By Francie Arenson Dickman
You know you are old when you think all of the boys in your daughters’ 8th grade class look adorable.
“Are you crazy?” my girls say as I mention this to them as we wait in the drop off line which moves at a snail’s pace, leaving me plenty of time to study the student body.
“Don’t you think anyone is cute?” I ask. They roll their eyes and run out of the car. I don’t blame them, I remember having similar exchanges with my mother who was also obviously old because she, too, used to think all the boys in my grade were adorable. The difference between my kids and me was that I could laundry list a slew of guys that were in fact cute, while my daughters, now fourteen, cannot.
“You’ve got to have a crush on someone,” I said to my daughter last year. We’d just watched the movie The Duff and my big take away was that the boy next door was no ordinary boy next door. “I didn’t notice,” my daughter said.
“That’s impossible,” I argued back. “You are thirteen,” I told her. “That’s what girls do when they are thirteen, they have crushes.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I’m a lesbian.”
“That’s no excuse,” I told her. “Even if you were a lesbian, you’d have crushes, they’d just be on girls.”
She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
Before I wrote this essay, I researched—meaning I talked to friends with daughters around my kids’ age. Most said that their daughters had no interest in boys, either. They were too busy with school work and extracurricular activities. This is the same thing my girls tell me when I ask, and I do ask because I’ve got to be honest, I’m just not buying it. Liking boys is not a business decision. Liking boys (or girls) is hormonal. Crushes just happen. Like acne.
Who among us didn’t love David Cassidy or Rick Springfield or the entire cast of The Outsiders? We did, and we had Teen Beat posters to prove it. For the personal crushes we had diaries. Or at least, I did. My mother gave me a diary in 6th grade when I was being bullied, and a few months ago, I shared it with my daughters. I don’t know where I got the brilliant idea that by reading their mother’s first-hand account of her year dealing with mean girls that they would come away more enlightened than they already were from having heard my stories ad nauseam. I’ve shared the stories despite that my girls, to my knowledge, never have been bullied and never have been the bullying kind. Until of course, I shared my diary. Then they began to bully me.
“I wasn’t boy crazy,” I told them, grabbing the diary from their hands.
The truth is that I should have read the diary to myself before I read it to them because there was a remarkable dearth of material on girls. Maybe a line here and there about my daily existence, like “Lisa was mean again today.” But for the most part, the pages were littered with charts ranking my favorite boys on a scale of one to five and hearts with initials in it. You know, the kind that we all used to doodle.
“You were weird,” they told me. Not only do girls these days, at least the ones in my house, not have crushes but they don’t doodle, either. I’ve leafed through the pages of assignment notebooks looking for signs of crushes, only to come up empty handed. The diaries I’d bought them, in preparation to start journaling when the bullying and crushes began, are empty. Their walls hold no posters. Their bulletin boards are collaged in pictures, all of girls. Girls hugging. Girls piled in photo booths. Their worlds are raining girls. There are the school girls, the camp girls, the dance girls. Not that I wish it were different! I’m so grateful that my girls have girls. That they have spent years learning to be a good friend, understanding how to have female relationships. Nonetheless, shouldn’t there be some boys? If not in body than at least in initials penciled on the side of sneakers? Or maybe these days kids’ personal lives, their secrets and representations of their inner selves are buried down deep within their smartphones instead of their diaries, making it impossible for people who don’t Snapchat (otherwise known as parents) to get a picture of who they are. Or maybe, as hard as it is for me to believe, they really are just too busy.
I don’t know where I got the notion that my daughters’ teenage experiences would mirror mine, and I’d be able to turn my childhood lemons into lemonade by dispensing relatable advice in a way that my own mother, who never proclaimed to relate, could not. But sure enough, time, as it tends to do, has created gaps between my middle school days and my daughters’, making not just my diary but my thoughts on how girls and boys should relate, outdated. According to my “research,” the trend among high schoolers these days is to have “hook up” parties, gatherings en masse in basements to fool around. Rumor is, these occur weekend to weekend, and kids switch partners as often as they switch houses. Like musical chairs with sexual favors, which I for one, find horrifying.
I suppose there might have been a time when I would have found it gratifying that young girls would prioritize goals and friends over going out with boys, and I would have believed that they could actually be okay with this free love business. I would have called it feminism and progress, and I would have been proud. But now that the girls are my own, I call it crazy. I can’t help but think that by-passing the harmless crush phase and heading straight for the physical will backfire. I can’t help but think that kids in middle school who don’t have the time to daydream and doodle are getting shortchanged. And, with the same benefit of time and distance that allows me to see all of the boys in the 8th grade class as adorable, I view my own middle school experience, no matter how brutal, as better than my kids’ today. Maybe my mindset makes me old. Or maybe it just makes me a mother.
Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.