The Bitter Sweetness of Thirteen
I have to confess something few people know. For most of my daughter’s life I’ve been a reluctant mother.
It’s not that I got pregnant as a teenager, knocked-up after a wild night of debauchery, or stumbled into any of the typical, tragic unexpected motherhood situations so popularized in the tabloid news. I was “raised right”. I was responsible. I was married for five years before I ever in my life got pregnant, even though we weren’t trying. And in theory, we wanted kids. It was the “in practice” part I struggled with.
No, I was not reluctant because motherhood was thrust or forced upon me at a tender or inconvenient age. It’s just that it was never my calling, and I did have a calling. From a very early age I longed to be a writer. I had bigger plans than mommyhood: novels, travel, money, and fame—maybe even transformed hearts and minds. In my wildest dreams, a legacy that would last the ravages of history.
Plus, being a mother never looked like much fun. Whether watching my own mother or the moms of my friends, it didn’t seem like motherhood was a very satisfying, easy or meaningful (in any kind of big, outer-world way) path. As the oldest of four kids, I witnessed my parents fulfill classic 1950s era roles—mom stayed home, cooked, cleaned and raised the kids, and dad went to the office every day. With four, mom had her hands full. Imagine this juxtaposed against my daily viewing of Oprah, then just getting started in Chicago where I lived, rapidly ascending to super-womanhood and you
I mean my parents neither disrespect nor blame—they were products of their times and choices both. But I had choices my mother never did, and to me, it sure looked like dad (and Oprah) was having a hell of a lot more fun. So I went to college, got a degree in Communication, and started a career. A few years later, I married the fascinating man I’m still married to today. Despite the glass-ceiling breakthroughs of baby-boomer women in the generation preceding me, I had a hard time seeing how working motherhood would work. Marriage, sure, but throw a kid in the mix? I knew it was possible, but was it desirable?
Not to me. Alas the universe conspires, and I got pregnant anyway. I’ll skip the subconscious self- psycho-analysis that is probably the reason why (or you can add your own in comments below) and just tell you that nine months later, our daughter Alexandra was born.
For someone who didn’t really want a kid, I hit the jackpot. Got exactly what I, having accepted the reality of my pregnancy, dreamed of: a little red-haired clone of myself, her looks significant because thanks to my husband’s dark Latin features I thought I didn’t have a prayer of producing offspring that resembled me in the least.
She was a great baby, pre-schooler and child. No sleeping or eating issues. Never had any serious health problems. Smart, athletic, funny and pretty. Willing to let us drag her along on our many international sojourns, and often by the end of them, dragging us! She was, and is, truly a blessing.
This year Alexandra turned thirteen.
Thirteen: the age that strikes fear, dread and foreboding into the hearts of many teenage daughter’s parent. I, however, had quite a different if not ironic experience.
Around the time of Alexandra’s birthday earlier this year, reading this post by Ann Handley made me nostalgic for my daughter even though she’s several years away from leaving the nest. Already I’m getting a whiff of that sidelined feeling Anne writes about. Then I realized why. The sidelining slowly happens from the moment our kids are born.
For those of you reading this who are not parents, for women especially who are not mothers but may be contemplating that journey, know this. When you produce the next generation of life, an instinctive, innate realization kicks in about your own life: It’s not about you anymore. It’s about, at the most basic level, ensuring the survivability—and thrive-ability—of your future generations.
Of course, intellectually you’re not going to want to swallow that. You’re not ready to sideline yourself, throw in the towel on your life’s dreams at age twenty, twenty-five or thirty. But, psychologically and instinctively you know those dreams are second fiddle to the needs of your child. Yes, you can have both, but when push comes to shove (especially for women) good luck fighting 50,000 years of human evolutionary instinct.
It was no different for me. It was so easy to blame failures or lack of action on the demands of motherhood, and while many of those demands are time-consumingly real, many are also an excuse to take yourself out of the game before you should. Especially if motherhood wasn’t the game you wanted to play in the first place.
Now, I sit at this strange tipping point of parenthood that is age thirteen. For the first time, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You spend all those years beforehand trying just to get the hang of this mommy thing, pushed to the brink and waiting, hoping and praying for your kids to get older so it will finally get easier. Then the minute it does, that first glimpse you have of the end of the road of ceaseless daily care and obligation, mental and physical; of the end of time when your child will cease to be a child dependent on you, you realize your own impending obsolescence and long for nothing more than hold on to them. To go back.
On the brink of girlhood and full-fledged teenager, my daughter at thirteen is a precious and fleeting thing. I wish I could freeze her right now. There’s a richness and innocence to her that won’t last. She’s old enough to truly hurt or disrespect me, yet young enough to forgive and forget five minutes later. She’s child one minute (playing with her four-year old cousin’s toys), young woman (shopping the mall) the next. She’s also a welcome mix of self-sufficiency and dependency with a healthy dose of curiosity and daring thrown in. I find myself soaking up every last minute of innocent girlhood I can get my hands on, while the next moment laughing at an adult joke with her.
I finally have the best of both worlds, and there lays the irony. My motherhood reluctance has evaporated only to be replaced with a tender longing for what is slowly slipping away, what I thought I didn’t want in the first place. Can time stop for a while? I asked but it said no. Then it laughed as I tasted the bitter sweetness of thirteen.
The tipping point is particularly marked for parents of only children like me. Parenting an only child is a “one and done” scenario—with one kid, there’s but one uninterrupted, non-overlapping linear experience of parenthood. You don’t get to do it again, or do it differently with the next kid, or balance it among multiple kids. There’s a concentrated purity of mothering just one child that, like a marble sculpture lovingly honed over many years, is both delectably rich and achingly poignant. Like drinking a 1982 Chateau Lafitte Rothschild or sampling the finest jamón ibérico, it is entirely possible to simultaneously savor the experience and grieve its instantaneous passing.
Yes, bittersweet indeed.