Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Finding My Daughter Again Through the Outdoors

Parenting anxiety centers around how the kids will turn out.

Posted Jul 23, 2015

My daughter had just finished her spring semester of her junior year at college when I asked if she might be interested in a mother-daughter trip to Utah. I love the desert, but most of all, I wanted to spend time with her. Especially since I wasn’t sure she’d say yes.

But she did—happily, in fact—and I was over the moon. I had steeled myself for a rejection. It did not seem that long ago that my daughter, now 23, refused to go anywhere with me. As a child, she was very close with both her father and me; later, as she grew and entered high school she seemed to pull away more each year. While I admired all her many talents, they were not mine, and as time went on I began to think we just might not have anything in common. I love the theater and reading -- more pursuits in my head -- and am last to offer to do the driving. I have a fire phobia. My daughter, on the other hand, was always the girl who’d be the first to use the blowtorch in her metalsmithing course, mix the cement to make sculptures, use the saws to cut wood for the canvas for her oil painting. She volunteered to do all the driving, sometimes 6 hours at a stretch.

Which is what made our trip to Southern Utah so remarkable. In the middle of the desert—more colorful a desert than I’d yet seen—where we were forced to sever connection to the outside world for, at least, hours at a time, my relationship with her felt newly, strangely, whole. Our experience was undeniably unspoiled, and there was something about being so far away that brought us together in this way that was unique for us. She was pursuing her love of art and sculpture in college and during the day, we’d hike and my girl would tell me about the inspirations and thought processes underlying her work at school in ways I found fascinating. She seemed to be listening to me, too; really listening.

At night, when I looked out onto the tumbleweeds rolling past a backdrop of solid, barren rock, I saw and heard nothing—no skyline, no blinking lights, no blaring horns or even chirps of birds. I felt lost in space. And yet I’d never felt more at home with my daughter and my place in the world. After a period of time when my daughter would pull back when I kissed her, this was the culmination of a breakthrough that had begun at the end of the previous summer before she went off for her third year in college: Had I really found her again?

Our Utah trip, included mother-daughter hiking through the desert, a helicopter tour of Bryce Canyon, paddle boarding on Powell Lake, and rock climbing that tested the fears of at least one of us. Together we marveled at the vast landscape, the untouched earth, and as a pair found a home in the great outdoors. I'm sure it's a concept that resonates with many of us but which is actually attained so rarely. It’s what keeps us enjoying our beautiful country. But I still ask myself was it the place? Was it my daughter? Or was it me?

In late middle age I think I’m at my prime as a parent. As mother to a daughter in her early 20s—I’m comfortable with the role of Mom—fully comfortable—for perhaps the first time ever. My daughter and I now know each other as adults, a position parents of recent teens often find themselves in.  I think much parenting anxiety centers around how the kids will turn out and whether the choices you made will impact them in good ways or not so good ways. You wonder how you’ll feel about them as people, too, whether you’ll like who they become as adults. You know you’ll love them, but will you like them? Now that my daughter is a young adult, I can say that I do, and for that reason I have never been more content, or more confident. It’s a powerful place to be as a woman and a parent.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

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