A Mom’s Middle-School Angst
Letting a child flirt with failure may help her succeed
My daughter, 11 years old, loves to cook and bake. I stand behind her in the kitchen, watching as she clumsily cuts carrots with a scary-sharp knife.
I remind myself to say nothing, to only jump in if I sense imminent danger. But willpower has never come easily to me.
“Can I show you how to hold the knife?” I ask. “Watch your fingers. It’s easier if you …”
And then the sigh, the eye roll.
“I’ve got it, Mom. I’ll be fine, Mom.”
I zip it.
Not so long ago, I had the ninja-like reflexes required for life with a toddler — catching a cup of milk before it was knocked off the table, covering a table’s sharp edges right before a little girl’s forehead grazed it. Now those reflexes must adjust to the changing landscape.
The parental instinct to swoop in to prevent disaster must stop. I have to let my middle-school daughter flirt with failure, try the impossible, risk getting hurt in body, heart, and mind.
I want to shield her from everything, but that’s not smart or possible either.
We let her walk the dog by herself around our New York City neighborhood. I’m simultaneously proud and panicked.
“Do you want me to talk to my friend whose daughter goes to your new middle school to get any insights?” I ask her at one point.
“No,” she says. “Why would I want to give myself stuff to worry about?”
I can’t argue with this reasoning, especially when I realize I’m the one who wants to know what to expect, not her.
“I want to do more things on my own,” she says.
So we let her walk the dog by herself around our New York City neighborhood. I’m simultaneously proud and panicked. I know she has to learn to navigate the world by herself — to cross streets without the security of me standing behind her, to meander around a bit and still find her way back home.
I remember it well, being 11 years old and wanting nothing more than to be left alone. I was so grumpy in the morning and my mom was so cheery.
It’s the way I learned how to be alone in the world. It’s the way we all do. Yet I still yearn to be there to tell her when to turn right and left, when to go and when to stop.
If there is anything that will drive a tween to stone-faced, dagger-eyed silence, it is that: the mother who cannot let go.
I remember it well, being 11 years old and wanting nothing more than to be left alone. I was so grumpy in the morning and my mom was so cheery. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, to get to school, where my friends understood me and I could do my own thing. I wasn’t a child who wanted to feel nurtured. I was a completely self-absorbed tween who desperately wanted to grow up but didn’t quite know how to do it.
And so with my daughter, I’m learning that she yearns for me to do less but be more. She needs my presence but not my actions. She doesn’t want me to do for her, but she definitely wants me to notice when she does things on her own.
Your most precious gift is not yours to keep. I am needed less, and needed differently.
She also needs me to listen more than she needs me to talk. I’ve found this is the best way to get her to listen when it’s my turn to say something.
Letting go, as necessary as it is, makes my heart hurt. With every inch of space she takes up on that bed, she is moving farther away from me. She’s growing, she’s changing, she’s moving, she’s going.
I think back to the days when she would cry hysterics if I left the room. Now I’m the one who catches a sob in my throat as she confidently leaves the house. I’m the one who wants to hold on long past the time to say good night.
The separation anxiety is mine, and just as she did with me when she was an infant, I need to trust that what goes out into the world will come back.
Your most precious gift is not yours to keep. I am needed less, and needed differently. The necessary transition benefits us both. As she is growing into a young woman, I am growing into an experienced mom.
I fret less about the little things — What kind of milk is she drinking? How many cookies did she have? — and more about the big stuff. Will she find her place in this mad, crazy world, and will it be a happy one?
Worries about our kids don’t go away. They just change. And the best way to keep her close is to let her go.