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CHILDREN GET YOUNGER RIGHT BEFORE THEY GO TO BED. Sarah is ten, all angles and bones, but when she is drowsy, wrapped in her flannel cocoon, she is six, maybe seven, flushed peach cheeks, soft curls, and a hazy grin. Back then she had light bones; I could hoist her in the air long after other kids her age were earthbound. Now I wonder how long it will be before I cannot carry her.
She says that if I pick her up every day I will always be able to, which makes sense so long as I do not dwell on it. I pick her up about once a week, but not the way I once did, scooping her up one armed, swinging her onto my shoulders, spinning her until I felt the centrifugal force tug at her wrists. I was loopy with affection; I could turn her upside down.
Tonight, lifting requires strategy and cooperation: She sits at the edge of my bed, wraps her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist, and on the count of three I step back and she holds on tight. My lower back complains, which it did not used to do, but we make it down the hall, Sarah squealing, "You can do it, Mommy," and I drop her backward on her bed.
She gets under the covers, I slide in next to her, and she tells me I should not go to New York tomorrow morning. We have this conversation every time I go, and I was wrong to think that it would get easier as she got older. Sarah clearly has inherited her father's high school debate-team gene and believes that she can talk me out of what I have to do. Resolved: There is nothing so compelling that it can come between us.
I say the same things I always say: lucky that I only go once in a while. Nice that daddy works at home. None of it makes a dent, and I don't blame her. Life is not a consolation prize. Lunch an hour from now is useless when a child is hungry, and almost home does not help if she is tired. Back on Tuesday means nothing when I will be gone for the six days between now and then.
I could act like leaving is no big deal and hope that she follows my lead, but who wants to raise a stoic? I pat the place where teachers still tell kids their hearts are. "You know," I say, "it's like me and my daddy. He's always with me here, even though he isn't around anymore. And I am always, always with you, no matter where I am."
That's good. Reassure her by bringing up a dead parent. Luckily, she is too young to be morbid. For her, my father is shorthand for great parent, the kind of guy who still makes a strong impression twelve years after the cigarettes won.
"Mommy," she finally replies, "I would rather be with you forever than own a horse."
Sarah would rather have a horse than breathe. "When I'm mad at you it won't feel that way," she goes on. "But it will still be true."
Mad at me? I was happy being better than a horse. I do not look forward to being the object of her scorn - and for the first time, I realize that there may be no way to avoid it.
A WOMAN I BARELY KNOW had come by a few weeks earlier to salvage my spindly rosebushes, a favor she dispatched with a quick display of five-leaf pruning and a stern lecture about horticultural neglect. Then she settled in for a cup of tea and the real fun, an unsolicited appraisal of my relationship with Sarah. I do not know her well enough to recall her teenage daughter's name, nor did she observe us long enough for her tea to grow cold, but that did not stop her. The specifics of our life were frankly beside the point. She had a universal truth to impart.
Life between a mother and a teenage girl gets as bad as it once was good, she said, and then, if the mother is fortunate, the girl takes off altogether.
This was not the first time I had been so warned. Women who said such things always had daughters who were old enough to drive, and their girls were rarely around when they made the prediction, having driven to the mall, the movie theater, a friend's house - the destination far less important to them than the ability to get there. They were elsewhere, which was all that mattered, while Sarah still wrapped herself around my shoulder like a vine.
The visiting mom seemed quite relieved to have been left in the dust, since lately being in the same room with her daughter involved a level of histrionics she found intolerable.
I meekly suggested that I would miss Sarah when she is grown up, but the older and wiser mom corrected me.
"No, no," she said. "Trust me. By the time she gets her license, you'll be thrilled to have her out of the house." Bereft, it seemed, was but a way station on the road to bliss.
She had no qualms about saying this in Sarah's presence, which struck me as unkind, like telling a child that the tooth fairy is a con. We were happy, even if it turned out to be temporary. Why did people want to tell us it would end? Because they were jealous, I told myself. I preferred this explanation to the alternative, which was that they were just like us, once, until adolescence made hash of their mutual affection.
Sarah was staunch in her defiance, probably because the woman's pronouncement scared her as much as it scared me. She clung to me ever more tightly and announced that it would not happen to us, and the other mother smiled a knowing smile and shot me a wink. I did not offer her a second cup of tea.
After she left, Sarah wondered how anyone could say such a thing. I shrugged. I told her I love her, which is my default position when I am confused.
My mother lives half the country away, and I do not recall much talk of love between us, but then, I had a more restrained childhood than Sarah does. In a midcentury midwestern suburb, we were big on proper behavior and suspicious of extremes of any kind. When my mother spoke of love, she did so with exasperation: It was a given in any good family, which was what we aspired to be, so there was no need to mention it. I suppose I am making up for lost time. I like to talk about love.
Bedtime always brings on the hyperbole. We can get a call-and response going to rival a revival meeting. Sarah usually starts with a question, to signal that normal conversation has ceased: You want to know something? she asks me. What?
I love you. I love you, too. You're fabulous. I think that about you, too.
We invoke infinity and endless galaxies, and then, when superlatives threaten to fail us, I bail us out with the same last line I have used since we started to do this.
"I love you more than words," I say, and she is satisfied. My husband, Larry, once asked if I meant that I love Sarah more than words can express or more than I love words.
Yes, I said. The older she gets, the longer we go on, even on nights when I do not have a suitcase to pack. Mere mortals like the rose lady might fall by the wayside, but not us.
Or maybe we both know the truth, which is that someday she will want the car keys, and I will stay behind. Maybe we are shouting across the abyss.
THE ECONOMY DEPENDS on girls' having a hard time with adolescence, and on their parents having a hard time with them. If not for the hormonal tsunami known as puberty, there would be no market for parental-advice books, magazines that tell girls how to find a boyfriend and get their parents off their backs, fashions that change as quickly as a teenager's estrogen level, personal-care products to arrest or enhance the slightest deviation from the norm, or celebrities to mimic. Adolescence, the choppier the better, is a retailer's dream.
Parents are supposed to take on a new role when their children reach this turbulent age. The experts exhort us to be the anchor, the foundation; any bottom-loaded, inert object will do. The more mercurial our daughters become, the more grounded we are supposed to be. The mother who wants to be a pal to her girl is immature, self-indulgent, and in denial, and the mother who allows her own feelings to get in the way is shortsighted and irresponsible. The good mother should be firm and placid.
Like a concrete lake. I'm sorry. The members of my family don't even sleep calmly. We consider tranquillity an altered state, little more than catatonia with a smile, and as such we do not expect to keep an even keel throughout dinner, let alone throughout a complete adolescence. I expect to vent as Sarah grows up, because venting was a second language in my parents' house - and because I have not forgotten how it feels for a blimpy little toddler to nestle in the curve of my neck, her warm breath making a steam spot on my skin. Growing up might be a new kind of fun, but it is still a good thing gone. There is an element of loss. Under the circumstances, I am skeptical, if slightly envious, of the perfectly composed.
I remind myself that this is not a tragedy. Tragedy is a forty-five-year-old kid who still lives at home, expects a homemade dinner every night, and never once offers to do the dishes. This is a comedy, in which a last-minute mom gets everything she ever dreamed of, familywise, and tries to hold back the hands of time because she is afraid of her daughter's inevitable adolescence - or rather, afraid of what people say about her daughter's adolescence. On any given morning, she wonders who will walk into the kitchen for breakfast, her daughter or her daughter's evil twin, and she wonders how she will let go, whoever it is.
I once worked with a woman who talked about emotion as though it registered on a Richter scale. Her goal was to stick to the midrange, where she felt safe, and she was prepared to sacrifice ecstasy, she said, if it meant she could avoid depression as well. Not me; no coward here. For a decade I have clambered the high peaks of motherhood like Heidi with her little goat. Now I wonder if I am doomed to fall as far in the other direction, in the name of some cosmic equilibrium.
SARAH'S FIRST TOOTH appeared on a TWA flight from Los Angeles to New York, and as soon as we got to the hotel I compromised her eyesight to get a close-up picture of her smiling mouth. Teeth were hardly a surprise, but they did mean that the pink-gum phase of her life was over. I did not want to forget it. We were still in the archival stage of parenthood, which included monthly so-big pictures of a naked baby set on a white blanket next to Larry's outstretched hand. In the context of new parents who have made one-hour photo labs a growth industry, I figured that first-tooth photos were pretty normal.
A few months later, she crawled across the living room and out of my line of sight, of her own free will. Until that exact moment, distance had been up to me. I left for work or had lunch with a friend; if Sarah went anywhere it was because Larry or I decided she should. But this time, she was the one who decided to split, and the only proof that she was still around was a maniacal giggle from the hallway, as she considered what she had done.
Things moved fast after that. We enrolled in a mommy-and-me program when she was two and a half, and for my pains I was rendered obsolete a year later, when she started preschool. She was so used to the building where we ate Goldfish crackers and drank juice that it was no big deal if I left her there, at least not for her.
It was not the kind of preschool I went to, where a stranger in a station wagon picked me up on the first day, and three hours later my mother had to borrow a car to retrieve her bewildered, weeping daughter, who was wedged behind an art easel and refused to come out. No, Sarah's preschool took separation issues seriously. Parents were on call for two weeks, until every last toddler was able to get out of the car alone. Our kids came home with masking-tape messages stuck to their shirts, and a big one, at the start, was "Mommy always comes back." It was hard to dig in the sand and finger paint, in those early days of independence, without the promise of Mommy to lean on at the end of an arduous morning of fun.
Nobody gave me anything to ease my side of the transition. I worked, but I felt like a slavering golden retriever; I lived to bring that bundle back home.
The last spring before kindergarten, I had to go to New York, so I bought five little white T-shirts and two fabric pens, and I designed a separation wardrobe for Sarah while she slept. She was reading by now, or memorizing passages in favorite books so that it sounded like she was reading. I wasn't always sure which, but I knew absolutely that there was one sentence she could read. Shirts one through four said, "Mommy always comes back," with a red X for each day that had passed. Shirt five added a new word and proclaimed, "Mommy comes back today!" Sarah politely stacked them in her drawer and refused to wear them. Who wants a T-shirt to commemorate loss?
It took me years to figure out that those shirts were for me. "Mommy always comes back" was potentially the cruelest hoax ever perpetrated on a bunch of three-year-olds, since who knows if anyone ever comes back from anywhere, but I needed to buy it wholesale if I was going to be able to walk out the door.
By the time kindergarten rolled around the following fall, I was smug enough about my separation technique to feel superior to the parents who simply dropped their kids off for the first day of school. I knew better. I milled around the yard with Sarah - for the record, I wasn't the only one - and when the kindergarten teacher asked everyone to line up, I dutifully took my place behind my only child. Then the teacher announced, "The parents can leave now, because we're going inside. We have work to do," and I stepped out of line. Elementary school had new rules of disengagement - and no, Sarah did not glance back at me as she marched into the building.
The stakes got higher after that. I have left Sarah at school, at friends' houses, at the bus for the annual out-of-town class trip. So what if I secretly rejoiced at her lack of interest in sleep-away camp? I took her where she needed to go, and I smiled and waved with the other adults. I am a high-functioning parent. I do what I am supposed to do, and nobody sees the effort.
ADOLESCENCE IS THE OLYMPICS of separation events; everything so far has been but a training program for the big developmental break, and I do not feel prepared. To my left, the worn road to embittered, the place where those mothers live who always wonder why you don't call more often, even when you call more often. To my right, the mysterious road to someplace better, for which the American Automobile Association has not yet published TripTiks. The rosebush mom was half right: Children do grow up and go away, and the pace in our household is about to pick up. I understand that big changes are coming. It is the pitched-battle part of her narrative that leaves me cold.
Excerpted from My Girl by Karen Stabiner Copyright © 2005 by Karen Stabiner. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 27, 2005
Anyone who has been alarmed by the books and articles which promise that girls inevitably turn sour when they hit puberty should turn to this lovely memoir/reportage. Journalist Stabiner uses her daughter as an illustration of the larger point: most girls do quite well. They do need parents who don't buy into the 'bad girl' myths.
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