We’re in the middle of the tween years with my oldest daughter. Just like those tender newborn years, I’m finding that each milestone with my first born brings its own new set of joys and, of course, new challenges.
In some ways, these years are more perplexing to me as her mother because, unlike those baby days, I cannot fix everything. My presence isn’t enough to offer comfort for the things that upset her.
The thing about eleven and a half is that it is hard. The term “tween” gets thrown around with such cutesy abandon, but this in-between age the name is derived from comes with some “big feelings” (as my kids say) and that isn’t light and cute.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve said the wrong thing to her, given her the wrong advice, messed up in my approach, crushed her feelings when I meant to lift her up. There’s a learning curve to these years, and this rookie tween mother hasn’t mastered it.
It is a new road, for both of us.
I read a really great piece from The Huffington Post a few weeks ago about how fifteen isn’t the same for everyone. Growing up: 15 Comes in Many Sizes is the title of the article, and in it author Ann Brenoff talks about how her daughter is “young for her age” and why that is okay but causes some disconnect with her peers. “She’s in a spot now where many of her fellow high schoolers seem preoccupied with trying to look and act older than their years. And then there’s my daughter — solid in her own identity but feeling increasingly out of place.”
I see that with my tween, too. I think what surprised me the most about that is that I naively wasn’t expecting it at age eleven. I knew the day would come, of course, but in all honestly I thought we might have some time to go before we got there.
It is hard enough being the only homeschooled family on our block, being different from the neighborhood kids or the kids at church and from most of her relatives. Add in being a girl who loves coloring, comic books, and playing with dolls, and it can make you feel out of place.
Throw in a dash of increased discomfort in your changing body and … well, who can blame her for feeling a bit like a misfit sometimes?
What I want to tell her is that we are all misfits. Everyone single one of us has something about us which makes us stand out. The lucky ones eventually grow up to celebrate those differences, but not many tweens are that self-aware and secure. I know I certainly wasn’t. I’m not sure that I always am as an adult, either.
I believe in childhood, I believe in letting kids be kids for as long as possible, but that isn’t an easy stand to take in a society that pushes kids to grow up younger and younger, a social hierarchy where being a tween is the new teenager and teenagers are expected to be young adults.
For an eleven year old who still plays with her doll house and loves to dress up as her favorite super hero or Greek myths character, being that kid in a world that wants you to act older and implies that you are somehow “behind” your peers because you haven’t yet abandoned things that bring you so much happiness … well, it is confusing.
In some ways, as homeschoolers, we don’t have to deal with the pressure on the same scale as others do. But, we don’t live in a bubble and are in plenty of social situations. Mostly, the messages she receives are positive and accepting about the girl she is.
But sometimes …
Sometimes her enthusiasm for making doll clothes is meet with a comment about how dolls are “for babies.” Sometimes she feels awkward when a conversation about a comic book hero turns into a friend’s giggling about how cute the actor who plays the him in the movie is.
She is excited about a book she’s reading and a friend asks in sympathy, “why are you reading if you’re not in school? Is your mom making you?” and I can almost read her mind as she wonders if she’s a misfit because of what she loves.
I see the light in her eyes flicker for just a moment and the way her shoulders slump. The friend leaves and my daughter is quiet, preferring to be alone instead of hanging out with the rest of the family. Later, I innocently ask her how her book is and in anger my bookworm spits out, “reading is for nerds!” and I’m astounded by how fierce her words are.
The mama bear in me wants to cry out, “no, kiddo! Don’t you dare let them change you! It isn’t you, it’s them. You’re perfect just the way you are! Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up. The world will be there when you’re ready. Be the misfit! March to your own drum! Don’t let anyone rush you anywhere you aren’t ready to go!”
Sometimes I do tell her things like that and it helps. Sometimes I tell her that and it makes things worse.
I can’t remember eleven and a half very well, but I imagine that even if I could, the eleven and a half of 1984 is very different from the eleven and a half of 2013.
The thing about eleven and a half is that the waters are starting to get murkier, the path a little more twisty. And I can’t always tell her which way to go.
She’s old enough now to know that mom and dad aren’t perfect. She knows we struggle sometimes, she’s seen us make mistakes. We don’t have all the answers.
She also knows that this nest she’s grown up inside of her whole life, it isn’t the world. She knows where she fits in and she’s also aware of what makes her different, though the why’s are still confusing to her.
I’m in a very contemplative phase of life right now, taking on some “big feelings” of my own as I turn forty later this year.
There are parallels between the journey I see my oldest daughter taking and the path my own heart is on. On the cusp of my own changes, I can relate to her uncertainty, her wonder about just what it is she needs to hang on to and what it is she needs to let go of in order to move forward.
I’ll consider my job well done if I can get her to treasure the things about herself that make her unique, to survive these coming years and emerge on the other side with that thing that makes her so wonderfully her still intact.
Maybe the best way to do that is to make sure that I strive to keep what makes me me intact, too? Maybe the best way for us to navigate these tween years if for me to value myself at nearly forty so that she can value herself at nearly twelve?
I’m not sure, but it certainly seems worth striving toward. For both of us.
We’ll get there, kiddo. But let’s not be in a hurry, okay?