Anyone who has ever attempted a family vacation with a twelve-year old girl knows they are not for the faint of heart. In my earlier piece Mama Who Bore Me I wrote of weathering the storms of Liza’s moods on our trip to New York (culminating in the now famous “even the way you STAND makes me hate you..” moment in Times Square). And I recognize that asking an adolescent girl to be excited about a week in the mountains (where there is spotty cell phone reception at best and no cable) with her mom and step mom, when she could be home ensconced in her room with her iPod and phone is asking a great deal. But still, I had high hopes for this vacation. I envisioned us lying on lounge chairs reading our books by the pool, sitting on the deck in the morning sunshine or laughing over ice cream at a roadside stand. (You’ll notice not once did I envision us doing anything remotely athletic or outdoorsy. Hey, you can lead a horse to water..yadda yadda yadda…). And for the most part I have to say that this vacation delivered what I had hoped in terms of mother/daughter time, but on Liza’s terms not mine. I learned quickly that I couldn’t manufacture the perfect setting for the kind of Gilmore Girls bonding I had envisioned, but that I had to be ready to seize those moments when they were offered. But more on that later.
Entering this vacation I wasn’t sure what to expect and braced myself for pre-teen moodiness set on “high.” My calls up to the loft space she had taken over were met equally with sullen “WHAT?”s , as they were with upbeat “yeah mom?”s. The little girl who it seemed just a minute ago needed me to fix ponytails, and pick out her clothes and hold her hand had been replaced by a young woman who shooed me away, walked paces ahead of me, and effortlessly twisted her hair into complicated up-dos. She hung out on her own while Kelly and I took an evening walk (or truth be told darted into the village for a margarita), she stayed up after we went to bed and slept later. Memories of vacations with Liza as a toddler and little girl flooded me: getting up at 6am with her on a Cape Cod trip when she was two and walking bleary-eyed on the beach as the sun came up; returning to our room each afternoon on a Disney trip when she was four so she could nap; her nine-year old hand clutching mine as waited out a thunderstorm in a wigwam at Plimoth plantation. She seemed suddenly older than even the girl we had brought to New York City two months earlier. I simultaneously rejoiced in the new freedoms this trip brought me while wishing just once for that little girl to need me once more.
Early in our trip I tried to broach the subjects of her upcoming transition to a new junior high, or the exciting challenges and opportunities that would face her in the summer teen theater program she had been admitted to. But she shut me down, blocked me out, dove underwater, or walked away, wanting none of my good intentions. On a trip to a local water park she insisted on placing her beach chair two chairs away from ours. She alternately reveled in our company, her ‘in-jokes’ with Kelly (oh how they love to gang up on me!), and laughed at our adventures in navigating the back roads of Sugar Hill looking for a local cheese shop (it’s all about the food people, all about the food). Looking at her across the dinner table one night I remarked that she was so much more confident and so much prettier and pulled together than I was at twelve (with my toughskin jeans, bad Dorothy Hamill haircut and acne). I should have known better. “Stop it momma, stop it, you have to say that you’re my mom,” was the reply. But later that same night she asked if we could go for a walk, and by now I had learned enough to just shut up and listen while she talked. And talk she did, of fears and worries, of triumphs and failures. When we returned to the condo she asked if we could “keep talking” out on the porch. Kelly had long since gone to sleep. We covered boys and grades, her feelings of shyness around the girls at the resort pool who wore teeny binkinis on their skeletal bodies, we even covered Method acting versus Meisner techniques. “Careful what you wish for,” I thought to myself as I envisioned the sun coming up in the morning while Liza continued talking. But you couldn’t have dynamited me off of that porch that night. She asked questions, I answered, she challenged, I countered, and while I’d love to say the evening ended like a very special episode of Blossom, there was no grand lesson, no resolution, for how can there ever be resolution in the world of a twelve year old girl standing on the threshold of a new beginning. There will always be new questions, new fears, new worries. But as we made our way inside to finally go to sleep I wrapped Liza in a hug so fierce it scared me. I expected her to squirm away with her trademark “MOM!” but she didn’t. For one second her head (on top of her 5’6” frame!) rested on my shoulder the same way that two-year old head had done our mornings on the beach a decade ago, and from deep within the folds of my sweatshirt she muttered ‘thanks mom.’ And then she was gone upstairs to her dvds and cell phone once again.
Parenting an adolescent girl is not for the faint of heart and I have failed more times than I can count – sometimes multiple times in one day – to rise to the occasion. But in that moment on the porch I was given the gift of being assured that every once in a while I can get it right.
About a year and a half ago in my essay “The Anxious Parent” I wrote about my experience in the early days of parenting. I wrote about how I was sure that my anxiety over not having the first clue about how to be a mom was the main reason I had given birth to a child with anxiety and what’s it’s been like to navigate that path. Recently one of those parenting studies I avoid like the plague came out with a report that mothers who worried when they were pregnant were likely to give birth to children who worry. Well isn’t that just fabulous? More proof that I did this to my own daughter. Awesome.
Here’s the thing though. In my heart I know that study is right. I worry. I worry obsessively, compulsively, and every single day. Winter is the peak of my yearly worry cycle. I worry about snow. I worry about driving in snow. I worry about calling into work when I don’t want to drive in snow and being mocked for my fear. I worry about the ice on my roof that two years ago backed up into my house, soaked my rugs, ruined my paint and caused two months of sheer upheaval. Tonight as a friend and I inspected the mammoth icicles on my roof I felt the panic in my chest as the worry cycle began. I ate dinner without tasting it, I vaguely realized Kelly was asking me if I’d like to watch a movie on TV. And I checked and re-checked the carpets in our bedrooms for those tell tale first signs of water that would signal the ice dams return. I recognize it, I know what it is, and I can’t stop it. I used to go through similar worry cycles during summer thunderstorms. Ironically it was becoming a mom and having to hold and comfort my daughter that helped me face that particular worry but I still feel that tightening in my chest when that first streak of lightning goes across the sky.
I hate this about myself. But more than anything I hate that somehow I have given this to my child. This year I’ve seen two good friends welcome adorable babies to their families. One of my friends has quite possibly the most good- natured baby daughter in history, my other friends (two moms) have a smily and cuddly little boy. And what these moms have in common is that they are all tremendously calm. So calm and serene and happy in their new parenthood that while 99% of me rejoices for them and these babies that were so very wanted and so very welcome, 1% of me is so jealous that that couldn’t have been me. That I couldn’t have rocked my baby beatifically and boasted of her sunny nature. I’m not blaming Liza. I’m blaming me, as more and more I understand that this young woman who worries about stomachaches and wind storms is my walking talking legacy. I worried through her infancy, her toddler-hood and most of her school years. I don’t think I relaxed for the first decade of parenthood. Kelly would say I still haven’t relaxed.
Now I’ve been in theater since I was 8 years old. And even if my gray hair and old, fat body prevent me from being cast as much of anything anymore, I’m still a pretty fair actress. And one thing I can do best is act like I’m not worried. I mask my worry in public, with my co-workers, with my friends. I use humor, I use sarcasm, I make fun of myself, or I retreat into myself, anything to hide how far gone I am down the worry trail. Only Kelly and a very few close friends have ever seen the extent of my worry and how far it can go. I remember my ex -husband patiently understanding when I would go sleep in the hallway during a thunderstorm so I would be away from windows and seeing the lightning. I will forever be grateful for the way he accepted that this was something that I just couldn’t fight. And having Kelly by my side has done more to help me work through this than I can ever say.
I wish I wasn’t this way. I wish I were brave. I wish I could handle the curveballs of winter and weather with aplomb. I wish I could embrace life and show my daughter how to move beyond her own worries. But lately I’ve realized that while my anxiety may have rubbed off onto Liza, her new maturity and her new bold steps toward the next phase of her life are rubbing off on me. As she conquers her worry with hard work of her own she’s showing me how to conquer mine. I can’t go back in time and erase the years we lost to the worries that consume us, but maybe the two of us can guide each other to a calmer future. Maybe. In the meantime, I’ll try not to worry about it.
A dear friend and her husband just welcomed an adorable baby girl to the world and are happily embarking on the adventure of parenthood. As I look at her photos of that teeny baby snuggled and cuddled and loved and coo-ed over I feel that tug that so many moms of older kids feel. That “where did the time go?” feeling. And of course my friend is now hearing what all moms of newborns hear, “don’t blink or you’ll miss something!” Or “you watch, you’ll blink and she’ll be grown!” I steal a glance at my 11-year old sprawled on the couch in her pajama shorts and tank top, fully engulfed in a Lady Gaga video and ponder that parenting phenomenon known as “The Blink.”
Now let me make something clear. I am not one of those sentimental moms that saves every lock of hair, charts every milestone, and has saved every school project or drawing in a colorful bin labeled ‘precious memories.” I’ve chronicled on these pages before that I have never been a great mom and at times never even been a good mom. But even I was blindsided by The Blink. I started thinking about The Blink the other day when trying to remember what summer we took Liza to Storyland. It was then I realized that I don’t think in years. Rather, I think in terms of what grade she was in, what dance recital or play she was doing at the time, but rarely, if ever, by how old she was or what year it was. Looking at a photo of Liza at the pool the summer we moved to my condo I struggled to think how old she had been and was stunned to realize she was just five. FIVE ! A lifetime ago! Yet, at the same time, a mere blink in the endless cycle of back-to-school shopping, Christmas concerts, Easter masses, and Fourth of July fireworks that make up our lives. Here’s the thing, I don’t really remember Liza being any specific age except for four, because that’s the year we first took her to Disneyworld and also the year my marriage ended. (Ok, I also remember the year she was 9 if only because it was a singularly difficult year for both of us and I wasn’t sure we were going to survive it intact). But ask me what she was like at 7 or 3 or 5 and I’ll look at you blankly and then I”ll do my “let’s see…7..that would have been um… 2nd grade? The year she did Jungle Book? Or was she 8 when she did Jungle Book? Hmmmm….” routine.
Here’s my next confession. I vividly remember Liza’s birth, but I don’t remember much about the long hot summer that followed other than my complete inability to effectively parent an infant. And the toddler years after that? One big blur. I was blessed with the world’s greatest daycare providers who surrounded Liza with love and support and guided her through those first steps, toilet training, and her ABCs. To some moms I know this is seen as abandoning my child, for me, it gave me the support network I needed. I didn’t take to motherhood easily. It blindsided me. I was ill-equipped to deal with long days on the toddler swings, nap schedules and Barney. My personal life at the time was troubled and I wasn’t present physically or emotionally in the way I should have been, I call them the lost years. This gap in time is not helped by the fact that I possess photos of Liza as an infant and scores of photos of her from ages 5-11 but nothing from ages 2-4. I think I left those photo albums at her dad’s house – and rightfully so as he should have his share of photo memories of her. But that lack of a visual record does make it hard for me to remember what she was like. It’s almost as if I went straight from that squalling irritated infant to the tween I just bought size 9 adult ballet slippers for. From folding onesies to picking up a tank top in the laundry and wondering if it belonged to the girl or to me. From preparing bottles for her at 2am to asking her to refill my coffee while she’s in the kitchen. From holding hands with a little girl on the beach, to putting my arm around a young woman nearly as tall as I am. The Blink happened.
As I smile as I read my friends exuberant Facebook posts about those heady early days of motherhood, yet my heart aches a little for the baby Liza was and for the kind of intuitive mom she never had. I love being around new babies, I love holding them and smelling that awesome new baby smell and seeing those little faces so full of promise of the world ahead of them and I love seeing those new moms so in love with them and so sure that they will memorize each moment, that they won’t be a victim of the Blink. I look at Liza and search for reminders of her chubby toddler face where the blasé face of a confident young woman now lives. I stop her suddenly in the supermarket and kiss the top of her head so fiercely she pulls away from me with a horrified “MOMMMMM!” I can’t bring that toddler back, that 5, 8 or 10-year old back nor, honestly, would I want to. Liza has grown into a young woman whose company comforts me, whose humor delights me, and whose talent humbles me. But in this moment when I feel that I finally have a handle on this whole mom thing, I hold on to my 11 year-old with all my might because I know. I know soon she’ll be gone on her way to a future bigger than we can imagine. And I’ll be wondering when I blinked.