Too old for toys, too young for boys. That’s the description I found when I Googled “age of tweens” the other night. Obviously, I’d had a bad day with one of my kids. I just had to confirm what I was sensing: that my little girl is molting her girlishness. How long until it’s a sad, dry husk of yesterdays and used-to-be’s? Almost suddenly it seems she’s entered the halls of that mystifying place mothers have been telling me about (read: warning me about) since I first held her nine and a half years ago.
Nine and a half. What was I doing at that age? Like her, I was in the midst of the third grade, learning how to multiply numbers and spin around the monkey bars with just one leg hooked. I had a number of “best friends,” and we often gabbed in annoying baby voices that made my mom want to split her wig. We played chase and kickball and thought boys booger-nosed and unessential. I fancied myself a stellar singer despite mounting evidence to the contrary. I also thought myself a wowzer of a dancer, artist, runner, roller-skater—basically an ace of all trades. My parents had to endure a lot of painfully stupid living room performances in which the whole point was for me to be watched, watched, and watched some more. Yeah, I was a lot like my kiddo.
Yet I sense something is different with her version of nine and a half. Namely, I don’t remember being embarrassed of my mom at that age. I don’t remember kind of hating her or resenting her, trying to make her feel like an idiot, eagle-eye nitpicking her for everything from a mispronounced word to a chin hair. I don’t remember trying to annoy the crap out of her, poking at the wasp’s nest with little misbehaviors I knew would set her teeth on edge. Sometimes, I think that’s what’s happening under my roof. Is it really already time? Are we on the precipice of the age of eye-rolling, on the age of sullen brooding during camping trips once filled with flower-picking and imagined woodland pixies?
Last summer I said to my husband, “I have a feeling this might be her last little-kid summer. Let’s take a good trip and enjoy it.” Ultimately, we couldn’t. Financially it just wasn’t within reach. Instead we camped and swam and went bike-riding and on picnics. It was a good summer, full of water balloons and tree-climbing. She ran around naked a lot. While my husband started asking her to please put on some underwear in the name of all that’s holy, I quietly appreciated the persistence of her childish lack of modesty. Big kids cover up. Little kids let it all hang out. It’s a very clear line of delineation between two worlds.
It won’t be long before the line is behind us, that dry husk of little girlishness shrinking almost out of view. Sure, my heart will ache a bit when I revisit images of her still-round face surrounded by a happy, wild mess of curls as she jumps for joy on my bed at age two, age four, age seven. But I will try not to let it get to me when her eyes narrow now as she pushes at the boundaries of my patience with hints of sarcasm, a head turned away from a kiss, and her completely annoying and exaggerated disapproval of every food, movie, outfit, song, activity, you-name-it that I suggest—simply because it was me who suggested it. I’ll try to laugh at the obnoxious juvenile humor that has come to replace her not-quite knock-knock jokes that never made any sense. (Knock, knock! Who is it? It’s me, you cow eyeball!) And hardest of all, I’ll have to accept that even though I can insist on respect, I can’t insist on being liked. Sometimes I’ll be hated. That sucks. All you veteran mothers, you warned me.
What you didn’t tell me was that there are so many new things to love: She’s already traded in her dress-up clothes for a Beatles shirt, running pants, and a skateboard, and, oh, how I like to see her becoming something a world of Disney princesses could never shape. She uses her manners. She leaves me notes. Lately when she notices me exercising, she’ll fill up a glass with cold water and bring it to me the very moment I’m done. She’ll help her little brother without being asked. Her personality and talents are taking shape in a clearer way, and I like the person I see when I see her interacting with the world. She sometimes chooses “chat time” with me now over “read-alone time” before lights-out, cautiously revealing secrets that are big to her but so small and still-innocent to me: a cute boy, a bad word, a friend’s fib. Little by little, she shares her foreign world with me. She still needs me, even if she wants to choke me sometimes.