house. When you’re a divorced parent, it’s hard to maintain continuity, because you’re only getting fragments of your child’s time.

On a good day, I’m grasping at wisps of her attention. Five minutes at breakfast before she rushes out the door and minimal texting during the day, things like, “Can I stay at Sydney’s?” Or, “Can I buy this sweatshirt?” Then it’s a quick dinner before I lose her to homework and FaceTime with her friends. I’m also competing with TikTok – where she and her friends make videos of themselves dancing and lip-syncing, punctuated by excited squeals.

Behind the hustle and bustle of daily routines, there’s the bittersweet awareness that this time is precious. It’s her last year at home before leaving for college. I’ve become more clingy; I know my hugs last a little too long when she says, “Ugh, Mom. You’re breathing on my hair.”

With her move to the East Coast looming in the fall, I’m all too aware my little girl will be dancing beyond my grasp soon.

Then COVID-19 upended life as we knew it.

Shortly after the announcement that all schools in Los Angeles were closing, any senior events that my daughter and her friends were looking forward to were stripped from the calendar. Eventually, there was no calendar left. The end of their last year of high school was wiped away.

“Can I still get a cap and gown?” she asked. “Of course. We’ll order one from Amazon.”

“And there’s not going to be a prom anymore,” she said quietly.

That one wasn’t as easy to fix with online shopping.

Pre-coronavirus, I might have been viewed as the prison warden, in charge of where she went, what she’d be doing and what time she had to be home. But then I was downgraded to one of the inmates. Instead of battling over little things, we were suddenly in it together.

And nobody was going anywhere.

There was no more negotiating. Decisions were made for us collectively, as determined by the State of California. The news had to be rationed because it became too scary. We began to engage in agenda-free conversations, a novelty. There was no more FOMO. Nobody was doing anything exciting. 2020 had been cancelled.

While the economic meltdown raged on alongside the health crisis, we were forced to get to know ourselves, and each other, in captivity, often in uncomfortably intimate ways. It’s hard to hide or disguise marital spats when you’re living on top of one another. In the old world, my husband and I usually shelved our disagreements until my daughter wasn’t home.

“I can hear you. You guys woke me up,” she texted one night. “Can you please stop fighting?”

It was an endurance test for all of us. The doing versus being sides of our existence were flipped and die-hard “doers” and Type-A people – like my current husband – were forced to stay home and not do things. Or at least, not do them on the scale he was used to.

I had a meltdown one day and felt resentful for having to plan and fix breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone and then cleanup afterward. And then also try to get work done and walk the dogs. Besides, when had we ever had that many meals at home?

“Why don’t you have some cereal?” I asked.

“Mom, you know next year when I’m not here, you’re going to say ‘Why didn’t I just make her scrambled eggs like she asked?’”

She’s right; that’s exactly what I’ll say.

In the absence of any other options she turned to us for company, much needed comic relief or comfort baking.

Her stepdad did most of the baking with her. They made a cake together and each decorated their half with their preferred icing (her vanilla and his pecan). He also made cinnamon rolls for breakfast one morning and surprised her with them as she was logging in for school. He was greeted with squeals of delight. “Rob is my king,” she said each time he did something nice.

There was a settling in, a softness in her that I hadn’t seen since she was much younger. She wasn’t stressed out by bouncing between two homes, and it strengthened our bond. When the news arrived that a friend of her dad’s had died of cancer, she cried on and off for days and let me hold and comfort her. Sometimes we would sit together, holding hands, saying nothing while she quietly sobbed. Without uttering a word, she had invited me to step deeper into her world.

Sometimes she wanted company, other times she needed to be alone and soothed herself by colouring hearts and flowers in one of her adult colouring books.

“What’s so great about TikTok?” I asked one night as we huddled on her bed together watching the app.

“I don’t know, Mom. People like funny videos.”

Hard to argue with that.

She showed me countless short videos featuring parents as willing or unwilling participants. In TikTok culture, there is a wild enthusiasm for making your parent the butt of a joke. Any joke. There doesn’t even have to be much skill involved. One hapless parent is apparently all it takes.

The hope is that your clueless mom or dad will then become your ticket to going viral. Then we watched pets doing cute things and by the time we looked up, I was shocked by how much time had gone by while we were chuckling and scrolling.

“Mom, kids on social media are freaking out. It’s crazy,” she told me, as I started to make dinner.

It used to be a rare event that she would deign to sit with me while I cooked. Now a meal-prep chat has become a daily ritual.

“What are they doing?”

“People are cutting bangs and ripping out lash extensions. Some have dyed their hair.”

“I might be joining them soon,” I said.

While I was chopping vegetables, she said, casually, “I think I might just have been
friend-zoned.”

To distract ourselves from real life, we watched episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and did our nails together. She picked off the sad remnants of an old gel manicure and I selected a cheery chili-pepper-red polish for no reason. She painted them for me, but noted, “You never wear this colour.”

During one of the bleaker days we watched Borat (perhaps not my finest parenting moment, but the laughs were worth it).

Having this bonus time with my daughter before she leaves for college has become my silver lining for the lockdown. I’m not saying I’m glad COVID-19 happened, but I’m grateful for this rare chance to connect with her on a new level. Or “next level”, as she might say.

After a three-week stint together, with minimal bumps, it was time for her to go to her dad’s. I didn’t know when I would next see her. It was hard to predict what would happen with the crisis. Would it even be safe for her to come back? I wanted to keep her close.

I walked her out to the car. She looked so grown up as she slung her purse into the passenger seat and turned to me to say goodbye.

“Mom, why are you crying?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I got to see you for so many days in a row. And I’ve been having so much fun with you.”

“Me, too.”

“What do you think’s been the best part?”

“I don’t know, Mom,” she leaned in to hug me. “Don’t ask cheesy questions like that. Love you!”

“Love you.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll see you again soon.”

Then she smiled and drove away.