It started at accident. Following a suggestion from a friend, I sent it to my 15-year-old Belle and Sebastian the song “If You’re Feeling Sinister.”
“Fat song,” she wrote back. “I like it.” It was only five words, but that was the most she had deliberately communicated to me for several months.
Over the past few years, my once-lively daughter had become angry, anger and rage swirled around her. Several factors seemed to contribute to this. Covid-19 certainly played a big role in her getting darker, depriving her of her high school diploma, her prom, and the busy social life that had fed her extroverted personality. But her friends also suffered losses, and I did not know anyone who had broken into their rooms and stopped talking to their parents. Somehow I had become the enemy and nothing seemed to bridge the growing gap between us.
For years we had been a team. A single mother, I had leaned on her, and she on me, more than was normal in a mother-daughter relationship. But all that had changed.
“I’m trying to understand you,” I said to her one day, careful not to make eye contact.
“I just do not want you to know me anymore,” she replied. “I do not even know myself!”
She was right, of course. How could I know her if she did not know herself? It had become clear to me that our unusual proximity was actually part of the problem. She needed to break away from me, but how could she do that while I was trying to support her? We needed a new way to connect.
A few hours after her text, where I could hear the Belle and Sebastian song playing on a loop, she came out of her room and sat down to lunch with her sister and me for the first time in several weeks. I tried to engage her by asking a few preliminary questions: How was her science project going, where was her best friend going to camp this summer? It quickly became clear that I had tooted. She stormed back to her room and slammed the door behind her.
As a psychologist, I act with words – I felt out of my depth when communicating through music. So I called my friend Shannon Lorraine, a former musician in the Seattle band Witholders.
“Try this,” she said, “‘In the plane over the sea,” of Neutral Milk Hotel. But do not get too excited when she shows interest. Play it cool. “
I sent my daughter the song and suppressed my urge to follow up with a text message. This time she came out of her room for a few hours. I called Shannon and told her, “I feel like you’re a snake tamer. Tell me what to do now.”
She kept recommending songs, and eventually the cloud around us disappeared a bit. But words were still hard to come by.
Eventually, Shannon ran out of recommendations. For a while, I let Spotify take over, and it featured songs from bands I had never heard of: The postal service, Françoise Hardy, Beirut. But if I wanted a relationship with my daughter, I realized I could not trust an algorithm, so I started coming up with my own suggestions: Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Cureand a favorite from my childhood—Malvina Reynolds. It was small excerpts from my past, from me, that I hoped could connect us in ways that words apparently could not.