My daughter has gone away. But it’s not just the school camping trip that propels me to stand in her bedroom and sigh like the tragically attractive mother in a Lifetime movie about crib death. Tallula is 12 and has, unfathomably, gone away–from me.
I see the boobs and braces. My hair is blown back by the spiraling moods. My heart is cleaved by her squirming away from my touch; it aches for her hyper self-awareness. But she is still in there, my sweet little girl. She is gentle when pointing out that an 8th grader has the same pants I’m wearing. The reminder that I am 23 years too old to shop at Forever 21 is delivered kindly.
I should have seen this change coming, but I cannot help but wrap my infantilizing arms around her sweet-smelling shoulders and reject it. I somehow didn’t know I’d miss the detritus of Cheerios and glitter. That her dolls “Puffling” and “Roast Beef” would be packed away.
With this change comes an uncomfortable shift in the supply and demand of mother-love. When she was little, it seemed so draining. Yet now, as her demand dries up, I find myself with an aching surplus. And it is throwing my identity into chaos.
My role as mother to a toddler was so clear. Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because I had seeming control. When they adore you. When you are the smartest, funniest, most “osum” mother. I was probably guilty of treating her like my possession.
But now that her identity is no longer wrapped up in mine, I can no longer possess her. And I am having trouble letting that go, letting her go.
I had not anticipated the slow slide into an insular decade of head-down mothering. It was not so many years ago that 9pm would find me slapping on a fresh coat of Vamp, ready to go out dancing. Not writing kids’ names on bananas with Sharpie and vetting the American Girl book about periods. I intended to do this and remain vivid in the larger world.
But as she blooms, I feel myself fade. Her growing up is accelerating my plunge into middle age, and I am not doing it gracefully. While I love that she wants to borrow my Rolling Stones concert tee shirt, her referring to it as “vintage” makes me feel like a wizened biker chick reliving her Altamont days. Accepting her growing up is to accept my own growing older and out of the world of full-time mothering. That, too, is something I’m perhaps not ready to embrace.
At the same time I celebrate her burgeoning independence and intellect, I am loathe to disavow her of her childhood innocence. I took the “fairy” thing a little too far. We had not just the Tooth, but the Diaper and Pull-Up Fairies. There was the Pacifier Elf. Santa has, in writing, praised this kid’s good citizenship. It is time to stop, but I find myself planning a visit from the Menstrual Minstrel.
As I try to preserve our bond, I’m flailing as I try to figure out my new role. I see my peers accommodating their tweens’ developing maturity by relegating themselves to second-class citizens. They take them to movies but are banished to sit three rows away. They respond to vitriolic screaming with measured responses like, “Nevertheless, you may not have an iPhone.” They allow themselves to be demeaned and disrespected in the guise of “encouraging individuality.”
I reject this new role.
But the flip side of invisible, inconsequential mom seems to be that horror show: the cool mom-friend. When I was 12, I adored a cool mom. She wore bikinis and high heels around the house and proffered bowls of cigarettes. She had long, platinum hair, exotic dogs with cataracts, and a series of bare-chested boyfriends. We were like short, unwitting extras in a porno. I’m not so sure that’s the route to go either.
We are both between worlds. In the same year that she will likely get her period, I have heard her explain to a friend, straight-faced, that she got an awesome necklace from Santa. She is also a thoughtful, quick-witted, sweet, whip-smart young woman. I already adore her more than, like, any roommate I ever had.
And so I should stop stifling a shrieked “I forgot to cherish it!” and revel in the spectacular changes and delightful person who is emerging. Thinking I can choose the right, new role for myself before actually living it with her is absurd. As is the notion that this is the hard stuff; we haven’t even entered the real arena of teenaged-girl yet.
The Pavlovian chiming from the laundry room forces me to turn off the light in her empty room and head upstairs. My irritation at fishing a wadded ball of tinfoil out of her jeans in the dryer is quickly replaced with relief in my certainty that it is from a Hershey’s Kiss and not a $20 bag of Haight Street weed. So I’ll cherish this bittersweet spot.
Janice Ricciardi is an exotic Canadian, married to a New Yorker, raising daughters in San Francisco.