By Candy Schulman
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 analyzed, maybe even criticized, 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 cell 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.
And I try to avoid tears when I call her on a Friday at school dismissal time, suggesting she meet me at a store where I’ve found a pair of jeans she’s been yearning for, and she brusquely barks into the cell phone I bought her: “I’m with my friends! Can’t talk to you now. We’re going for ice cream together.” I stroll home through the park on a lovely spring afternoon, alone, the way I once enjoyed my private time before I had a daughter. This is my new life, but I’m already grieving for the mother/daughter life I’ve left behind. I sit in the park and listen to a folk singer’s free concert. Who am I? Where am I? Where is Amy?
We go to Florida a few months after Amy’s thirteenth birthday, just the two of us. My 89-year-old mother is ailing, and I take Amy to see her. We used to stay in my mom’s apartment but now her live-in caretaker sleeps in the den where we used to camp out on vacations. I book a hotel on the beach, and Amy thinks it’s cool to have beachfront breakfasts watching a line of lifeguards swim a half mile straight out into the ocean and back before taking their posts for the day. We spend mornings visiting with Grandma, and have some time for ourselves on the beach as well.
We rent bicycles built for two, giggling as we try to steer straight on the boardwalk. Become lost in long books under umbrellas staked in the sand. We take nightly walks in the moonlight, avoiding the kissing couples we pass on the beach. Amy shows off her seventh grade earth science knowledge, identifying the phase of the moon while she savors a chocolate ice cream cone. We sit in the sand close to the shore and watch the waves break.
“You know,” Amy says, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, like you, because I look up to you.”
“You do?” I say, surprised at my surprise. I know she admires me, but lately she expresses embarrassment or distaste for my clothing, my fears, my singing, my mere presence.
“Of course I look up to you,” she says. “You’re amazing.”
“In what way?”
“You’re kind to people. The way you take care of Grandma. The way you help your students. Even strangers on the street.”
“That’s so nice to hear.”
She looks me straight in the eye. “Mom,” she says, “when you take a sip of water, I take a sip.”
Joyously I try to hold onto her words as long as possible. She bites into her chocolate sugar cone. If this is our last tranquil moment together, then it is a great one. We stroll back to our hotel, holding hands in the dark. Amy takes the ice bucket down the hall to fill it up. We’re both very thirsty.
Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.
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