This is how it feels to be the mother of a thirteen-year-old: every time we share a special moment together, I worry it’s the last one. I’ve read Reviving Ophelia and commiserated with friends who have already endured tumultuous times with their teenage daughters. I can still vividly remember my own adolescence. The lies I kept from my mother…the make-up I bought with money stolen from her purse…the fury I felt toward her old-fashioned, restrictive ways…the acute embarrassment she could cause merely by just showing up in front of my friends…the fights we had—over everything: hemlines, homework, household chores, curfews, career aspirations. I had my own secret life, albeit tame by today’s standards. I told my mother almost nothing. We were strangers by the time I was thirteen.
Today’s parents escort their children everywhere until almost driving age, it seems. I was a latchkey kid making my own lunch at the age of eight. At thirteen, my daughter still has difficulty “unzipping” a banana. Our generation of parents will undoubtedly be analysed, maybe even criticised, for micromanaging our children’s lives. Adolescence, from the Latin adolescere meaning “to grow up,” no longer ends in late teens. New terms like “boomerang kids” and “emerging adulthood” have been created to define twentysomethings. Our kids move back home. The mobile phone, some claim, is the longest umbilical cord ever invented.
I began to let go of my daughter when she was three weeks old, nursing her and quickly handing her over to a babysitter, running out to teach my class and be home before her next feeding time. I let go of her when she was twelve, reluctantly allowing her to walk eight blocks to school with friends. I have never punished or hit her, and sometimes remind her, when she’s sassy, that I had my mouth washed out with soap for far less offensive behavior. Her greatest restriction is that I don’t allow TV on school nights and I limit her access to the Internet. She has been allowed to make many decisions for such a young girl, whereas I was always told what to do (and more often, what not to do).
When I came home from school the day we selected instruments for seventh grade orchestra, my mother was horrified that I’d picked drums. “We have a clarinet and a saxophone in this house, and you’ll choose one of those,” she commanded. I hated clarinet and gave it up after a year. Today if a child wants to play the drums, her parents would not only rush out to buy a set and welcome the noisy practice, but likely to take her for lessons at a specialty African drumming school.
We want to be our children’s “friend,” yet we can’t really be. We have to say “no” and let our children separate from us—even rebel. I “shadowed” Amy on the first day she walked to school, watching her from across the street. One year later I still worry whenever she forges somewhere new on her own. My mother used to say, “Come back for dinner” when we left to go who-knows-where?
It’s a different world today, but from the moment I learned from amniocentesis results that Amy was a girl, I tried to prepare myself for the time when she would reject me, even momentarily hate me. Some of her peers have already started. Every time I think Amy’s going to shut me out (there’s a DO NOT DISTURB sign on her door but she still leaves the door open), she lets me visit a little while longer. I cherish the reprieve, knowing it’s temporary, believing I may have just a tiny bit of time left.