I watch my kids navigate the shifts and changes that accompany the strange, new world of adolescence. As a parent, it is both a blessing and a curse. I have the distinct privilege of having been on both sides. I was once just like them, with limited experience and raging hormones, and now I am the adult and mother. I know their tween and teen years will be filled with exciting firsts, because I’ve been there.
The first kiss, crush, breakup, and failed friendship will be here before they know it. Each and every first will be both an important milestone and a lesson. These moments of wonder and awe, heartache and disappointment—these are the moments my kids will recall when they become adults and look back on their own childhoods as I now do with mine. While I have long since passed my firsts, I want my kids to know that I understand and remember those defining moments, even now that they no longer seem so important because I’m an adult with bigger problems—bills, student loans, a mortgage, and kids to raise. Maybe if my kids see that I went through the same things myself, it will make it easier for them.
I vividly recall one of my big firsts—the first big breakup. It happened during freshman year after six long months with my first “real” boyfriend. I walked through the streets of my town crying while Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” blasted into my ears with an angst that reflected my own. The Walkman was jammed deep into the pocket of my ripped-on-purpose jeans, and I wore my ex-boyfriend’s sweater which still gave off a powerful aroma of his Obsession cologne, the one I bought him for Christmas. The pain was raw and real and devastating. My world had broken apart.
Later that day, I told my mother about the breakup. Her response was neither understanding nor compassionate. Instead, she bluntly told me to put my chin up and stop my crying, because life goes on. It wasn’t what I needed to hear. I don’t think it’s what any young kid who has just had their heart broken needs to hear. At that moment, I vowed that I would handle things differently when I had children of my own.
Looking back, I now realize that my mother’s advice was not meant to be mean. I know she thought she was helping. I think she had simply forgotten what it felt like to go through that first agonizing heartbreak. She had forgotten that miraculous, fluttery feeling of a first crush or the sweaty palms and dizziness that accompanied the very first kiss. If she had remembered, I imagine her response would have been more empathetic. Like so many adults who get caught up in life, she had lost the feeling of what it was like to be young, vulnerable, inexperienced—to be innocent enough to be led wholly by emotion, by the heart.
That moment, like so many in my adolescence, became a lesson. I decided I wouldn’t forget any of it—the pain, the joy, and the wonder of each moment. I would look back to these memories when my kids come to me. I would use my own experiences, not as a panacea for their adolescent ills, but rather as a beacon to guide them. I want to have the kind of empathy for my children that I wish I could have received when I was their age. I want them to remember the importance of compassion, and I hope they are able them hold on to their memories, as I have, when they someday have children of their own.
I vow to be prepared to help, to listen, and to hold. In some way, I suppose I will not only be doing it for them, but for me. I will relive and retell all of my firsts with my children in the hopes that I can make theirs a little less painful and a bit more joyful. As a 40-year-old woman with the benefit of hindsight, I have the knowledge that someday these firsts may mean little to them—but I also know that they mean everything now.