Our youngest child hasn't even left the nest yet, but my husband already dreams of a time when our adult children will boomerang home. He wants my mother to live with us, too. We both like to imagine the dynamism and mutual support of a multigenerational household. During the holidays - with our daughter home from college and grandparents on both sides visiting - we get to live our fantasy.
Which isn't to say there isn't any friction in this multigenerational idyll.
Like bumper cars at a carnival, sometimes we slam into one another, our heads whipped back as we're caught off guard by the differences among us. But as my children get older, I find that, rather than digging into my views, I am becoming more open minded. Rather than a one-way transfer of my beliefs to them, my children, now 19 and 16, are teaching me to see the world with new eyes.
I noticed a change begin in me when my daughter had her septum pierced.
She is an adult, but she still wanted my approval, texting me from college before she had it done. I had been O.K. with the tattoo she had gotten earlier in the year and the tragus piercing before that, but I hit a wall at the septum piercing.
I grimaced, picturing the silver ring with two little balls on either end. "I'm sorry," I texted back, "it just repulses me."
"I don't want to repulse you," my daughter replied. "I can hide it when I come home."
That made me think. She didn't repulse me, but from 3,000 miles away, she had felt me recoil from her. I -- her own mother, who knows how goodhearted and intelligent she is, who knows her anxieties and aspirations -- was judging her the way I had judged others simply because of rings in noses, nipples, lips and eyebrows. Even as I saw her words in the little bubble on my phone screen, I was disappointed in myself for implying that I needed her to shield me from her world. I could see where that would lead. As she made more significant decisions in her life, she might decide there were other aspects of herself that she had to protect me from.
The truth is I thought the ring marred her beauty but I also knew she has different ideas about beauty than I do. As my children grow into adulthood, I want them to trust me to shake off my preconceived notions. I want to be a parent who will try to see their choices without inwardly thinking I know best. "I'm sorry I reacted that way," I texted back. "It's a different kind of aesthetic than I'm used to."
My children are not the only family members who have inspired me to shift my thinking lately. This past Thanksgiving, while visiting my conservative in-laws, I had dismissed their views on the "liberal media," only to find myself, the following week, dismissed as conservative in a Facebook debate over a new transgender policy at my alma mater. I didn't object to admitting transgender students, but I'd questioned the role of transmen in the mission of a women's college.
Characterized as prejudiced and backward by my fellow alumnae, I felt attacked and misunderstood--no doubt the way I'd made my in-laws feel. Identifying with my in-laws caused me to really listen to those who were advocating a more progressive view - after all, I was usually on that side. I finally heard what other alumnae were saying: Any student who has ever been female or who identifies as such is part of a spectrum of "woman" and therefore can further the mission of a women's college. In an aha moment, I reversed my position, becoming an advocate for the new policy.
In my professional life, I market the benefits of schools and colleges to prospective families. I choose to work with institutions whose values I advocate: diverse communities with multiple perspectives that encourage healthy risk taking and push young people to venture out of their comfort zones. But what about the rest of us? Entrenched in our lives and careers, how do we keep pushing beyond our norms and habits to see the world anew? We ask our politicians and community leaders to compromise and listen to one another, but do we do the same even in our own families?
If we did, we might hear something surprising. Last Christmas at breakfast, my daughter forgot to hide her nose ring from my in-laws. When they peered over their newspapers and noticed the ring, my daughter said, "I'm so sorry." She looked to me, worrying. I'd been the one who had said they wouldn't understand.
"Don't be sorry," her grandparents told her. "We'd much rather you be yourself than hide from us." In that instant, they taught me how to be more open-minded, generous and loving.
With the holidays upon us, many families will want to avoid contentious issues. They will hide tattoos and piercings. They'll ban from their dinner tables discussion of the traditional taboo subjects: politics, religion and sex. But I wonder if these festive occasions -- when multigenerational households are a reality even for a few days -- are the best times to catch a glimpse of a new viewpoint. Bound by love, we are more apt to listen to one another and actually hear.
This essay originally appeared on The New York Times "Motherlode" blog.