When Samantha was 13, Julie got bolder with her mothering moves: She’d pull her out of school for days at a time and take her along on international work trips. They shared hotel rooms in India, Italy, France, all over the world. By now Samantha has been to ten countries, and not just to the touristy areas—Julie makes sure to accept dinner invitations to colleagues’ homes so that Samantha will absorb and appreciate other cultures. “Traveling with her is better than being with a girlfriend,” Julie says, “because it’s killing two birds with one stone. I’m giving my daughter this really wonderful, enriching world environment, and we’re hanging.”
In their neighborhood of Randolph, New Jersey (the family also just purchased an apartment in the West Village so they have a place to stay when visiting Samantha at Tisch), some other mothers neither understood nor supported the fact that Julie had offered Samantha supplemental education in the form of real-life experiences through travel. Samantha watched them try to be protective “in the most loving way”—a daughter belongs at home; a daughter shouldn’t be going off shopping in Barcelona—but had no doubt about her mother’s approach. The peerlike construct wouldn’t work for everyone, but it worked for them.
It worked partly because Julie exploited a natural Bilinkas-family gender divide. Barry and son Billy had zero interest in travel. As much as taking Samantha on one-on-one trips around that world might look like favoritism, it wasn’t. Billy is a gamer, a computer guy. To try to bend him and his dad toward Julie and Sam’s interests—that, not leaving them for a week here and there, is what would’ve disrupted the family dynamic. The boys preferred staying home and eating frozen pizza, watching crime shows.
A tricky thing about being a legitimate BFF mother isn’t that the boundaries between mothers and daughters have shifted, it’s that they’re shifting all the time. Working in both friend and mother modes can get confusing on both sides. Samantha and Julie still bicker, sometimes over the fact that Julie keeps in touch via text with Samantha’s ex-boyfriends. “There are times when she wants to be a part of my life a little too much,” Samantha says. And when her mother reprimands her, “sometimes I don’t know how to handle that, because I’m used to her treating me more like an equal.”
Julie has had to stifle certain motherly instincts in order to preserve trust by saying yes when convention would demand a no. According to Carr, “In the old days, they said children should be seen and not heard; today’s parents want to see their children a lot.” To keep her daughter close, sometimes Julie has to keep her friend closer. In Barcelona, she allowed Samantha and a young cousin to shop unsupervised for an hour, swallowing her Natalee Holloway anxiety as she watched them walk away. The first time Samantha rode the subway in Manhattan alone and got completely lost, Julie said, basically, “Well, you’ll learn.”
Samantha likes to point out that a typical mother would’ve said, “You’re never going on the subway alone again,” or something like it. “That would have taught me that I’m not capable and that my mother is smothering me,” she says. “She lets me make my mistakes.” Her pride here is unmistakable. By rejecting the traditional traps, she and Julie have sort of beat the system by waging a new form of rebellion, one that’s not between parent and child but rather forged between them, against some standardized definition of family life. They’ve created their own dynamic, whether others understand it or not.
It will be interesting to see how far it will go. What will it mean to Samantha’s generation to be a good mother? Will there be an even more evolved form of invisible parenting that doesn’t resemble parenting at all? Already, Samantha is defining herself by what she would do as a mother, not, like so many others, by what she wouldn’t. “Corny as it sounds, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t care that I’m going to be like my mother when I’m older,” she says. Outside the restaurant, in the early-spring night, her trajectory already seemed clear. As they made their way through Times Square, it was hard to tell who was in the lead.