In the midst of the craziness of day-to-day parenting, sometimes we have moments that force us to pause and experience some strange mix of awe and gut-wrenching fear. A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those moments as I sent my oldest daughter off on the bus for our school district’s “Transitions” program.
Emma, you see, is heading to high school. Those words cycle through my brain and strike a numb feeling across my chest, as if I have just lost my breath. Then I take a deep one. Exhale. We’ve made it this far.
Oddly enough, it reminded me of the time a friend handed me a photo of Emma in her dancing costume years ago. I gasped. I wanted to say, “Wait, there’s been a mistake. That’s not my daughter.” But it was. She was beautiful in her blue costume and tutu, kneeling, hands crossed, one shoulder lifted, as if to hint at the joy of being a little girl. A big smile spread across her little face. Shades of the woman she might be someday.
I hardly recognized her.
When I think of Emma, then five, I think of her thick mane of strawberry blonde hair tussled and blowing freely as she ran and bounced around. Hair that I brushed into a shining golden beauty, which lasted about two seconds. I think of her dirty face that I washed eight or nine times a day. Her teeth that I was constantly after her to brush, her hard-to-keep-clipped, let alone clean, finger nails. She was the wind and the earth all wrapped into a big, messy wonderful little person. So to see this other version of Emma, perfectly coiffed, startled me.
And in some ways she is still more wind and earth than perfectly polished at age fourteen. I only see traces of that girl now. She is somewhere in-between, slipping through my fingers one minute. The next she is crawling into bed with me to cuddle.
These days she is more concerned with her appearance. I don’t have to “make” her brush her teeth or her hair. She sits in front of the mirror for long periods of time, primping.
Of course, she is so much more than what she looks like. I want her to know that. I want her to celebrate who she is every day even though I know that is an optimistic order in today’s world. I want it so much for both of my girls. But I guess I worry about it more in Emma. She is my sensitive one. There’s not a mean bone in her body. When her sister Tess used to take swats at her, Emma ran to me and hid behind me. She has veiled this characteristic with a tough girl attitude all the way through middle school. But I know her native sweetness is in there, underneath the skinny jeans and combat boots.
And so I worry about what the world will do to my oldest daughter. I think about it every day, more and more, with each step she takes. I try to point out to her that it is a good thing to be sensitive and nurturing, but we need to be careful where we place our hearts. I think she understands—well, as much as a fourteen-year-old can.
For some, high school is the pinnacle of our lives, shaping us in ways we try not to think about. For me, an outsider in high school, I couldn’t wait to finish, leave the area, and get started with my life elsewhere. But in many ways, I’m still an outsider. I struggle to find my place on the planet after years of painful letdowns and broken hearts. I’ve donned my tough-girl attitude to make it through rocky times as well.
I see shades of myself in E. It can be hard to see yourself in your children—they are almost like little mirrors, giving glimpses of ourselves as we struggle to understand it all.
I used to think the toddler days were like the Olympics of parenting —days of runny noses and diapers and poop on the floor and one more cup of milk, and, God help me, macaroni and cheese again for dinner. So many days I thought, if I can just get through this, it will be okay. Tomorrow will be easier.
I’ve reached one of my tomorrows. Is it simpler? In a way, it is, in that Emma pretty much takes care of her physical self. I am no longer responsible for brushing her teeth and unruly hair, for example, and I don’t have to worry about her sticking an electrical cord in her mouth. Or something. But I can’t afford the lull of a false sense of security now that she’s a bit older. The dangers and heartaches are still there—prevalent—but in a very different way.
Sometimes I’m excited for her and confident that she will be fine. We will be fine. We will get through shopping for the proms and homecoming dressess, the heartaches and the joys of dating, and the academics and everything that goes with that. We will be fine. Other times, I’ll ignore my racing heart, my feeling that time is slipping away too fast, and simply try not to panic.
But then again, just yesterday Emma asked me if she could put petroleum jelly in her ears because they felt itchy. “No,” I said. “Don’t put anything in your ears!” I think it’s safe to say she’ll be needing me for many years to come.