Dressed in a sea of pink taffeta, softly lit by the dimmed overhead lights of our high school gym, I swayed to the beat of a popular ballad with my date’s strong hands expertly placed upon my slender hips. From the cloud of hairspray on my French twist updo to his soft lips on mine as we said goodbye, I remember my prom night as perfect, start to finish.
I hadn’t thought about my 90s prom night in decades—but then my vote via text for my niece’s perfect prom dress made me longingly reimagine that epic night. I might not have a daughter to take dress shopping, but my sons were in high school now and I could host their friends for dinner and volunteer as the pre-dance photographer.
It soon became clear my sons’ high school experiences would be nothing like mine, though, and not just because of the pandemic.
I grew up in a small farming community that featured “Drive Your Tractor to School Day” each spring. My sons go to a public city school, and the nearest tractors show up annually only at the state fair.
I attended the same school from kindergarten until I graduated, and I knew my classmates’ siblings, parents, car models, and pets. My sons switched schools in middle school, and while some faces stayed the same, others have shifted in and out during the last several years.
I spent weekends as a teenager driving around our small town or heading to a larger town nearby for a movie or bowling with my tight-knit group of friends. My sons spend their weekends catching up on sleep or grabbing an extra shift at work. While their plans sometimes involve friends—either in person or online—they don’t feel the need to be social every minute of every day, like I did at their age.
Prom isn’t on their radars. When I was 16, prom was all I could think about.
Nostalgia, though, isn’t reliable. As I learned with guest Rob Lowe on an episode of the Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos podcast, we often misremember past experiences, meaning my trips down memory lane with that pink taffeta gown and romantic slow dance might be more dangerous than I care to admit. They might be, as Dr. Santos describes them, “charitable deceptions” of “rosy retrospection.”
If I peel back the rosy film of memories and look at my actual prom photos, I find an awkward, too-skinny girl who didn’t have a date for her senior prom. My best friend went with the older boy I pined after for years—the same boy I dance with in my nostalgic memories. Instead of pink taffeta, I wore a black velvet homecoming dress on clearance because it was in style the fall before. Not even my memory of my hairstyle was true. My updo was nothing close to a sophisticated French twist. Instead, giant rolled bangs overshadowed my petite face.
One thing I do remember accurately is circling up in the middle of the gym floor with my classmates as “Good Riddance” by Green Day blared from the speakers. Arms draped around each other’s shoulders, we belted out, “I hope you had the time of your life.”
Really, though, it wasn’t the time of my life.
The night wasn’t terrible—but it also wasn’t the magical stuff of dreams. The high school chapter of my life is marked with sexual pressure from a regrettable older boyfriend, never ending questions about college and career choices, and a pulsating fear that I would make an unforgivable mistake and ruin every hope for my future happiness.
I look back on my high school years with tenderness for my fear-stricken younger self and with twinges of regret. Words I said or left unsaid. Risks I didn’t take because I was paralyzed by my fear of failure. Events I placed too much pressure on. I missed out on feeling in-the-moment, unadulterated joy.
When I’m not careful, nostalgia has me remembering only the sweet moments of driving around listening to the Cranberries with my girlfriends. I forget about the hurtful words from an older girl and the cold rejection from my long-time crush.
To parent well, I need to temper my belief in real-life magical moments by acknowledging the harshness of adolescence.
If my sons change their minds and make prom plans this year, I’ll suggest they dress in classic suits or something ridiculous from a thrift store. I’ll encourage them to boldly ask their secret crush before their best friend does, or to make plans with the best friend and forget about the crush. I’ll remind them to take the silliest photos, to request the most memorable songs, and to showcase their wildest dance moves.
That’s if they decide to go to prom.
If they decide not to go, that’s okay, too. My own memories are often “charitable deceptions,” and it’s perfectly okay for my sons’ lives to take a different path than mine. While I might not get to help a daughter choose her pink taffeta dream dress or take photos of my sons posing uncomfortably with their dates, I can always cue up some of my favorite prom movie scenes, slow dance in the kitchen with my husband, and hope that in more moments than not, my sons really will have the time of their lives—with or without a prom.