“Mommy, can I live with you forever?”
My 7-year-old daughter, Kaia, asks me this question at least once a week. She curls her long limbs into a tight ball in my lap, clasps her fingers around my neck, big blue eyes wide with fear, “I never want to leave you,” she says. “Can I always be your little girl?”
These moments never fail to bring a lump to my throat. I am enough of a realist to know her feelings will change. She will push me away. She will leave home, and my lap empty. And if I do my job well, she will soar without me.
The thought is almost too much to bear.
In this week’s New York Magazine cover story, “The Collateral Damage of a Teenager,” where the effect of children’s adolescence on parents is outlined in painstaking (and often heartbreaking) detail, Jennifer Senior writes:
“When prospective mothers and fathers imagine the joys of parenthood, they seldom imagine the adolescent years, which Nora Ephron famously opined could only be survived by acquiring a dog (“so that someone in the house is happy to see you”). Gone are the first smiles and cheerful games of catch. They’ve been replaced by 5 a.m. hockey practices, renewed adventures in trigonometry (secant, cosecant, what the—?), and middle-of-the-night requests for rides home. And these are the hardships generated by the good adolescents.”
I know it’s coming. Looming on the horizon, as menacing as the receding tide that precedes a tsunami, her teenage years.
If Kaia is anything like me, I’m in for a rude awakening. I remember epic wars with my own mother, the battle royal of my way versus hers. Her desire to protect clashed endlessly with my need to forge my own path. Our arguments often ended in tears, but it’s not my own that remain seared in my memory; it’s hers. I will never forget the times I made my mother cry. Oh, the power I could wield with my words!
I hate myself in those moments to this very day.
“These fraught dynamics,” Senior writes, “may explain why mothers, contrary to conventional wisdom, tend to suffer less than fathers once their children have left the home. Kate readily admits her relationship with her daughter improved once she went off to college. As Steinberg puts it: ‘Women’s personal crises at midlife do not come from launching their adolescents but from living with them.’”
Senior’s story, and all of her meticulously documented research, did not make me afraid. It gave me hope. Hope that I, too, will have epic rows with Kaia. That living with the teenage version of her will frustrate me and make me yearn for the day she leaves for college. Let those years offer some form of disconnect. Perhaps they’ll help me forget the little girl who didn’t ever want to leave home; the little girl who needed me to hold her hand when she was nervous, who was scared of dark places and being alone.
I need those years to prepare me.
To answer your question, Kaia, yes. You will always be my little girl. You will never be too old to snuggle safely in my lap. My arms will never stop reaching for you. I will still hold your hand whenever you are afraid. And your home will always be with here with me. But if (or rather, when) you choose to leave, please make it easy. Let’s have some epic battles. Make me cry. Go ahead and break my heart a little before you go, because otherwise I don’t know how I will say goodbye.
Eighteen years may not feel like enough time for either one of us today, but if all goes well, it will be. And we’ll both be ready. I have a feeling you’ll make sure of it.