By Julia Park Tracey
There is a stranger in my house, an 11-year-old girl who used to be my baby. She hates me.
This was made evident on a recent shopping trip to find suitable attire for a school party. We went to the mall, and as we walked into the cavernous hall, all was right with the world. But when we walked toward the first store, she got that look on her face, and suddenly everything I did was wrong. My jokes were not funny, they were embarrassing, and the way I talked, she hissed at me, was “irritating.”
I’ll have you know I am a damned funny person, mostly because of the things I’ll do for laughs. Sadly, this kind of humor is wasted on the young. She cares not for PeeWee Herman and his snappy comeback, “Why don’t you marry it?” to everything. (It’s even funnier when I do it – really.)
We went into the first store and I thought, instead of leading the way, I would just let her decide what she’d like to wear. I figure, pick your battles. Then I made the mistake of offering a suggestion: “There are some dresses over there,” to which she sneered, “I know!”
She had her heart set on something yellow, and I followed her to a rack of hoodies – always elegant for a party – which were on sale. She deigned to let me pick one out for her, mostly because she was too short to reach the rack. She also picked out a tank top with some beading which I thought looked nice enough, and a yellow T-shirt with a monkey on it that was scented like bananas. As her choice, it was perfect. I wouldn’t have dared to suggest it – a shirt that smelled like bananas! To be worn in public! I have already learned better than that.
We went to the dressing room and I was allowed to follow her in, but I couldn’t help or comment on the trying-on; I was relegated to the corner to block the slight crack of light through which somebody, if somebody were passing by and really wanted to look, could have seen nothing.
She tried on the yellow tank top and she looked very hip – it’s a style that high school and college girls are wearing, it had wide-enough straps and the beading was cute. But she looked sourly at her reflection and smoothed her hair. She turned sideways and looked at her profile, at the meager contours just beginning to take shape, and she yanked off the top in disgust. I said, “It looks good on you. Really grown-up.”
“I hate it!”
She pulled on the monkey-banana top and looked again. She quirked the tiniest movement at the corner of her lip, made the barest of shrugs. “This one’s all right,” she said.
Before this day, I would have said, “Well, why don’t you marry it?” She might have even laughed. But those days are clearly over.
Who is this person? Her hair, which was once the smoothest strawberry-blonde ringlets, has sprung into brownish-blonde steel wool. She spends hours trying to tame it, or straighten it, and when she gets it just right, refuses to wash it for days because shampoo “wrecks” her hair. She paints her fingernails, then picks mercilessly at the polish until it is a mere chip on each dirty nail. She got hold of discarded makeup from her elder sister’s makeup kit, squirreled it away until the most inappropriate times, and then chooses the day we’re already late for school to plop on the floor and apply enough face-paint to scare a clown. When I comment – and I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t let her go out like that – she flies into a rage and wipes it all off, using a wad of my expensive daily facials to punish me.
She sits in the back seat, mutinous, seething, her eyes brimming, all the way to school. It is my fault she didn’t wake up on time, that she hates her clothes, that her hair is a mop, that her face is “blurry” and that she didn’t have time to eat breakfast. She gets out and slams the door. If I tell her goodbye and I love her, I am ruining everything. If I don’t tell her, I am a horrible mother. Either way, she hates me.
I suppose I should be used to it, as she is the third girl, but my eldest was only too pleased to come home and tell me all her adventures of the day, and she still loves to shop with me. On her worst days she was just a little mouthy. My middle daughter is essentially sweet-tempered and sensitive, occasionally sulky but that’s hidden under a lot of energy; naturally, she’s a cheerleader.
I always thought my youngest, my snuggle bunny, would remain close to me forever; after all, she slept in my bed for eons, stuck to me like glue through every up and down we’ve had in the past few years and she’s still the one I think of as my girl. I was worried enough about her anger and flare-ups that I called our family therapist and talked it over. “We used to be so close,” I said. “Like she was a part of my body. It felt so intimate. Now it feels like all she does is scream at me, even hate me.”
“But that’s intimate, too,” he said. “Learning to grow and change with another person is a very intimate part of a relationship.”
It took some time for me to process that kind of thinking, but it made sense, the more I mulled it over. Learning to be a mother of an infant was intimate, and scary. Watching her crawl, walk, and run, then ride a bike, a horse, jump in the deep end of the pool—all intimate and scary, but I learned along with her. Now that she’s stepping into her next phase, her adolescence, what are really the first steps toward adulthood, I have to learn again what it’s like to mother her a different way. I have to learn to let her go again.
The learning curve is long, but it arcs toward love. And that is scary as hell. Despite having two daughters before her, despite a divorce and rebuilding my life, despite heartbreak and loneliness and all our trials, I never knew until now that letting go was one of the most intimate of acts.