Sil and Eliza Reynolds on the Best-Kept Countercultural Secret of Mothering and Daughtering | Field Notes | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Sil and Eliza Reynolds on the Best-Kept Countercultural Secret of Mothering and Daughtering 

To Have a Heart

Last Updated: 01/12/2020 4:07 am
Sil and Eliza Reynolds
  • Michael Weisbrot
  • Sil and Eliza Reynolds

At a seder last month, a woman I had just met remarked that my seven-year-old daughter, all gussied up and minding her Ps and Qs, was lovely, and so well behaved. And, of course, I beamed with pride. And then she added, "Just wait until she's a teenager."

Images of my own Freddy Krueger-like teen years rose up through the little boost I felt in the moment, sitting there next to my decently mannered, connected, happy kid. Since my daughter was born, I have lived in fear of the time when she will morph into a version of myself—the anger; the boys; the death-defying acts of experimentation, rebellion, and addiction; the brutal cut-off from my poor mom. Good God. I get it. And yet, Dear Reader, please remind me, when A. and I are in the thick of whatever her teenage years may bring, to keep my cautionary tales to myself and resist the urge to harsh on the mellow of happy moms of young girls. I, for one, am getting tired of the "Just you wait!" refrain.

So when a colleague showed me the book Mothering and Daughtering: Keeping Your Bond Strong through the Teen Years (2013 Sounds True) by Sil and Eliza Reynolds, a mother-daughter team from Stone Ridge, I was, frankly, a bit resistant. However, after opening the book, half written by Sil, the mom, and the other by Eliza, the (now) 22-year-old daughter, I was relieved to see that this was a book about hope, and not sappy hope, but real nuts-and-bolts hope that I trusted. As Eliza says, "The best-kept secret of teenage girls is that they actually really want to be close to their moms." Thinking back to my own sad teen years, this rang true for me, even amidst of all the contemporary noise about how teenage girls are biologically and culturally determined to leave the home front, and eviscerate their mothers on their way out. I mean, really? Has this always been so? Is it necessary? Lucky me, I got to ask Sil and Eliza face to face.

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More Than Peers Required
Grounded in the work of Gordon Neufield who wrote Hold on to Your Kids, the seminal text on attachment and the dangers of so-called "peer orientation," Sil and Eliza are convinced that teenagers and their parents belong together, and offer ways to foster that connection. This is a countercultural message, to be sure, when the rest of the world seems to be encouraging parents to just let "nature" take its course, and kiss our kids good-bye after puberty, trusting/hoping/praying they will come back later. Of course, Sil and Eliza recognize that the ever-shifting ground of adolescence is a challenging time for even the closest mothers and daughters, but they don't believe the hype that teenagers must shuffle off into the darkness with other teens. And these ladies know what they are talking about. Between the two of them, they have decades of experience talking to young girls and their moms, so they are deeply familiar with the many varieties of mom/daughter angst, including their own.

For over 30 years, Sil has been working with women and families in the Hudson Valley as a nurse practitioner and psychotherapist. Eliza is currently a junior at Brown University (Sil's alma mater). Her major is women's studies, with a focus on body image in young girls. Theirs is one of those one-thing-led-to-another success stories. Sil's workshop experience began under the tutelage of bestselling writer and speaker Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God, as well as several other books on emotional eating. Once Eliza was born, Sil wanted to teach workshops locally. She began afternoon workshops for mothers and daughters during Family Week at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck.

One weekend Sil's co-teacher couldn't make it, so Sil asked Eliza, who was then 15, to fill in. Eliza said, "Sure. I don't have any other plans." The participants loved it. And Eliza was hooked. "Is there anything so awesome?" she exclaimed over Earl Grey tea, "than being plugged into this pulse of energy—emotion, sassiness, intensity, change-the-world, self-experimenting, tender fierceness?" Indeed. Teenage girls have a lot going on, which, when held and supported, and understood, can fuel a tremendous fire of positive growth (which, as in the case of Eliza, can lead to books co-written with their moms!). But when left untended, we know all too well who gets burned: everyone.

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Battleground No More
Any sideline observer can espouse the importance of harnessing all that raw energy. Spending time with Eliza and Sil, however, it's obvious that their insight is truly hard won. They clearly have a real relationship (when we met they were on their way to get haircuts, and then to the city for "meetings"), and they don't gloss over the terrifying dangers of growing up, or of mothering. Sil writes, "I caused my mother anguish on a regular basis, I am sorry to say, and she watched helplessly as I pushed her away," and when we talked, she made it clear that this battleground was serious and painful, and led her to the same hand-wringing anxiety many of us feel about raising girls.

Eliza shared details with me about her much older high school boyfriend, and her need for privacy, and the ways she found her mother's rules frustrating. While Sil and Eliza had their share of conflicts, their basic connection remained intact. One of the barriers to this kind of stability through the teen years is the entirely reasonable but perhaps unhelpful tendency for mothers to resist the changes the relationship must move through. Daughters do need to take risks, individuate, explore their identities—and then there are all those hormones. However, mothers make a mistake when the take their daughter's "attitude" personally, get defensive, and distance themselves. Daughters, for their part, shut down and even feel deserted, though they probably won't say that. It is natural, as we know, for teenagers to test boundaries. What Sil and Eliza suggest is that mothers (dads, too, but that is a different story) need to stand firm, respectfully, and not abandon their post as parents. And this is the main thing, and the hardest thing. Sil writes, "Eliza's adolescence forced me to face my own unfinished adolescence and to actually grow up, so that I could be the adult she needed in our relationship." Right.

Tips from Sil & Eliza
Doesn't it all make so much sense, and sound so good? As every parent knows, talk is cheap, especially when it comes to raising kids. And so I asked Sil and Eliza to help me see how this all plays out in real time, and they gave me some great tips, some of which I have already begun enlisting.

Instead of punishing, grounding, etc., bring your daughter closer. As Eliza suggests: "If your daughter makes a big mistake, tell her, okay, that was bad. We're going camping for the weekend."

Start early with establishing Auntie connections. Sil says, "By the time Eliza was three I was creating what Gordon Neufeld calls an 'attachment village,' giving Eliza lots of chances to develop real relationships with other adults who I trusted."

Be flexible. When Eliza says, "Sometimes I was annoyed that we didn't have juice or sugar, but I got used to it," Sil pipes in and adds, "but we did have some treats in the house—I wasn't too rigid about it," and Eliza agrees. Apparently, Sil's flexibility worked, as Eliza now eats according to her childhood "restraints," and, contrary to popular belief, never "rebelled" against them.

Don't give in to the pervading suspicion of so-called "hovering," or "helicopter parenting." Sil and Eliza agree: "Teenage girls need their moms!"

Directness is not always best. Instead of overwhelming your girl with questions like "How's it going with your friends?" you might get better results by holding your tongue and asking, as Sil suggested, "Hey, do you want a cup of tea?"

Satisfied that I had gathered the gist of what Sil and Eliza were telling me, we started wrapping up. We all felt like we could have sat and chatted for hours, but they had things to do, people to see, and I had my own day ahead. Just as I was about to shift my orientation toward my own to-do list, I felt overwhelmed by an avalanche of questions, like, What do you do when your girl refuses to do this, or that, or the other thing? What then? What do you do when your consequences, even the camping trip, just don't touch her? What happens then? I pleaded with Sil.

The proverbial cool mom, she firmly, but gently told me, "You have to have her heart," she said, "from the beginning."

"Wow," I said, "but isn't that selfish, or pushy, or narcissistic, or something?"

"No." Sil smiled, as Eliza—her tall, beautiful, strong daughter who was no longer listening to us—got up from the table, readying herself to meet the world.

And I knew she was right.

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