By Missy Nieveen Phegley
“Can I go to Colorado?” my 19-year-old daughter texted late one night. I had planned a trip to the mountains to visit friends, but I couldn’t imagine that my daughter, who regularly tells me she’s grown and can make her own decisions when I start (s)mothering too much, would want to spend a week hanging out with me and my boring adult friends.
With all seriousness, I responded, “With me?”
A week later, we began our 14-hour drive to Colorado. I was grateful to have her help me drive but also nervous to let her sit in the driver’s seat. I’ve been a passenger in her car only a handful of times, and I typically avoid thinking about her driving in heavy traffic so I don’t become a knotted ball of worry. On this trip, however, I had to face my worry head-on with her right there next to me.
Molly is a lot like me — she is wildly independent, she keeps her feelings close to her chest, she doesn’t like to be told what to do, and she wants to have the last word. Being so similar, we butt heads frequently, and these conflicts were especially intense during her early teenage years.
As she drove, I noticed her speed creeping up, and I wanted to tell her to slow down, that it was OK if she didn’t keep pace with everyone around her. I wanted to share the decades of stupid decisions I’ve made and steer her away from making those same mistakes. But I know that, like me, she balks at being told what to do. After years of doing my best to protect her and shield her from hurt, I know I must accept she can figure out her own path, and I need to trust she will choose what’s best for her. So, instead of telling her to slow down, I pointed out my car gets better gas mileage if we drive around 65 … even though the speed limit was 75 for most of the trip.
We arrived safely in Colorado and spent a couple days relaxing before heading up into the mountains. Climbing a mountain was on the list of activities for the trip, and we settled on Mt. Democrat, a popular Level 2 14er. Molly was excited but also worried she wouldn’t be able to keep up. (My friends both compete in Ironman triathlons, and I joke that I have to train for several weeks prior to visiting them.) I assured her she would be fine, and she could always turn back if she wanted.
We left at 7 a.m. so we could be on the mountain ready to start climbing by 8. I had packed hydration packs, energy bars and gels, jackets and a good pair of shoes for both of us, so we were well-prepared when we arrived at the mountain. Molly and I strapped on our backpacks, and we all headed up the path. The landscape was breathtaking — the path wound through spongy grass and jewel-toned wildflowers, complemented by patches of snow contrasting with rich, blue sky. We were surrounded by several other 14ers, and to our left was Kite Lake — named for its shape, which we could see once we were halfway up the mountain.
The farther up we hiked, the harder it was to breathe. I assumed it was because we hadn’t adjusted to the higher elevation yet, but some locals were huffing and puffing, too, which was both reassuring and a little frightening. We continued to wind around the mountain, and I could see from Molly’s posture and the set of her mouth that she was uncomfortable. She has scoliosis, so the weight of the hydration pack and the uneven terrain were causing her back to ache. She said she wanted to keep going, so I offered to carry her pack to alleviate some of the burden. We kept moving, weaving around rocks and continuing our trek up the side of the mountain but adding short breaks to regulate our breathing and bring our heart rates down.
My friend, who was hiking with her dog, eventually turned back. Molly and I continued on. We shed our jackets, and I stuffed them both into my pack so she didn’t have to carry hers. I repeatedly wanted to ask how she was doing, but, knowing how I would have reacted to someone hovering over me, I said nothing. As we took a break just below the vegetation line, Molly’s expression said she was done. Looking up at the rocky terrain that would take us to the peak, I asked her what she wanted to do. Her words said she would keep going; everything else said she wanted to turn back but didn’t want me to be disappointed if we didn’t reach the peak together. I assured her that it would be easier going back down, that she could catch up with my friend, and that there were still lots of trails to explore around the lake. She rested a little longer and then decided to go back.
This moment was a crossroads for me. I could go back down with Molly, taking the lead, helping her navigate the path and continuing to carry her pack for her. Or, I could let go, giving her the freedom to choose her own path and take on the weight of her own pack. Motherhood is a curious thing: we spend so many years trying to raise our children so they become well-adjusted, responsible adults, but it seems impossibly hard to let go completely and allow them to come into their own.
Molly and I met up a few hours later. I told her about how I could see for miles from the top of the mountain, and she told me about the cool snow-melt waterfall she found. We continued to swap stories about the trails we had hiked as we took selfies with the mountains in the background.
On the drive back home to Missouri, we talked politics, spirituality, music and conspiracy theories, covering all the weirdo topics I usually reserve for my adult friends. It was clear there was a shift in our relationship in all the ways a mother hopes for as her daughter begins to take on the mantle of adulthood. Looking ahead to our evolving roles, I know there will be missteps — I will fall back into mom mode and start (s)mothering, and she will fall back into teenager mode, sleeping until noon and taking weeks to clean her room — but I think we are both excited to see where our paths lead us.