Ask Polly: How Do I Help My 25-Year-Old Daughter?

Photo: By Laura Zenker/SinglEye Photography/Copyright 2011, Laura Zenker

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Hi, Polly,

I read your column religiously and respect your advice. I know you have daughters, so I’m hoping you can give me some direction/perspective. I have two daughters in their 20s and have been fortunate to have close relationships with both. But I know I tend to hover much more over my eldest daughter in part because I worry about her. She’s really beautiful, smart, and deep, yet she struggles both with love and friendships. I’ve begun to suspect she may have some tendencies toward borderline personality disorder (this isn’t just me being armchair psychiatrist; there is some bipolar genetic stuff on my husband’s side of the family).

Anyway, I have two concerns: One is that I tend to project into her future, freaking out that she’ll never marry, which I know she really wants. My husband and I have one of those lucky, happy marriages, which changed my life so much for the better. I know she sees our marriage and thinks of it as a model for herself. When she calls me crying over the latest fight with her boyfriend (a frequent event), I get this deep feeling of dread and anxiety, which I try desperately to keep under wraps so I don’t communicate it to her. It’s weird to me that my anxiety coalesces around marriage when rationally I know that making a meaningful life for oneself involves a lot more than finding a partner. I want to be able to give her good advice and convey that I know she can handle her life.

But I also know that she could really benefit from some therapy. When I suggest this, she ignores my advice even though she acknowledges she has some issues. Lately, I’ve been trying to give less advice and trust her more. The mid-20s are such a vulnerable time! It’s so hard watching her struggle with men, especially beyond what I think is normal for her age.

So my question is twofold: How do I guide her? And how do I stop projecting? I suspect that my projecting has as much to do with regrets about my own past as it does with her struggles, but I also trust my instincts that her struggles are a sign of something deeper than growing-up milestones.  Any advice would be so appreciated!

Hovering But Trying Not To

Dear Hovering,

Negotiating relationships in your mid-20s is like boarding one of those ridiculous Second World War bomber planes, the ones with the monstrous lawnmower engines that clatter and growl and hiss like homemade dirty bombs anxious to explode, and riding that busted-ass mess over the middle of the Pacific Ocean looking for stuff to drop bombs on. Did you know that during WWII, 40 percent of the deaths of U.S. airmen occurred in non-combat-related crashes? These guys were willingly climbing into dented-up death machines that were likely to fall apart mid-air before they even engaged the enemy. That pretty much sums up how it feels to date dudes when you’re 25 years old. You’re scanning the open sea for something, ANYTHING, and when you finally spot a target and move toward it, it turns out to be a school of fish or a whale or a fucking dude who watches so much porn he expects you to wear see-through heels and to actually enjoy getting choked and slapped on the ass like a mule in scratchy lace panties from Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s big secret, by the way, is that she’d rather have her goddamn plane blow to pieces over the Pacific than put on that scratchy-ass butt floss again. 

Okay, I probably just gave you heart palpitations with that one. I just want you to understand what your daughter is up against. Trying to get a 25-year-old dude to take you and your relationship seriously is like line-fishing for a submarine on a beach in the Gilbert Islands. (Yes, today is Mixed Metaphor Day. Enjoy the ride, motherfuckers!) Being beautiful and smart doesn’t help; it makes things worse. It means all kinds of guys are going to want to fuck you and hang out with you and even date you for a while, simply because it makes them look good and might signal to other women that they’re worthy of a smart, hot girl. Lots of guys, even dumb guys and not very hot guys, like the idea of dating a smart, beautiful woman. That seems like a win to them. Her other specific traits are only important once they’re charted on the convenience scale: Easygoing? Convenient. Talkative? Inconvenient. Emotional? Inconvenient. Not interesting or beneficial.

I might sound like I’m talking about dating, but this applies to long-term relationships, too. I went out with guys for years who only wanted to be with me because I was a catch — smart and attractive. It took a long time to discover their total lack of interest in pretty much every other thing that made me who I was.

You might think your daughter’s boyfriend is perfectly nice, and maybe he is. But you might not remember how it feels to be someone as complex and thoughtful and intense as she is, and to maybe be staring into the eyes of someone who doesn’t get it, day after day. It sounds to me like she suspects that she’s got to seal the deal and marry this guy or she’s roundly fucked. Instead of asking what’s wrong with her, you should be asking her what she truly wants from a guy and from her life. Is she happy? Does she feel relaxed around her boyfriend, or is she eating herself alive? Some part of her might want to drive that plane straight into the sea. And that might be the healthiest thing for all involved.

Also, please consider that a LOT of guys in their 20s don’t want a real relationship, no matter how good they are at making the right sounds. Some of them just want a mule to put on the scratchy butt floss and bend over. That is a fact. They don’t know themselves at all, and they’ve shaped their desires around absurd visual narratives designed to maximize jacking efficiency. Being a 20-something guy in our culture is like having these incredible worlds inside of you — gorgeous, raw, brilliant emotions and desires — and being told you’re only capable of breaking up rocks with a sledgehammer. Lots of perfectly nice guys might know enough to say that marriage could maybe someday be in the cards, but all they really want right now is a lady who’s easy on the eyes and doesn’t make life too taxing or inconvenient. That’s not their fault! It’s what their culture tells them they’re made of. This is the shadow that lurks behind plenty of regular-seeming long-term relationships in your 20s. Maybe your daughter is smart enough to see the shadow, and it’s making her feel like she’s losing her mind.

Now think about how that feels for a second. You board the plane, all hopeful and excited, with raw, brilliant emotions and desires of your own swirling round inside of you, and the second you make a tiny squeak about what you want, that shit falls out of the sky, straight into the sea.

And then you’re ripped apart by sharks. I love that part: The sharks are the worries and self-doubts that plague you, the suspicion that there is something wrong with you, that you’re messing up again, that you are, deep down inside, unfit to be loved. You are not good enough. You can’t get it right.

As her mother, you’re the fucking rescue boat. You pull her out of the water, you put a blanket around her shoulders, you give her the hot cocoa, and you say, in the calmest voice possible, “Everybody goes through this. Everybody feels this way. I know it’s so hard. But you have to remember one thing: There. Is. Nothing. Wrong. With. You. You were waging war in the Pacific Theater. This guy, he doesn’t give a shit about the war. He just wanted to fire his fucking gun a few times. He’s just some guy. He wanted to see how far that plane would fly, and then the slightest hum of the engine spooked him and he bailed.”

But you also tell her, “I know you liked this guy. I know you believed in him. I know this is disappointing. But you’re not looking for just anyone. You are a gem, and you want true love. And BECAUSE you are a gem, you have to pay close attention and open your eyes without fear. Is he really seeing you? Does he flinch the second you say something real? Does he hate emotions? Does he want you to be something you’re not? And if he does these things, can you articulate what you want in the face of potential rejection? Can you say, ‘Hey, it looks like we want different things. I’m not fucking around here. I want a real boyfriend, not a fuck buddy.’ Can you put off sleeping with the next guy for a while, to see if you like him first, instead of trying to seal the deal and deciding later whether he’s really your type?”

Friendships in your 20s can work the same way. People want you to be chill. People want to seem cooler and less emotional than they really are, so they’re worried your lack of chill will expose their own lack of chill. The ideal friend, when you’re 25 years old, is a shot-swilling, high-fiving, charm-spewing robot with zero needs.

So you also have to ask her what else she wants from her life. You have to ask her what kinds of friends she might want to meet. You have to accept that maybe she has very high standards. That’s okay. People with high standards sometimes have the best lives of all, as long as they learn to empathize with other people and put themselves in other people’s shoes, which, by the way, is the main skill you should be modeling for your daughter right now. Because even though marriage fixed your life — and for sure it fixed a ton of stuff in my life, too – marriage doesn’t fix everyone’s lives. It’s so easy for happily married people to believe that. And look, we preach this shit partially because we’re riding on a plane that soars, engine humming sweetly, and we just cannot imagine walking anymore. But if our planes broke apart, we’d have to learn to walk. Talk about anxiety-inducing.

You need to address your own anxiety about walking alone. If you ever lose your husband, you will have to reinvent yourself and learn new skills. Until you and I both face those anxieties, we aren’t realizing our full potential. What else do you need, besides your marriage, to make your life feel complete? Do you want to make some new friends? Lately I’ve been treating new friendships almost like dating, like I’m looking for SOUL MATES now, which is so weird and creepy, but you know what? It’s fucking great. I don’t want to tell you what YOU need, Hovering, but I do want you to step back a little and consider the question. Put some of your hovering energy into making your life a little more multidimensional. I’m not saying you’re a limited person any more than I am. But your kids are all grown up, so now you have a little free time and space to create an incredible new era in your life.

I also want you to know that I don’t completely buy that this “bipolar stuff” is a factor. Without any clear evidence on hand, I have to assume this is your anxiety and fear talking. I’m not saying a diagnosis doesn’t help a lot of people. They need therapy and drugs, and I would never in a million years stigmatize that. Whatever works, use it. But in my opinion, MOST people have some of that so-called bipolar stuff onboard. It’s just that many people have the tools to deal with it, mask it, swallow it down, drink it away, work it away, whatever. And many other people channel all of that conflicted energy into the hope that love will save them forever and ever, and those are the people who tend to get identified as having something fucked up about them. Lots of them are women, too: Isn’t that interesting? Hmm. So, let’s see, women are taught that their emotions make them who they are, but then the second it’s inconvenient for others, they’re told they’d better hide that shit away super-well or they’ll get labeled a psycho chick.

So, sure, ask questions, but I would hesitate to pathologize your very emotional daughter. I agree that therapy is a great idea. But she doesn’t necessarily need it because she belongs on a page in the DSM-5. She might just need it because being a woman in this fucked up world literally has the power to make you crazy. Personally, I read the “borderline” diagnosis and it is 100 percent me when I was younger. You have very strong emotions and you can’t manage those emotions all that well when you’re riding a broken-down jalopy over a vast sea full of ravenous sharks? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Don’t perpetuate the myth that your daughter will need to “fix” herself before she finds anyone who’ll love her. As a mother, you can have intimate knowledge of your daughter’s flaws and still make it clear to her that if flaws damned everyone to loneliness, we’d all be alone forever. I know it’s hard not to let your judgments about her choices seep in when you talk to her. But don’t forget that a big part of your job is to show her how it feels to be with someone who loves her for exactly who she is and who wants to be there for her no matter what.

Like you, my mom always wanted me to be tougher than I was. And I always wanted her to love me the way she did when I was little. Instead, as I got bigger, she was less affectionate and less patient with me. She was probably worried I’d drive a lot of potential friends and partners crazy. She wanted me to go with the flow and expect less from people, the way she did. When the sharks started circling, she’d ride up in her rescue boat and, instead of saving me, she’d peer into the water and say “Swim faster! Don’t stop swimming!” And I knew that if those sharks caught me, it was all my fault.

I don’t blame my mom. Her anxiety, her personal philosophy of toughness, her childhood, the fact that being a woman with emotions is pathologized by our culture? Wheels within wheels. But I want you to hear me: The world is wrong. It’s not bad for us to need each other. It’s not sick to be an emotional woman who sees the madness of this backward-ass world with clear eyes. And it’s not bad to reach into the water and pull someone out and say, “I can give you love, too. I know it won’t feel like enough. But I want to give you love.”

Give her love, not instructions, not anxiety about genetic links and clinical terms. Ask her for more details. Empathize as much as you can. Dare to remember the hard parts of your own past. You have to face that shit, instead of just shutting it out and getting anxious. Don’t model how to shove everything under the rug and be anxious instead. Model how to face the truth, together, armed with compassion for yourselves.

Teach her to have compassion for herself, no matter what. Tell her you’re going to try to do the same thing. Practice compassion for yourself when you’re sure that you’re falling short. Practice compassion for yourself when you’re feeling rejected by your boyfriend (in her case) or taking another upsetting phone call personally (in your case). There is nothing wrong with either of you. Savor these difficult years together, because they will be gone in the wink of an eye. Your compassion, your belief in who you REALLY are (not who you’re trying to be) will build you a pair of matching supersonic jets that glide silently through the poisonous air. Instead of thinking about who will appreciate you, out there on that vast empty sea, think about how you’ll use your enormous power. Because that’s what feeling the full force of your emotions and having compassion for yourself does: It makes you powerful beyond belief. Suddenly you’ll open your eyes wide and see men and women who don’t know how brilliant they are, who don’t know how strong they are, who don’t know how gorgeous and wild they are. You’ll want to help them see themselves with clear eyes. 

This world needs more emotionally intense women who aren’t afraid to use their powers to help those who don’t have enough compassion for themselves to help themselves. So many people need your love. Give your love.


Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: How Do I Help My Daughter?