Yesterday you turned twelve. It seems incomprehensible that you’re this old, and at the same time I can’t imagine you not being the right-now you. That day that you arrived on your due date, in a driving rainstorm after a long, long labor, seems like a lifetime ago. Many lifetimes.
For a few years I’ve been describing you as liminal, and maybe, in fact, all children are. Childhood is, after all, evanescent, and as I’ve said before every single day holds both new vistas and losses both big and small. It’s all an endless halleluia and a constant farewell. This moment feels particularly precarious, more on-the-edge than ever, though, as though we’re teetering on a fulcrum, about to plunge into a new world. And I’ll be honest: there’s a lot I fear about what’s to come. I worry our closeness will fray and never recover. I am trying to trust the red thread, even as I let it out, knowing that letting you go is my primary task right now. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel fears about your impending teenagerhood and sorrow about already being here in this moment of parenthood.
This was your fourth year at sleepaway camp but the first time you were homesick. I can’t help thinking this was the last gasp of attachment before you push off for the other shore, for adolescence and young adulthood, for good.
You are already a young woman in so many ways. You are over 5 feet tall and I can wear your flip-flops. The physical changes of adolescence loom ever closer, and I’m watching puberty sweep through your peers. You are still all angles and planes, your body a symphony of sharp edges and long limbs. You have long, long legs that I like to joke you inherited from your godmother. You have thick brown hair and olive skin that tans on contact with the sun. The only features you inherited from me are your deep mahogany eyes and your cleft chin.
You have a wary, cautious demeanor and are always extremely aware of the world around you. You are sensitive and thoughtful and prone to take things too personally (I have no idea where you get this trait from). Despite my desire to focus on what your body can do, not what it looks like, and to protect you from society’s emphasis on female appearance, I can see in you a newfound understanding of how the world evaluates you by how you look, and it stirs panic in me.
This fall you started running cross-country for the first time. I wrote about your first race and someone wise commented that watching a cross country race is a good metaphor for parenting. I get to watch the start from an intimate distance, watch you run away, and then you disappear for a big chunk of the race. And then I stand there, vigilant, eager, proud, my heart fluttering as I wait for your return. You are very fast; when we run together, which we occasionally do now, I can’t keep up with you. Another metaphor: I trail you, watching as you take flight.
You are a true introvert. A few weeks ago a friend who is also on your soccer team came over after school to do homework, have dinner, and I took you together to practice. As I tucked you in that night you burst into tears and admitted that you were exhausted from the day. I asked what you meant and you explained that while you’d really enjoyed the visit, you realized you really needed the downtime alone between school and practice. Oh, how I relate to this need, this preference, and this tendency.
These are complicated social years, and I know you worry about friendship, loyalty, and what it really means to be popular. Though my goal isn’t to be your “best friend,” I’m deeply grateful that you still talk to me. I can’t protect you from the world., but I can make sure that home is your safe place.
You wear camouflage leggings and gold ballet flats, an orange down coat, jeans with flowers printed all over them, and dark brown Uggs. Your bed is your haven, as mine is for me, and you sleep on sheets printed with peace signs and clutching the two teddy bears you’ve slept with since birth. You need a lot of sleep and are quickly reduced to tears and frustration when you’re tired. You make your bed every single morning with a dedication that reminds me of, well, me. I asked you recently if it made you feel like your life was under control and you nodded knowingly. “I just have to make it,” you said. Me too.
You sometimes leave me notes on my bedside table, on April Fools’ Day you and Whit short-sheeted our bed, and I have framed the painting of two people sitting by a lighthouse watching a sunset that you made for me while at camp this summer. You love to read though I’ll admit to disappointment that certain classics that I have eagerly foisted on you have failed to capture your imagination. Some of my very favorite times are when we sit in my bed together, reading side by side. We just finished Harry Potter #7, reading aloud together, and I felt a wave of real sorrow that it was over. We started reading #1 together when you were in first grade. Something big is over.
Every year of your life I have loved you more. It just keeps getting better and better. The reason I exist in a thick fog of loss and mourning about time’s passage is precisely because I love these years so much. The consolation prize for this sadness is, of course, that I get to be your mother always, even as the particulars of and landscape within which that relationship takes place change.
On Saturday night, as I put you to bed, you were sad. You didn’t want to turn 12, you said, you didn’t want to inch closer to being a teenager, it’s all going to fast, you want life to slow down, you don’t want to grow up. I ached as I listened to you, something deep inside me of course recognizing this sensibility, this sensitivity. I wish you could just feel pure joy and simply rejoice at what comes next every day. But I know I can’t, and I know now that you can’t either. So I’ll just say that I swear, with every bone in my body, that as life gets more complex it also gets deeper, more rewarding, and more joyful. I can’t tell you not to feel that sorrow that’s so inextricably wound around every transition, but I can tell you that there’s just as much breathtaking beauty and head-spinning happiness. I promise.
I love you, Gracie girl, I always have, and I always will. Happy 12th birthday. It’s been a breathtaking, glorious, sometimes dizzying ride so far, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead. I just hope you will keep holding my hand.
To the girl who made me a mother, my first baby, my only daughter, I love you.
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