How Math Homework Brought My Tween Daughter And I Back To Each Other

by Jenn McKee
Kerkez/Getty Images

The first time my 12 year old daughter asked me about hiring a math tutor, I said “no” because … well … I’m cheap.

Plus, I felt confident that my partner and I could field her questions when they arose.

Then, a few months later, after I’d repeatedly stayed up until 11 p.m. with Lily, working out pre-algebra problems, my husband re-introduced the math tutor idea.

I gave it the slap-down again.

This time, though, my “no” wasn’t an outgrowth of stinginess and arrogance.

This time, it was because, in this pandemic moment – when my pre-adolescent daughter holes up in her room for hours each day, pulling further and further away from her family and the world outside – these late-night math sessions have become our lifeline back to each other.

I’ve had to invest some effort, of course. The first problems Lily brought to me triggered foggy memories of y=mx+b, which, yes, was right-on-the-money; but God help me if I remembered what any of it meant.

So after an initial fight-or-flight blink of panic, when I wondered if hiring a math tutor would have been the wiser course after all, I searched for a Khan Academy clip and mumbled, “Sweetie, it’s been nearly 40 years since Mommy did this. Give me a sec.”

Seated next to me in our living room’s huge purple bean bag chair, Lily was wearing her version of the preteen girl pandemic uniform – black karate pants and an enormous white sweatshirt – with her long blond hair piled sloppily atop her head. (I was still in jeans and a t-shirt, having come home from my library shift a few hours earlier.)

Our heads listed toward each other in front of my laptop as a nighttime quiet settled over the house. Side by side, Lily and I re-learned that “m” indicates a line’s slope, which is equivalent to change in y over change in x; and that when you plug in 0 for x, you determine b, which is the line’s y-intercept.

“Right! That’s right!” I said, grabbing a nearby piece of paper to scribble notes. But now we were staring down three pages of math problems on Lily’s Chromebook.

We got off to a wonky start, struggling to translate the video we’d just watched into what the problems asked for. But we soon got into a groove, plugging in coordinates and solving for each variable.

At one point, swept up in a moment of flow, I turned to Lily and said, “So you don’t find this fun at all?”

“Mom, it’s math,” she said, her tone an eye roll.

“Yeah, but it’s like a puzzle,” I gushed. “To me, finding the answer feels so satisfying, like a piece you’ve been looking for finally fitting into place. That’s what I always loved about math.”

“Whatever, Mom,” Lily said, grinning and shaking her head. “Let’s just keep going.”

Variations on this scene have played out night after night since. Lily makes fun of me for obsessing over a problem, refusing to move on until I’ve unlocked it; I tease her for blanking on what 18 divided by 3 is, or for wanting to write “I don’t know. Can you explain this in class, please?” as an answer.

And when we laugh together, our hearts unclench, releasing our day-to-day petty conflicts about longed-for piercings, and food rotting in Lily’s room, and items missing from my closet, and poor diet choices, and screen curfews, and sedentary days spent indoors, and blinds remaining drawn.

I’ve been so worried this past year – about many things, of course, but particularly about Lily.

Before the pandemic, she’d thrived while making the transition to middle school, and she’d had a solid core of close, good friends. Yes, she’d already started walling herself off into a cocoon of pre-adolescence at home, but now, buried in homework, bat mitzvah prep, and a lot of pandemic-induced social isolation, she’s become someone I now often struggle to recognize or understand.

Yes, in the midst of these algebra problems, Lily has become the most unsolvable variable in our house.

Recently, she was preparing for a math test, and I suddenly feared that I’d gotten too carried away by my own enthusiasm, and that somewhere I’d crossed the line between helping with and DOING her work.

We did the test review sheet together.

“Remember, what’s ‘m’?” I asked.

Lily stared at me.


But we dug back in. We figured it all out.

And when she left to log into her class and take the test, I felt like I was being tested, too. (We all have been this past year, of course.) But Lily ended up earning a score of 29/30.

“We got an A!” I crowed, fists in the air.

“No, I got an A, Mom,” Lily said, biting back a smile, pointing at herself. “I’m the one who took the test.” Then she expressed annoyance at the one answer she got wrong.

“Don’t sweat it, kid,” I said. “You did really well.”

“I still don’t like math,” she insisted.

But the unspoken end of her sentence seemed to be, “But I like doing it with you.”

And then I felt the gratification that always comes from working on a tough problem and finally – after many failed attempts and scratch paper scribbles – zeroing in on its beautifully simple answer.