I would hope that my knowledge and experience and proof that “you can live through this” are helping guide my daughter, E., through this tumultuous period—but seriously, is there a tween girl in the world who actually thinks her mother knows best?
1. Shopping for My First Bra
I can still remember the tiny Lord and Taylor dressing room like it was yesterday. Soft lighting, the Muzak coming through the speakers while a short older woman in a sensible skirt and bifocals, reeking of Giorgio perfume, measured and pulled at me while my mother stood outside yelling, “How’s it going in there?” I felt like a trussed-up turkey, poked and prodded and totally exposed every time the saleswoman whisked the curtain back so she could return to the sales floor again and again to get me a “more appropriate size.” “Is anyone going be able to tell I’m wearing this?” I asked with terror.
I relive all of this as E. and I walk into Justice to purchase her first bra. The scenery may be different—the lights are blinding, the air reeks of One Direction You & I Eau de Parfum, and Taylor Swift loudly shakes it off on the speakers over our heads—but the same feelings are there. I feel like I am torturing her, and she’d probably agree. Remembering how awful bra shopping was for me, I try my damnedest to be gentle and calm with E. “It’s too tight,” “I hate this,” “It’s itchy. It pokes me,” she wails through the dressing room door. “I know it’s awkward,” I whisper, managing to keep the curtain fully closed every time we have to exchange items. After 45 minutes, we are both hot and agitated and finally settle on a more sports bra-like item rather than a full-blown hook-and-clasp bra, and a few loose-fitting tops. We leave the store exhausted, but triumphant.
2. Mean Girls
When my sixth-grade BFF Brooke Traynor decided one day she didn’t want to be my friend anymore, it hurt beyond description. I had no way of knowing at the time that this freeze-out would only last a week and that her reasons for dropping me had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her and her preteen emotions. Every time I walked into the cafeteria, she’d drop her LeSportsac onto the chair next to her and pretend she didn’t see me. It was the longest week of my life.
Because I’d survived such mean-girl assaults—the memory of Patty Vanhaven taking my new rainbow-colored sunglasses on the bus during a Girl Scout trip to Washington, D.C., and making fun of them before tossing them from scout to scout is still fresh in my mind—I figured I’d be able to handle it when it happened to E., to coach her and guide her and stand back while she handled the conflict on her own. So when E.’s bestie started acting weird, ignoring her and leaving her out of things, I was unprepared for the wave of emotions that overtook me. It not only took me right back to sixth grade, it ripped my heart out to see my daughter so sad over something I knew was going to be temporary.
The adolescent in me wanted to call her friend’s mother, to call the friend myself, to say mean things about her, like, “She’s not as pretty as you,” or “Remember how she fell when we went ice skating?” Thankfully, the rational adult in me did none of the above. Instead, I told E. the best way to handle the situation was the same way she deals with Chloe, the cat. When she grabs at Chloe and chases her and locks her in her bedroom to play with her, the cat runs away. When she ignores the cat and plays with the iPad, the cat jumps right into her lap.
Things seem to be on the mend with E.’s friend (for now), which is great because it frees up time for …
3. Preteen Boys
I cringe to recall those awkward minutes of silence that felt like hours when Andrew Richardson would call me every day after school in fifth grade. It was both exciting: “A boy is calling me!” and embarrassing: “Why is a boy calling me? Am I supposed to even like boys?” We had nothing to say to each other, yet we had no idea why we both didn’t want to hang up.
Navigating the world of preteen boys wasn’t easy or comfortable when I was 11, and I get the same queasy feeling when I hear E. and her crush’s FaceTime conversations echoing through the house. “What are you doing?” Jeffrey asks for the fifth time in a row as E. giggles and prattles on about how Chloe is being annoying. I wince when she asks him, “Do you like sitting on the floor during Media?” and he nervously mumbles, and then they’re both silent for minutes at a time. E. tells me Jeffrey is her “boyfriend”—this means they walk together between classes and sit near each other at lunch. I can’t tell E. how to talk to boys or why they do what they do (I don’t think I have this figured out yet, and I’m 45). It seems like she has it figured out for now, but I just know if I write this type of list again in a few years, “Reliving First Heartbreak” will be the first item.
4. The Talk
I don’t know whose face was redder when I sat down with E. a few months ago and said, “As you get older, you are going to start to notice changes, and I would like to talk to you about some of them today,” but I do know I was sorely mistaken when, at 10 years old, I felt certain there was nothing more excruciating in the world than being on the receiving end of this conversation. For my own awkward Talk, my mom gave me a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and we had a quick chat about “what happens when a boy and a girl are married and in love.” I was mortified and couldn’t even look up once to meet her eyes.
E. reacted pretty much the same way. “So there are some things that happen when you grow into a young woman,” I fumbled. “Mom!” E. screeched, squeezing her eyes shut. She’d already had a couple of health classes that addressed these issues, not to mention friends with older siblings preparing her for our one-on-one, but none of this made the Talk any easier or more comfortable for either of us. I muddled through, telling her I wanted this to be an ongoing conversation between us and that she could always talk to me and ask me anything she wanted. Now I just wonder what she’ll ask me, and when.
Breakouts? Check. Emotional roller coaster rides due to hormone changes? Check. Body changes? Check. Time of the month? Almost check. I am on this tween girl crazy train once again—a second puberty! I take it day by day and just try to be as sensitive as possible.
This means that I do not, as an older aunt once did to me, make statements like, “Look at your bubbies, they’re getting so big.” In fact, I do not call out any of the changes E.’s experiencing. The minute anyone acknowledged any of the changes that were happening to me, it made them that much bigger and so embarrassing. So, instead of telling E., “If you touch your face, those pimples will get worse,” the Clinique face scrub appears in the shower for her along with some OXY gel in the medicine cabinet. Instead of telling her the hair on her legs is too long, I help her shave her legs for the first time and give her privacy when she’s getting changed. Instead of commenting on her changing body when she has a meltdown over not wanting “anyone to look at her skin” in a dress she loved a month ago but now considers “ugly and gross,” I just smile and ask her how I can help.