On Heartache: A Total Moron’s Guide to becoming the Parent of a Preteen Girl

February 19, 2012

(A letter mostly to myself… as one of my children prepares to exit preteen purgatory, and the other one teeters on the brink…)

Part One:  Let the eye rolling begin, for it will.

There will be — if there has not been already — the shouting of “I HATE you” as she stomps, furious, down the hall and away from your awful self.  One morning you will discover, flushed with pride, that she is finally able to dress herself from head to toe and not leave a trail of lost items in her wake.  This late-childhood competence will unfold for about, say, five minutes, and then the next morning, she will commence pushing the boundaries she has just mastered, choosing to wear a short skirt and motorcycle boots to school.  She will dye her hair blue with Kool-aid on a play date (which is no longer called a playdate, you foolish mother.)  She will insist that she must be allowed to go by herself to Starbucks for a Frappucino, because absolutely everybody else gets to.

You are no longer always Mommy or Mama. “MOM,” she will sometimes call you, a caustic and new name you don’t recognize, pronounced with disdain rather than affection.  “You are SO MEAN,” she will sometimes rage, no matter how much generosity you have mustered that day.  Only she, she will insist, is being treated like a baby.  She will spit these words at you as you try to retain your composure.  Your lower lip may tremble, no-longer-Mama, as you remember that it was only weeks ago, or days, that she climbed into your lap for a snuggle.

(Just wait five minutes, you worst mother in the world:  it’s awfully likely that if you don’t shout back, “I hate you too,” or even if you do, that she’ll be back in not too long, needy as hell for a little reassurance.  She may even climb back into your lap.  Stranger things have happened.)

When preteen angst begins,  even her clothing will betray you both.  One day that shirt you both love so much looks sassy and adorable, and the next day she buttons it with a new intention, and it becomes just the tiniest bit sexy, horrifying you in ways you promised yourself you’d never be horrified.

These things will happen to you, you Total-Moron-to-be. I swear I am not making this up.  One day you will be her sun and her moon and even her reassuring nightlight.  The two of you, mother and child, will be more in love than you can possibly imagine.  The challenges of her toddlerhood behind you both, you will luxuriate in simpatico.  You will convince yourself you are a great mom, and she will positively agree.

She wants to be all that she imagines you are.

And then the next day you will wake up from a sounder sleep than usual, and that girl you loved is gone, replaced with another person who is much less loveable.  Who rolls her eyes and demands things from you and has somehow learned that icy glare you remember using on your own mother.  Who unleashes on you a torrent of verbal abuse, or sits in stony silence as you do something as dumb as asking about her day.

It’s not all day long, every single day, but the worst moments are just as unpleasant and unattractive as you might imagine.  But here is the real tragedy: you will love her, piercingly and insistently, no matter how cruelly she rejects you.  And this, my friend, is the definition of heartache:  being the same person you have always been as your beloved sails away, having decided that you no longer measure up.

The love we have for our daughters is different only in kind from the love we remember feeling for the romantic partners who crushed us in the past:  it is not even remotely different in intensity.  Heartache is heartache, and this kind hurts, too.

For when your daughter hits That Age, (sometime between the third and eighth grades) she will reject you. It doesn’t matter how many times you drive her to ballet or soccer or even the mall.  It doesn’t matter how many pairs of earrings you agree to purchase, or whether or not you get her a cellphone.  Whether you are Just Good Enough, or Mother-of-the-Year doesn’t matter.  She will find fault, and you will find yourself at odds with this person you created. If she’s always been a generally agreeable person, she will do this slightly more gracefully than most.  But no matter what you do, she will begin to pull away, and you will become the Total Moron you were destined to be the second the doctor said, “It’s a girl!”

It does not matter how many of her diapers you changed when she was a baby.  It does not matter whether you worked full-time to pay for her health insurance, or poked big fat holes in your resume by staying home to care for her.  When it gets to this crucial stage of parenthood, it doesn’t matter whether you bottle fed or breastfed, practiced Attachment Parenting or Ferberized with an iron will.  There is no way around the fact that she will come to hate you, if only for a little while that will feel like forever.

I wish I could say this differently. I should speak more softly, more gently.  I am writing this this mostly to myself as Grace has turned the corner and is heading up and out of this phase, and dear, sweet, perfect Abigail is poised to fall in. I probably shouldn’t even be posting this piece where the innocent mothers of equally innocent nine-year-old girls might stumble on it by mistake.  But there is hope in the next few  paragraphs, and the next few years. I promise.  If you’ve found yourself drawn in against your better judgment, keep reading, because it does in fact get better, and you have an important role to play.


Part Two: It gets better, just not right away.

Your relationship with your daughter will get worse — it almost has to in order for her to grow up — but then it will get better.

I know this because I have taught hundreds and hundreds of high-school and college kids, watching with pride as they emerge from their cocoons of self-imposed, developmentally appropriate, early-teen misery into young adults with talent, perspective and a sense of humor. I have watched their awkward physical development smooth out, and their coordination magically reappear.  I have watched their eyes light up when they re-discover the pleasure of reading and writing and thinking.   I have even watched them grow up, find partners and jobs and homes of their own, and begin having their own little babies who will later cruelly betray them.

So I know, for a fact, that my own lovely, smart, polite and self-assured daughters will come back to me, someday.  It’s just so hard to watch them march away, shouting over their shoulders that angry “I hate you” that really means, “Today I hate myself.”

She wants to get away from all that she imagines you are.

Why must a girl reject her Total Moron of a mother?  No matter what you’ve thought about the awful eyerolling of adolescent girls you may know, or watch on the sidewalks outside of middle schools, it’s not caused by bad parenting.  And they are not bad people.  Adolescent behavior, no matter how unpleasant, is a matter of human development.  At the cusp of adolescence, kids get exuberant, and noisy.  They get sullen and weepy and angry.  They get a taste of adult power and start to demand things when they should request.  They talk back, even the nice ones.

(And admit it:  you did this yourself.)

In order to grow, young kids need to connect to their parents — firmly and securely.  And then, older kids need to break those bonds and experiment with becoming independent.  They do this awkwardly at first, hence all the shouting and heartbreak. And since you are caught off guard in your heartbreak, you may be awkward as well.

The more firmly and securely your daughter connects to you in the first place, the more you’ll notice as she rips and tears and shreds your treasured bonds, throwing them in your face.

This unpleasant activity on her part does not mean she actually hates you.  It means that she hates being a child just enough to want to become an adult. And you are the most powerful reminder of the powerlessness she so hates in herself. “You are so mean,” nearly always translates “This life I have found myself within is utterly unacceptable, because I don’t yet know how to live it.” And as we know from our own life experience, the way we feel about life simply mirrors the way we feel inside.

I swear this pain is normal.  Healthy, even.  The school my children attend hands out guides to child development each year.  Written by an educator improbably named “Chip Wood,” these little tri-fold gems are called “Yardsticks,” and if you are so inclined, you can buy the whole set.  The one the deans handed out at the beginning of Seventh Grade read like an introduction to a book I didn’t particularly want to read, much less live through.  Chip told me, all in bullet points, that my child would become more assertive, but also more moody.  She would be easily frustrated, and either the victim or the perpetrator of an inevitable measure of social cruelty.  Even while she was becoming more competent with certain academic skills, she would make only awkward progress, and stumble a lot — literally and figuratively.

I read Chip’s cheery little brochure the same week that I began teaching middle school for the first time.  If you think mothers are prone to being crushed by adolescent rejection, try heading up a classroom of a few dozen of them all at the same time.  In my first few months, when I was brand new to them, and they had no idea whether or not I was a trustworthy adult, there was eye-rolling.  There was pretending-not-to-see-me when we passed inches apart in the hallway.  There was hair-flipping, selective listening, and cut-you-dead glowering, even among the students I have since learned to positively adore.  I am absolutely confident that when I was not around, I was called mean names that I did not deserve to be called.

There was also, and thank goodness, plenty of exuberance, enthusiasm, joyful craziness, and impressive academic work among my students.  Yes, they are awkward, but this too can be terrific: almost every day somebody sprawls on the floor in a very funny little heap that never fails to make me giggle.  They tell funny jokes.  They have amazing ideas about things, and often share them, despite the crushing self-consciousness that has enveloped them without warning like a thick fog that has yet to burn off.  And now, I am watching the eighth graders beginning to move through their preteen awkward hatred of adults and themselves, towards something more civil and likeable.  I’ve seen high-schoolers in person, and they are pretty terrific.  If you don’t believe me, ask Chip Wood.

If I focused only on my students’ eye-rolling and mistrust, I would have missed all of their wonderfulness.  If I took any of it personally, and allowed myself to feel the sort of heartache and rejection I can’t help but feel when my own daughters toss it my way, I would not only be miserable — I would also be of no use to them whatsoever.

Because this is what it means to be a good teacher, and a good mother, to adolescent girls.  It means to hold your own self together, to endure and be strong and be both firm and loving, so that you can be the adult they need you to be.  Even when it stings the most, we mothers and teachers have to be stalwart and certain in the boundlessness of our love and the firmness of our boundaries.

(And yes, that is the painful and nearly impossible paradox.  Boundaries secure, and love without end.)


Part Three: Your Job, and Hers.

You can’t allow yourself to be crushed or disheartened, because you still have your job to do.  For in the midst of your heartache, you and your almost-teenager daughter must stake out a battleground.  It might be over cellphones or ear-piercing, or nose-piercing, or tattoos.  It might be homework or boyfriends, or girlfriends, or clothes.  It will almost certainly be over money, as these newly-independent people have intense and unending desires and very few ways of generating cash.

As a mother and a teacher, I need to urge you, my fellow Total Idiots, to think very carefully about where you would like to draw the boundaries you will be willing to police.  My husband has a theory he calls “Keeping the battlefront far from the Capitol,” and by this he means that in our house we skirmish over little stuff, insistently and often, in an effort to keep the bigger adolescent problems at bay.  We don’t want let our fights over our kids’ independence to get bigger than we can handle. Thus, we hold the line over things like bedtime, homework and ear-piercing.  We do so even when our kids insist they are being treated “like babies,” and that other kids have later bedtimes and vastly more flexible rules about what they can watch, say, wear, and do to their bodies.  We hold the line on ear-piercing (not until you are 12, and only one hole per ear) because we can’t even fathom how we would handle requests for other sorts of body art.

My husband and I assert these boundaries because we are squares and cowards, but also because we love our children so damn much.  We hold the line on cellphone use and Facebook and picking up one’s room because frankly, we couldn’t handle the more serious battles that would inevitably emerge if we gave in on this lightweight stuff.  Give in on bedtime, and the fight becomes about curfew.  Give in on the cellphone , and they will want the iPhone.  And the iPad, and then something new that has not yet been invented but which somehow everybody else in their class already has two of. Adolescents swiftly find the edge of your tolerance, and then stand there, demanding more and more and more freedom.  So wherever you stake out the edge, that is where they will stand: shouting at you, glowering impatiently, and demanding you open the gates.  And your wallet.

In our view, it’s basically child abuse not to police the perimeter, for if you don’t keep them out of one sort of trouble, they will be driven to do another, worse sort.

So far, that’s the sum total of the wisdom I have acquired about how we total morons can get through the heartachy times that are sure to come. When I feel hatred blasting my way these days, I breathe, and I try to acknowledge the true source of the hate, giving back (mostly) love.  I fortify myself so I can hold the boundaries I am willing to defend.  I aim to find at least one way, every single day, to express my genuine appreciation for something human, independent, and wonderful that the children and teenagers in my life have done.  And, I look to other sources for reminders of my self-worth, because it is not the job of mine or anybody else’s children to make me feel good.

It is my job to hold the line and show the love.  It is only their job to grow.


T. February 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Oh, this kind of makes my heart hurt! My girl is seven. I carried her from the car into the grocery store today because she was tired and a little car sick and I thought at every heavy step how glad I was I could still carry her. My boy is ten, and getting so big. I see him stretching for more independence which is just as it should be and I try not to get bogged down in too much sentimentality about what has already gone by. But a little sentimentality is a good reminder to pay attention to what is wonderful about right now. This lovely, sweet, sad, thoughtful piece was, too. Thank you.

I never had a huge rift or parting of the ways with my mom, in part because of who we each were, but also because I think she was an absolute genius at knowing when to hang on and when to let go. I don’t know if I’ll be as good at that as she was, but I’m sure going to try.

Lindsey February 19, 2012 at 8:32 pm

I’m sure it does not surprise you that I read this with tears flooding down my cheeks. I will need to come back and read it, weekly, for the next many years. Thank you for being such a shining light in the darkness, an inspiration and a companion, a friend and guide. Thank you. xox

Alana February 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm

“It is my job to hold the line and show the love. It is only their job to grow.”

I think you might have summed up the entirety of parenting in two sentences. This is beautiful (thanks to Lindsey for pointing the way here). I’m years off yet but as I watch my 4.5 year old blossom in amazing ways, and think about which kindergarten she’ll go to in September, I am in awe at how quickly it has already gone. The days have often been long, but the years have been breathtakingly short.

Thank you for lighting the path ahead with candor, humor and love.

Eileen February 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Wow…your thoughts and your words are my experience exactly. LOVE this and will share with friends of 13 year old girls who are going through the horrible tearing-away experience as I am. Some days it is joy-filled, and some days not. Beautiful piece…

pia February 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I love the first 2 parts of this piece. I’d caution you a bit on the being strict on the little things approach. I had parents that did that and I saw it fail royally with both their daughters. It was 1) massively ineffective at failing to protect us from the types of harm they wanted to shield us from 2) caused not only a lot of anguish at the time but also long lasting damage to their relationships with us. Maybe war isn’t the best parenting metaphor.

Launa February 22, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Thanks — that’s great advice and gives me a lot to think about.

Katy Aisenberg February 24, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Thank you so much for the prescient reminder of why and how girls grow= and the lenths to which they test us so- it seems an inevitable dance, and sad. Conflicts of loyalties girls embody as they grown is an intense one…and hard to absorb vs react.

GailNHB February 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm

It is amazing how right you are, Launa. How very right! Mine are 18 and 15, and we are facing those ripping tearing moments now. I guess the homeschooling helped us postpone some of the stages of growth, angst, and separation issues.

I agree with the comment about adamantly holding your ground on the small stuff. That way of parenting contributed to what broke the relationships between my mom and all four of us. One HUGE difference is that my mother simply refused to talk about anything that was big or important, and instead poured all her fear and anxiety into keeping us from eating candy and missing church on Sundays. But I know that you do lots of talking with your beautiful daughters.

Please keep thinking and writing and warning us morons about how to be better parents.

Love you, my friend.
And miss you tons!

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