I’ve been noticing something interesting lately – something both difficult to mention and that I am trying to sort out. As my daughter reaches puberty, I am unconsciously pulling her onto my lap less, touching her less, yearning to hold her less. It is not intentional and as soon as I see it, I reach for her, overflowing with a need to be near her, to give her my love.
I’m aware – and comforted by – the fact that I can easily course-correct for this, by seeing all the Charlottes that make up this Charlotte, all the ages she’s been, from the imperious baby to the wild-haired toddler to the snaggle-toothed first grader, and of course – treasuring and loving this Charlotte, this winsome girl who composes love songs on the piano to her dog and who is constantly crafting up a concoction in the kitchen with her little bitten down painted fingernails. She is more a delight to be with and love now than ever before. So, noticing this makes me unbearably sad, because I don’t know where it comes from, what primordial vestige in my double helix has an urge to draw back just as my daughter reaches that first facsimile of womanhood. How strange evolutionary biology is, as much as we think our prefrontal cortexes rule the land.
This isn’t occurring with her twin brother, who still accordions himself neatly into my lap, whose little sweaty hand is right there for me to grab in a store, a parking lot. So why my daughter? My miniature me? Perhaps what I am pulling back from is not her, but what her growth and development tell me about myself.
I think about Sharon Olds, one of my favorites, and her poem “35/10”:
Brushing out our daughter’s brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.
This is not the only subtle retreat I’ve made. I think too about the ways I can unconsciously make the slightest half-turn away from other people in my world, energetically pulling away in a nearly imperceptible way, but only nearly. Whatever my unaware motive — self-protection or distraction — it’s so easy for me to scooch the heart back in, to fold my arms and recline rather than lean in. To keep my phone and all its flashing lights as a shield between me and noticing what is being said or felt within my radius. Most of all, it is so hard to stay curious – about what is happening, what someone else is feeling, what I am actually feeling. But it’s curiosity about this strange phenomenon between my fade and Charlotte’s bloom that is keeping me close to her, connected to her.
Other energetic half-turns away are harder to see. Sometimes it’s an attrition by the child-home vortex, like the way my husband can blur into a shadowy colleague at Parenting HQ or someone who’s closet space I could really use. Other times I am triggered in ways I can’t or am unwilling to see, usually by some perceived slight or a way I am brought up against my own insecurity and turn away in what feels like adult self-protectionism. Curiosity is the key. Without it, my heart is MIA. With it, I am always present.
On our way back from Disney World last week, a joyous, chaotic, exhausting, fun time, Steven turned to me on the plane and laughed about something our youngest had said. That whole week of our vacation, I had been having fun, but through the veil of thinking about rides and blood sugar levels and coordinating schedules. In that moment on the plane, however, I was truly curious – thinking to myself, “how is it this person and I have produced these three other persons, who are so complicated and ridiculous and hilarious and fussy and wonderful?” Truly wondering, questioning that. So when Steven turned just then all I saw was his laugh, his smile. I was present, briefly, for what was.
The truly curious questions bring us there, bring us to ourselves. Why is that? Why do you think that? How did that feel for you? What was that like for you? It’s so hard, isn’t it, to ask those questions when we are triggered or scared or angry. I have recently had two difficult conversations, one where there was space and willingness for those questions to be asked, and one where there wasn’t – and the outcomes and feelings were of course totally and completely opposite. Breathing enough space into our anger or fear to ask questions can set us free. And curiosity will break us open if we can relinquish control long enough to let it.
My daughter is trying on a lot of different sweaters right now. She’s trying out pushing away from me and then a moment later, pivoting to tell me I don’t spend enough time with her. In my more trying times (read: most of the time), it’s easy to be frustrated by both costume changes. I want to scream “I AM TRYING MY LEVEL BEST, DAMMIT!” because these reactions tend to come when there is something burning in the oven or I have a work call on mute. If I react with me in the fore, I always see it that way – why are you doing this to me? If I get curious to what might be going on with her, the whole room tilts and reorients, space and peace and light coming in from a new east-facing bay window. In those rare times, (read: one or two), I say, “hang on, Charlotte, I want to hear more about that. Would you give me five minutes and tell me how you are feeling?” And usually when I manage that, the tension between our competing needs magically dissipates.
But I find I have zero capacity to ask anyone else these questions if I can’t get curious with myself.
So, okay, how I am feeling? I am unnerved by Charlotte’s developing womanhood because I feel like I am still figuring out who I want to be in the world. I still feel exactly the way I did at 14 wearing my mother’s clothes, falling off my shoulders, at the high school open house just after she died (it felt a lot less pathetic at the time than it sounds now). I still feel like a girl myself. Or maybe about 27, when everyone I worked with called me, “The Kid,” or 32, when I was a new mother, or 36, when my bravery and resilience was tested. But not quite 41.
At a gathering among my in-laws, I asked all the women how old they truly felt. Twenty-eight, said one sister in law; 35 said the other; 52 said my mother in law. Their answers came instantaneously. I once asked the same of my great aunt, the one who was a daughter of an East Texas sharecropper, who wanted to be geologist and couldn’t, but still managed to get a college education in 1932. We had just had oatmeal with dates and she put her bowl down, stuck out her leg and leaned back with her hands behind her head – her customary “thinking pose.” “I feel 33,” she said without hesitation. “I look at this old woman in the mirror and I don’t know who she is.” She was 82 then.
Ursula LeGuin, ground breaking writer, wrote much of the same in The Wave in the Mind,
“I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was…. Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist…. But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.”
So ultimately, then, we have to get curious with our own selves. And curiosity necessarily begs compassion. I have to see and appreciate ALL of myself, ask of myself what’s going on, where am I, what am I needing, before I can then do the same for Charlotte, for anyone. There is no reason, logically, why the waxing of our children should indicate the waning of us. But somehow, it’s there in the unasked questions. We link ourselves to each other in sometimes unhealthy ways: my hurt = your digressions; my loss = your gain, when in fact, we are responsible for our own selves, only. And once I ground myself in that fact, I have greater capacity to lean forward to ask questions, to listen deeply.
I then claim so much space and strength to pull my daughter onto my lap, folding her long legs in, kangaroo style, her full weight nearly flattening me, and for just a minute nuzzle her like the baby she still is, marveling at the person she is becoming.