Ophelia's Mom: Loving and Letting Go of Your Adolescent Daughter

Ophelia's Mom: Loving and Letting Go of Your Adolescent Daughter

by Nina Shandler

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In 1999 Ophelia Speaks, Sara Shandler’s collection of writings by and about adolescent girls, became a bestseller. Two years later, Nina Shandler, Ed.D., psychologist by profession and Sara’s mother, invited mothers of adolescent girls from all over the country to talk back, giving them the chance, perhaps for the first…  See more details below



In 1999 Ophelia Speaks, Sara Shandler’s collection of writings by and about adolescent girls, became a bestseller. Two years later, Nina Shandler, Ed.D., psychologist by profession and Sara’s mother, invited mothers of adolescent girls from all over the country to talk back, giving them the chance, perhaps for the first time, to speak out about feelings too often considered taboo.

Culled from written submissions and interviews with hundreds of women from all walks of life and from every part of the country, the concerns voiced in Ophelia’s Mom reflect the universal experience of mothers facing one set of changes while their daughters are facing another. With humor, insight, rage, sadness, jealousy, pride, joy, and, ultimately, optimism, these mothers talk candidly about rejection and separation, feminism versus Girl Power, love and sex, friends, school, drugs and alcohol, divorce, menstruation and menopause, the mother-daughter bond, and much more.

As these mothers reveal how this life passage has reshaped them as well as their children, you’ll realize that you’re not crazy, and you’re certainly not alone in your frustration, confusion, and exhilaration over raising an adolescent daughter.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Into Adolescent Territory

Driving Lesson
by Jean L. McGroarty

I hand her the keys and sit on the passenger side of the car. I think of her in the stroller, on the tricycle, in the bumper cars at the fair, and I see her now, ready to drive my car. She turns the key and I think of her playing with my keys before she could walk, making them jingle and squealing with delight.

The car starts and she tentatively tries to shift into reverse. I think of her on her first pair of roller skates, inching along, trying not to fall. She backs the car out of the parking space, shifts into drive, and moves ahead. I try not to gasp, try not to make any noise, high or low, try to be cool, to let her drive the car without comment or complaint from the passenger seat.

I think of the look on her face on her first day of nursery school, and it reminds me of the look on her face now, cool blue eyes looking into the future with confidence and curiosity. Her lessons in life go on, and for a while I'm along for the ride.

Blood and Tears

Daughter to Mother

for Alicia Alexandra

by Marianne Peel Forman

I lie in bed with my baby daughter nestled under my arm, nursing. I am perfectly connected to my baby's body, soothed by my biological purpose, wrapped in tranquillity. My mind rests on one thought: "For this alone, I would be reborn." I melt into sleep.

I never felt completely physically comfortable with another human being until I gave birth to Manju, my first child. She slipped out of my body into the world, a little girl, just like me.

We bonded in the bathroom. At first, in the bathtub, giggling at the green wind-up frog. Later, in front of the mirror, fussing with our hair. Then, one day, she shut the door behind her. I was no longer allowed to enter. Her body had begun to be too much like mine. The time had come for privacy.

The embarrassment that comes with leg hair and budding breasts and menstruation: It's as confusing to a mom as it is to her daughter.

For Sandra Hunter, a family practitioner in a western city, menstruation is the basic currency of everyday life. Every moment of her workday, she deals with the ins and outs of female sexuality. At home, she talked openly about menstrual woes and never thought to hide her tampons. Yet confronted with the sight of her daughter's first bloody underwear, she spoke of her bewilderment:

Too Self-conscious for Words

A Story from Sandra Hunter, M.D.

"About a month ago, I walked into my daughter's room. Tina was packing for a camping trip with her uncle and his son.

"Her panties and jeans were on the floor, soaked with blood. I was shocked. I had no idea she'd started menstruating. I blurted out, 'Why didn't you tell me you had gotten your period?'

"Tina clenched her teeth and told me, 'I didn't want you to know.' Then she screamed, 'Go away.'

"She absolutely refused to talk to me. She was going away and I couldn't figure out how to give her pads. What could I do?

"I wrapped some pads in pretty paper, put a bow on the present, and attached a card. All it said was Congratulations! I figured she could just take them along with her, without having to talk, without having to admit she was bleeding, without feeling embarrassed.

"When she left, I walked back into her room. Her stained jeans were still on the floor. The package was open. Only one pad was gone.

"A few days later, my brother-in-law called, perturbed. 'Why didn't you tell me she had her period? You didn't send any pads with her.' She'd bled through while hiking.

"When she came home, I insisted we talk. After all, she needed basic information.

"I told her to take pads or tampons to school. She wouldn't hear of it. She yelled, practically stomped her feet. 'No. No. No. I'll never do that.'

"I don't know what she'll do if she gets her period at school. Does she think she won't bleed again? I worry she'll get her period in class. I send her off holding my breath.

"I leave books about menstruation and sex around the house in conspicuous places. I can't give her a book directly. I can't call any attention to them. If she suspects that I'm behind the appearance of the information, she'll absolutely refuse to read it. If I say nothing, she'll pick them up by herself, in her own good time.

"She's in denial. She's just not emotionally ready to menstruate. Her body's out of step with her identity. I don't know. Maybe it's about not wanting to become a woman."

Puberty can take possession like an invasion of body snatchers. Many girls aren't ready to become women, but emotional misgivings don't stop them from developing early. Behind the closed doors, girls are budding breasts, sprouting pubic hair, and menstruating younger and younger. In 1997 Marcia Herman-Giddens published a study of seventeen thousand girls in the journal Pediatrics. According to her findings, Caucasian girls begin menstruating at 12.8 years. On average, African-American girls begin menstruating six months earlier. Other studies dispute the findings that girls are entering puberty at younger ages.

According to Girls Speak Out--a study authored by Whitney Roban and Michael Conn and commissioned by the Girl Scouts of America--psychological maturity doesn't go hand in hand with the acceleration of physical development. Too-young girls can't possibly feel comfortable stuck in suddenly alien bodies. Surging hormones throw every girl into an unfamiliar state; even with preparation, it's a shock to bleed. A ten-year-old girl who menstruates might naturally want to hide or deny.

Judy Pohl ushered four daughters through the onset of menstruation. Her mid-Atlantic home brimmed with young women borrowing sanitary pads and teasing one another about PMS. Still, Daughter Number Three couldn't find the courage to ask her menstruation question out loud.

Judy speaks with the breezy confidence of a seasoned mother.

Confided to the Steering Wheel

A Story from Judy Pohl

"My girls started menstruating early: one at ten. Some were more snarly than others. It seemed like they'd get real grumpy for about two years before they got their periods. I swear one little one had PMS at eight years old.

"Even the older ones noticed. They'd ask, 'Does that girl have her period yet?'

"In our family, we talk about everything in a crowd.

"One time Number One had a boyfriend over to dinner. It was like a first date. We were sitting around the table and somebody, one of my girls, asked about menopause.

"They ask; I answer. That's my philosophy.

"I explained, 'When you get older, your period stops. You no longer ovulate and can no longer get pregnant.'

"I was as matter-of-fact as possible, given that there was this would-be boyfriend sitting next to me. I tried not to look at him."

Judy paused. The pace of her words slowed, as if she were trying to Wt an awkward piece into the family puzzle.

"Daughter Number Three: She's real private.

"I got into my car one day. There was this note taped to the steering wheel. It said, I got my period. I've been bleeding since Wednesday. Is that okay?

"That's how I found out Number Three started menstruating.

"I don't get it. With a mother like me, how does a girl get so shy about speaking up?"

Back in her own adolescence, Cynthia Peel Knight had been as

self-conscious as Judy Pohl's daughter. Now a California mother with adolescent twins, a son and a daughter, Cynthia has a different story to tell--a tale of mother/daughter bonding, tinged with humor and embarrassment.


by Cynthia Peel Knight

Driving toward Half Moon Bay with Camille and Jake in my company seemed surreal. The thick envelope of fog descended upon us, insulating the silence inside the darkened car. Nothing to see, yet so much beyond the wall. This darkness accentuated what I didn't know about my daughter. We never really talk.

I drove this entire trip, four hundred and fifty miles, with her in the backseat, her headphones clamped to her ears, not saying a word. She never asked to eat or to go to the rest room. I wanted to interact with her. All I ever got was a blank look. She couldn't hear me over the violent sounds of The Cure. When she did take the suction cups off her ears and actually listen to my questions, I got shrugged shoulders or "I really don't care" or " I didn't ask to be here on this lame nature trip of yours."

Then, just as we passed the Half Moon Bay sign, Camille spoke, penetrating the silence.

"Aunt Joni says to get Wings."

I guess I lost sight of the possibility of her getting her period.

Last year I had taught the sex-education class at her school. I knew most of her friends were already menstruating. All summer, any time she was tired or irritable, I assumed she was about to get her period. We interviewed many friends about tried-and-true types of feminine protection. We narrowed the wide selection down to two brands. We had gone pad shopping. The pads still waited in her bathroom back home. A lot of good they'd do us now.

Before I could speak, Jake, Camille's fifteen-year-old brother, faked confusion and teased, "What? Buffalo wings? What are these wings, big sister?"

Using my most threatening tone, I pounced. "Jake! Not another word."

Then I pulled in to the Lucky Supermarket and turned to Camille. "Always Wings?" I asked, citing the brand she'd chosen before.

She shrugged.

I responded, "Well, you'll have to come in and pick the ones you need."

"Mom! Wrong! No way am I going into there to buy pads. Just get Always Wings."

"Camille, there could be a dozen varieties. Those things mate and proliferate monthly. I don't want to waste time buying and returning the wrong pads."

"Okay, Mom. Just don't get those big honkin' pads made for fat ladies who nearly bleed to death every month."

"Camille, don't worry. I won't. 'Cause you're coming in," I said as I parked the car.

Jake barked, "Hurry up and get your new little wings so I can go to bed."

Walking through the gliding door, Camille recommitted to her nonparticipation, saying, "I'm not going to carry them."

"You will if I don't," I quipped.

"Then forget it, Mom. I don't need them."

I teased, "Oh, come on. Grow up. You can't go your entire womanhood with toilet paper stuck in your underwear."

We found the feminine hygiene section brilliantly juxtaposed to the diapers.

The subliminal message: "By the time you stop using these, you'll be putting on diapers." (I think they should bridge the two aisles with a condom display.)

Camille stood as far from the feminine hygiene side as possible, her back against the Pampers. She whispered, "There they are, to your left: New Always Wings in the teal-green package with pink writing. Get slender, regular absorbency."

I found the right package and walked back toward her. She stiffened her arms as if I were about to hand her a bag of snakes.

"I'm not holding them. Please, Mom. Please!" she begged me.

"Oh, Camille, calm down. I won't always be available to buy your stuff."

She pleaded, "I know, Mom. But it's my first time."

I took pity. "Okay. Come on then. There's just one other thing we must get to help us bear this monthly burden. It's my duty, as your mother, to initiate you properly."

Camille rolled her eyes. "Please, Mom, let's go. The toilet paper is crumbling in my underwear. My whole world is falling apart, and you have a little educational Weld trip planned."

"Okay, Camille, but you're the one that will suffer, forever."

She relented. "Okay. Let's go if it'll get us out of here sooner."

I led the way. "Over here. Aisle three. I must advise you that every time you buy a bag of pads, you need a bag of these. Chocolates. Choose your poison."

She was not amused. "Oh, great. Zits and more calories so I bloat up like a heifer."

I insisted. "It's the rule. One of these and one of those. It's the yin and yang of menstruation. I don't question the wisdom behind these things. I just heed the advice."

Camille picked up a bag of low-fat York Peppermint Patties. Obviously, I had my work cut out for me. But it was a beginning. I picked up a bag of peanut M&M's.

She objected, "What are you doing? It's not your period."

"It's called sympathy pangs," I explained.


"It's my way of letting you know I feel for you."

"Yeah, right." She didn't buy it.

We headed toward the cashier. Camille halted dead in her tracks and pulled on the sleeve of my jacket. "Not that one! There's a cute guy ringing up the stuff."

"What do you think? He has a period scanner? How will he know they're for you if I'm carrying and paying for them?"

I moved forward. She lagged behind. Three other people waited in line ahead of us. I thought about how different this event was from when I got my period. I was so embarrassed I didn't even tell my mom. I used toilet paper for a couple of months, then moved on to my sister's pads for another seven months. My mom found a pair of my soiled pants in the laundry and outright asked me if I was having a period. As a lesson, she sent me to buy my own pads at Fred's Superette. My teacher's wife worked there. Everyone in our small community shopped at Fred's. I was so mortified that I paid my little brother a dollar to buy me my pads. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even talk to my family or any other girls about menstruating.

Still in line, I picked up a home-improvement magazine and began reading. As our turn approached, I went to return the magazine to its rack. I turned around to find the young hunk holding the package of pads out toward Camille and asking: "Do you want to use this now?'

I felt like I was moving in slow motion.

Flustered, Camille forced a smile and pretended to get the joke. Then, unable to hold back tears, she bolted out of the store.

The young man turned to me. "I'm sorry. I mean the coupon here on the back. Did you want to use it now?"

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Nina Shandler, Ed.D, is a licensed psychologist and family therapist who has counseled women, children, and families in private practice, clinics, and schools and presented workshops and lectures to parents, couples, and teachers. Her articles on psychology have appeared in The Family Therapy Networker, Teaching Tolerance, Communiqué, and others. Dr. Shandler specializes in the concerns of women and is the author of Estrogen: The Natural Way. She has two daughters: Sara is currently attending Wesleyan University, and Manju is an artist, puppet maker, and costume designer. She lives with her husband, Michael, in western Massachusetts. Her website is Opheliasmom.com.

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