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Our mothers are our most direct connection to our history and our gender.
I am standing in my kitchen, stirring the pasta sauce and waiting for the water to boil, half-listening to the evening news, when my eldest daughter comes in, flings her backpack onto the table, and takes out a crumpled piece of paper. She hands it to me without saying a word. It is a note from one of her teachers, dated well over a week ago, reporting that she has not completed most of her homework assignments. I take a deep breath. This is not the first time this has happened, nor will the conversation we are about to have be the first on the subject.
Every night, I ask her whether she has finished her homework or whether she needs some help, and each time she answers "yes" to the first and "no" to the second. Her teachers have stressed that being independent is important, so going through her backpack to make sure she's telling the truth isn't an option.
I resolve not to lose my temper, and turn to face her. I can see that she is already armored, ready to retort to anything I say or to deflect the importance of any punishment—grounding, no television, no movies—I might be ready to hand her. We are almost the same height—she is about to turn fourteen—and when I sit down at the table, she remains standing ...
The moment or two I've taken to collect myself helps us both. I getup to adjust the heat under the sauce, giving Kate some room to maneuver, literally and psychologically.
She takes a deep breath as she sits down.
I reach for her hand across the table and, as I sit down, slowly and deliberately say, "So, what's going on here? ..."
The scene in my kitchen is, I realize, a fairly predictable adolescent crisis. Lost homework and sweaters, last-minute studying, and forgotten orthodontist appointments all seem pretty much par for the course, as are the inevitable arguments about the state of her room, the time spent online, the way in which she talks to her sister who, at almost twelve, is going through an adolescence of her own. Looking at her tonight, it seems as though her babyhood—when she was a swaddled bundle in my arms—was a very long time ago. Despite the tension in the air, I find myself smiling at the memory of Kate, my dark-haired, compliant beauty.
There is nothing compliant about Kate at this moment.
But I, too, have changed. I am no longer the tentative young woman I was at thirty-four, the year I adopted Kate, or the same person who gave birth to Rachel two years later. My fiftieth birthday is no longer in the distant future. My childbearing years are over; there's a new stage of my life ahead, and I'm looking forward to it. The young woman who cradled Kate in her arms was still a person in search of herself; the woman who sits across from the teenager knows who she is and must appear to be a formidable opponent.
Sitting here reminds me of my own adolescence when, at another table in a kitchen a thousand miles away, I sat across from my own mother. She was, I realize with a tiny shock, only thirty-eight when I was fourteen, a full ten years younger than I am today. I remember my mother as confident, competent, and adult—a stay-at-home mom who handled the demands and pressures of a household with four children with perfect aplomb. If it were my own thirty-eight-year-old self facing my unsmiling daughter, the evening would have gone very differently and not very well. So much depends, I realize, on where we as mothers find ourselves as our daughters enter these years of growth.
I try to recall what I was like when I sat across from my mother, long before years of experience and a certain amount of success in the world gave me the confident voice I have now. Did I become defiant, as Kate does, when I was found out? Better put: Was I really as obedient, as compliant, as I remember myself? Would I have dared not to do my homework? Did I try, ever, to face my mother down?
I can't, for the life of me, imagine myself sitting in my parents' kitchen in Fort Wayne all those years ago (it was 1966 when I was Kate's age), looking defiant. The world I grew up in was distinctly undemocratic: My parents set the rules and I followed them. I never really did find out what would happen to me if I didn't obey them because, frankly, I didn't have the guts or inclination. My job was to go to school and do the work, and it never occurred to me to do anything else. My only rebellion, if it was one, was to marry at the age of twenty-four despite my father's opposition.
Kate's attitude leaves me more than slightly bewildered. It's not as though the homework is beyond her grasp. Is she being rebellious, or is she simply unmotivated? Is she trying to get my attention? Is she testing me because, of my three children, she alone is adopted? Or, in the alternative, is this a way of distinguishing herself from her straight-A younger sister? Her explanations—why there's no point in writing a book report when you've already read the book ("It's a waste of time," she says, "time you could use reading another book."), why she hasn't done her Spanish homework ("Why bother? I speak Spanish really well, and participate all the time in class.")—have the kind of upside-down logic adolescents sometimes seem to specialize in. My arguments don't appear to make a dent, and are greeted with a sigh of exasperation.
If I could draw well enough to capture the scene in a cartoon, the thought bubble above Kate's head would contain a single word: "Whatever ..." We are clearly getting nowhere, and it's time to stop.
She leaves the room and I do the only truly useful thing I can: I go back to stirring the spaghetti sauce and try to figure out a way to talk to her so that, next time, she can begin to hear me.
* * *
By the time I was thirteen, I was dismissive of my mother. I thought she was old (she was forty-three) and didn't do anything real—she was a stay-at-home mom. I didn't think she knew anything either—I guess because I thought I knew everything.
"Katie," now forty-four herself, and the mother of a thirteen-year-old
When I describe the scene in my kitchen to a friend, her response is telling: "Oh, she's just being a teenager." In American culture, the word "teenager" is a loaded one, summoning up not just its narrowest definition (someone between the ages of thirteen and nineteen) but a host of images and adjectives. To me, "teenager" connotes "vulnerable", but other adjectives—"adventurous," "self-centered," "blossoming," "fragile," "confused," "rebellious," or "ornery"—would do just as well. In recent times, the word "teenager" has conjured up more frightening associations and images: risky sexual behavior, eating disorders, loss of self-esteem, drug use, violence. (As a doctor, I despair at the number of girls smoking. As a mother, I find it hard not to free-associate bloodstained school hallways and dead babies in trash cans.) It comes as a surprise to me, reading Thomas Hine's The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, that the word wasn't coined until 1921, to describe what, in the new world of marketing, was a specific, demographic population—a descriptive group for the first time. In our culture, teenagers are still an enormous target audience and American business spends a lot of time and money getting them to buy its products. (It's apparently a good investment: According to Teenage Research Unlimited, a firm that specializes in teen market research, teenagers spent 153 billion dollars in 1999!) The word "teenager" is so freighted and has so many different behaviors associated with it—the supposedly "inevitable" rebellion, the "necessary" emotional upheaval, the "raging" hormones—that it's used as a shorthand excuse or explanation by parents and children alike.
But the word "teenager," while good for selling all manner of products, isn't really useful when it comes to raising our daughters. For one thing, the word is misleading: The physical, emotional, and intellectual changes that become manifest when our daughters reach roughly thirteen have, in fact, been going on for years, and the foundations for some of the issues that adolescence brings to the fore have already been laid. Recent studies have shown that body image is formed in girls by the age of eight and perhaps as early as seven; according to the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, a study of eight-to-ten-year-olds revealed that roughly half of the girls were already dissatisfied with their size, and longed to be thinner. By the time they actually reach the "teen" years, girls are acting on what they have been feeling for years: The Office on Women's Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that nearly half of all girls skip a meal to control their weight, one-third of all girls in grades nine through twelve see themselves as overweight, and 60 percent of them are on diets. At the end of the continuum is the sobering fact that eating disorders affect 5-10 percent of post-pubescent females. Visualizing the statistic is helpful: Imagine a classroom with twenty girls in it, and focus on the fact that at least one and perhaps two of them will suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating.
There's another reason to let go of the word "teenager": Our daughters are reaching physical maturity earlier than we did. Our girls are getting their periods earlier and experiencing the other physical changes that presage menarche sooner (growth of pubic hair, breast development, increase in body fat), some as early as nine, with ten and eleven now considered normative. (The average age of menarche is now 12.5 years. In the last 150 years, the onset of menarche has advanced, on average, three years, largely because of good nutrition.) For some of our girls, early menarche may mean changes in themselves and in how their peers perceive them that they are not emotionally ready to handle. These changes may feel like an unwanted, premature end to childhood and, as mothers, we need to attend to them.
Taking all the factors into account, in its landmark 1995 study Great Transitions, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development recommended that the age of ten mark the beginning of adolescence for, in their words, the ages between ten and fourteen are "a crucial turning point in life's trajectory." The study, overall, encourages us to get rid of the stereotypes marketing people are so fond of because "although young adolescents are often stereotyped as moody, rebellious, self-indulgent, and incapable of learning anything serious, research indicates that this portrait is greatly overdrawn. Young adolescents are also, at this time, full of curiosity, imagination, and emerging idealism."
The implications are profound. First, it means that we cannot wait until our daughters are "teenagers" to talk, mentor, and guide them as they move toward womanhood and selfhood. It means that, as mothers, we need to reexamine the boundaries of childhood and adolescence and locate our own daughters within them. A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now in 1999 revealed interesting, if sobering, information about successful communication between parents and children and when it needs to start on such issues as sex, violence, AIDS, drugs, and alcohol. At the ages of ten to twelve, the children surveyed ranked television and movies as equally valuable sources of information as their mothers, each getting 38 percent. (Teachers and friends were listed, too, and got almost the same ranking.) By ages thirteen to fifteen, though, the sphere of influence had shifted importantly: 64 percent report that their friends are their most important source of information, followed closely by television (61 percent). Teachers and the Internet follow, with mothers trailing last at 38 percent. The competition for our daughters' attention is fierce and if we don't begin talking to them about the important issues early, the people who write the scripts and dialogue for movies and television shows will. Another study at Columbia University suggests that children make up their minds about important issues such as drugs between the ages of twelve and thirteen and are, at that time, most open to parental influence. Once again, the word "teenager" could lead us to miss the important window of opportunity we have to guide our daughters when they are most ready to listen.
There is another important consequence of redefining when these years of transition begin: Adolescence will occupy roughly a decade of a mother's and daughter's lives. Ten years: As you read this, just imagine yourself ten years ago and take a moment to reflect on the incredible changes in you over that period of time—and those changes took place without adolescence. Those changes didn't happen all at once, of course; the changes that take place over a decade in both our lives and our daughters' lives are more akin to how the ocean's shoreline changes in the same period of time. While the cataclysmic events of nature—the storm or hurricane—create the changes most easily perceived, what actually alters the landscape over time is far more subtle and less dramatic: the slow erosion of the sand, grain by grain, accomplished by the everyday processes of weather and tides. So, too, in women's lives: While the storms are easiest to mark and remember—the catastrophes of death, divorce, or loss—these events alone do not create the changes within us. It is how they combine with our everyday lives—the small sea changes made up of daily interactions and relationships—that will change us over time. What goes on in my kitchen and yours matters in the truest sense: Mother and daughter alike will emerge from the period we call adolescence different people than they were at its beginning.
And that is why this book is called Girl in the Mirror. Just as we once peered over the crib rails to search our newborn daughters' faces for signs of personality or family resemblances, so, too, during the years of adolescence, mother and daughter alike peer into the mirror of each other's face, looking for hints of their past and future selves, of resemblance and connection or—when the relationship is fractious or difficult—evidence of difference and separateness.
As Hope Edelman puts it so well in her book Motherless Daughters (the words quoted at the beginning of this chapter): "Our mothers are our most direct connection to our history and our gender." By their presence or absence, the example they set or the lack of it, their positive influence or their negative one, by what they gave us and what they couldn't, for every girl who makes the journey from child to woman, the first mirror in which she looks is the mirror of her mother's face.
What we do and don't see there is a part of us forever.
When we talk to our adolescent daughters—whether it is a quiet evening heart-to-heart or a heated confrontation—we are never really alone with them. This is the one simple truth about mothers and daughters and the years of adolescence. And it is universal.
In the room with us are our past selves, the adolescent girls we once were. Our own mothers' words echo when we talk, and sometimes those of our grandmothers. There are the voices of old friends and their mothers. Our younger selves—the women we were before we became mothers—keep us company too. The room in which we find ourselves, seemingly alone with our daughters, can be a crowded place.
Past, present, and future collide when we look into our daughters' faces. All of our dreams—those we've realized and those we think beyond our grasp—are in the room with us. Not a small number of these dreams are those we dream for our children.
Our daughters, too, are not alone. All of their girlfriends, to whom they look for self-definition, keep them company. The mothers of their friends are there as well and play a role in how they see us by comparison. The outside world crowds in too: all the images of woman, girl, mother, and daughter gleaned from books and magazines, television and movies. These images influence our daughters as they begin to carve out their own definitions of self, just as they continue to influence us as grown women.
Negotiating the waters of these years of transition takes work, effort, skill, and a fair amount of resilience on the part of mother and daughter alike. Change is everywhere: in our daughters' bodies, minds, emotions, and even the microcosm in which they live. They leave the cozy world of elementary school—birthday parties with cupcakes, each child carefully accounted for every minute of the day—for the sudden autonomy of middle school or junior high school at eleven or twelve, complete with too-heavy backpacks, schedules, unforgiving combination locks, and a raft of teachers. They find themselves confronting a new set of societal expectations and, from where they sit, it must feel as though the whole world is screaming, "Grow up, grow up, grow up!" In July 2000, on its front pages, The New York Times concluded—after conducting roundtable discussions with over two hundred sixth-graders in eleven states and the District of Columbia—that the pressure on sixth-graders to succeed both academically and at standardized testing is enormous and different in kind from the pressures their parents faced. It is hard to believe that the children they interviewed were actually worrying about college.
For mothers, too, it is a time of change: Suddenly it seems as though the very ways in which we've nurtured our children over the years are outmoded and out of sync. Some of us will feel that we've been undone by the rapidity of the changes: We may go from drying our little girls' tears to snuffling into Kleenexes ourselves because our daughters have, in anger, wounded us to the core. The child who loved cuddling suddenly doesn't want to be touched. The child we used to read to becomes a girl who goes back online to chat with strangers, long after the house lights are out for the night. The shy child blossoms into an orator; the supremely confident little girl disappears into a round-shouldered and sullen fourteen-year-old. Our daughters' telephone calls are suddenly hushed, whispered events, out of earshot. Some of us will find ourselves searching our daughters' faces for the children whose shoelaces we once tied, who ran to us for comfort. One exasperated but witty mother described living with her sixteen-year-old as "right out of Alice in Wonderland—you never know, from day to day, whether it's the Red Queen or Alice herself who's coming down to breakfast." Peg's daughter, Alexandra, went to middle school after seven years at a small public elementary school and, for mother and daughter alike, it was a time of letting go:
On the first day, she got out of the car by herself and I sat there, watching her go up the steps to the big red door. She still looked so little, her petite frame dwarfed by an enormous backpack, in contrast to the fast-moving stream of seventh and eight graders, all of whom looked about seven feet tall. She walked steadily, holding her own in the flow, and then, at the very last minute, turned to see if I was watching. My routine didn't change all year—I still sat in the car, waiting to see that she got inside safely—but about a few months into the school year, she stopped turning around. Now she's got her own rules about being dropped off and picked up. I can't kiss her in public. I can't wear my "dorky" orange clogs. I should park across the street, not in front of the school. These are small details but they are powerful reminders that her universe is expanding beyond what it was in childhood—when Mommy was at its very center.
But despite our daughters' hunger for independence, the peer pressure to be grown-up, and the emphasis middle schools place on responsibility and autonomy, study after study confirms that our daughters need us more than ever, if in different ways than they did when they were five, eight, or even just a year ago. What they need will continue to change, from one year to the next, as they move from the early part of adolescence to the middle stage and, then, to late adolescence. For many of us, switching gears as mothers is as difficult as the transition out of childhood is for our daughters.
Mothering—for humans, at least—is learned, not instinctual, and, at certain times, the challenge of being the mothers our daughters need seems impossible. (Being the mothers they think they want is another matter entirely, and one that no sane woman should even speculate about.) The child who stands before us is changeable, contradictory, as she crosses the boundary between childhood and adulthood: Eager to be perceived as independent, she begs us to please do her laundry the way we used to; desperate to grow up, she demands to know why we have packed up her dolls; the fiercely independent fifteen-year-old suddenly becomes clingy, jealous of the attention her younger siblings get. Sometimes, too, the tasks we face as the mothers of adolescents seem utterly contradictory. How can we protect our daughters from danger while, at the same time, giving them the freedom they need? How can we stay connected when they're pushing us away with both hands? How can we talk to them when they are determined not to listen? What can we do when we simply don't understand them—when we haven't experienced what they are experiencing and we don't have an emotional analogy to draw on? How can we set an example without insisting that it is the only example for them to follow?
This book was written so that we can learn how.
* * *
My mother was a strong influence on me yet, at the same time, she didn't know how to be supportive enough. She was very accepting and gave me almost complete freedom. My friends used to like chatting with her at the kitchen table over coffee and cigarettes whether I was home or not. On the other hand, she didn't give me the support I needed psychologically to deal with my parents' divorce and my relationship with my father.
My daughter's father and I separated when she was in sixth grade and we were divorced when she was in eighth. She's been in therapy since seventh grade, and I've made sure she's okay in ways I wasn't.
Rachel, fifty-three, a psychologist and divorced mother of a daughter, now eighteen
I came of age in a world very different from the one my daughters, their friends, and their peers all over American experience. While the larger world may have seemed dangerous and unsettled (I was eleven when President Kennedy was shot, and I remember huddling under my desk, along with all of my classmates, in drills designed to help us survive a Russian nuclear attack), my little world was safe and sound. My own parents were and still are married and loving. I knew no one whose parents were divorced. What has happened to the American family in the intervening years—some thirty-five—since I was an adolescent is reflected in the adult lives of my parents' four children. Despite his tumultuous adolescence (which I've promised to keep a family secret), only one brother has been married to the same woman for over twenty years, with whom he's had two children—a genuine nuclear family. My sister, who has no biological children, is a loving and involved stepmother. My other brother is now divorced and his children live with their mother; he sees them on a schedule familiar to children all over America. I have been married three times and while my husband is the biological father of my son and the adoptive father of my two daughters who call him Dad, it's still not exactly "Ozzie and Harriet."
Excerpted from girl in the mirror by Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D., and Peg Streep. Copyright © 2002 by Bay Productions, Inc. and Peg Streep. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Chapter 1||Sea Changes||5|
|Chapter 2||The "I-Thou" of Parenting||29|
|Chapter 3||The Nature of the Journey||68|
|Chapter 4||Blossoming--Forming the Self||132|
|Chapter 5||Troubled Waters||225|
|Chapter 7||Sailing Toward the Future||320|
|Chapter 8||Other Lessons: A Postscript||325|
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