I shook my head, reaching into the refrigerator to remove a large, clearly empty Tupperware container from the top shelf. A sticky coating and several pulpy, yellow strands were all that remained of the fresh pineapple it once held.
I turned to my 22-year-old daughter, Sammie, who was reheating coffee in the microwave. Our moments in the kitchen rarely overlapped these days, and when they did, they were often strained. On the tip of my tongue was a grenade that, once lobbed, would set off a battle of grievances and retorts. As our eyes met, her smile fell and her body stiffened, bracing for yet another criticism.
I paused. Then, instead of snapping, I held out the container, looked at her deadpan, and in a deliberate monotone asked: “What am I supposed to do with this?”
My daughter knew instantly I was impersonating Angela from The Office with a quote from “Dinner Party,” our favorite episode. And with those words, the tension between us dissolved. She laughed, apologized for the unwashed container, and took it to the sink to clean it.
I recognized this moment as more than just a one-off victory on my part. Through humor, I had stumbled onto a more effective way to communicate with my daughter and begin repairing our frayed relationship.
It had only been a few months since Sammie had moved home from college after living on campus for four years. Though I loved having her back full-time, we were all still adjusting to the reality of three adults sharing a house previously occupied by two parents and their child.
My daughter was used to coming and going as she pleased, and while she was respectful about checking in if she’d be out late or wasn’t coming home, her living habits were bumping against mine. Sammie’s sleep schedule was inversely aligned with my husband’s and mine, and she thought nothing of starting a load of laundry at 10:00 at night.
“What is she drying down there, a collection of belt buckles?” my husband whispered to me in bed.
We bickered daily as I pecked away at her with questions: When are you going to move all your stuff out of the dining room? Can you try to be a little quieter when you use the kitchen after we’re in bed? What are you doing to find a job?
I didn’t like this side of myself. I had grown up one of four kids in a household ruled by a controlling mom, whose temper would flare at the slightest provocation — a damp towel left on a bedspread. A thumbtack pushed into a wall to hold up a poster. A little girl caught reading by flashlight past her bedtime.
I prided myself on being less reactive with my daughter while she was growing up, but now my nitpicking was damaging my relationship with her as a young adult. Then a ceasefire came from an unexpected source: Netflix.
At least two nights a week, when our schedules meshed, my husband, Sammie, and I began meeting in the den to stream The Office. That we’d seen each episode multiple times only added to our enjoyment — we eagerly anticipated our favorite lines. Laughing and relaxed, our family was finally in sync.
Soon, my daughter and I got into our own routine, hanging out for an hour after my husband went to bed. Together we streamed comedies from mainstream (Friends, Seinfeld) to quirky (30 Rock, Parks and Rec) to hilariously inappropriate (Always Sunny, South Park). We binged entire seasons of reality TV, narrated by our running commentary of wisecracks that left us crying from laughter.
“Mom, what if I were on The Bachelor and made it to Hometown Week. Can you picture him coming here to meet our family?”
That’s all it would take to launch us into our own private writers’ room, each one-upping the other with imaginary scenes only the two of us found hilarious. Our banter often continued late into the night via text. As I shook in bed with silent laughter, I could hear my daughter’s stifled giggling from her bedroom down the hall. We tried not to wake my husband, happy as he would be to see us getting along so well.
Our late-night fun also provided us new ways to communicate, as familiar lines from our favorite TV shows began to infiltrate our daily conversations.
“I know you from the parking lot,” has become our go-to remark whenever one of us states the obvious or says something completely out of left field. Our abbreviated version of a line originally uttered by Creed from The Office in the CPR episode is now a linguistic shortcut — one of dozens in our shared vocabulary. To anyone listening in, we may sound silly or even obnoxious, but peppering in these phrases instantly puts us on the same page. More importantly, it reinforces our bond the way only an inside joke can.
I wish my mom had been more lighthearted when I was young. Though she had a wonderful sense of humor, she rarely set aside her need for control long enough to just have fun with her kids.
With my daughter, what started as an excuse to spend more time together quickly morphed into more than entertainment. TV comedies became a bridge across our differences, a way to connect more meaningfully. Belly laughs smoothed the way for more difficult conversations. One night, after turning off the television, Sammie turned to me before we headed upstairs.
“Mom, I know you and Dad feel like I should be working harder at finding a job. But you don’t see me when I’m up late doing research and updating my resume. I’m also taking online courses and got certified in Google Analytics. I’d appreciate it if you'd trust me and not add to the pressure I’m already putting on myself.”
Sammie’s unguarded moment helped me see that I needed to give her space to adjust to home life as well.
That’s the magic of humor — it weakens our defenses. When we are laughing together, our walls come down and we’re more open to hearing what the other person has to say.
My daughter has since gotten a full-time job, working remotely and keeping more traditional hours. She’s put her plans to move out on pandemic pause — a silver lining as I contemplate my soon-to-be-empty nest. Until then, I’ll happily meet her on the couch to share an episode of Friends before bed.
Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer and healthcare communications consultant who once had a column about hooping. The hula kind. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED, Hobart, Brevity, The Manifest-Station and elsewhere. Abby is currently working on a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.