What My Tween’s ‘Mid-Childhood Crisis’ Taught Me About Mid-Life

tween’s mid-childhood crisis taught me about midlife
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“We didn’t even get crayons this year!” my daughter is telling me incredulously as I walk her up to school this morning. “It’s the first year we didn’t have crayons,” she says again with sadness. I tell her that I swear I paid for crayons, and I kiss her face and watch her nine-year-old lanky body walk inside the building before I turn around and walk back home.

Her “we didn’t even get crayons this year,” is part of a rallying cry she’s been having about getting “old.” I’m not sure how many nine-and-a-half year olds sit around bemoaning the fact that their childhood is almost gone, but this one does. She is a highly sensitive child, and a deep thinker. It probably doesn’t help that my husband, her father, died suddenly when she was only 21 months old. The passage of time and her growing up have been bittersweet for me, every first that he missed, every birthday without him. She must have felt it too.

And now, as she transitions from carefree little girl to slightly intense tween, I am transitioning too. I am 42 years old. It’s been more than seven years since my husband died. My thirties were spent grieving and mothering a young child, and then they were gone. Before I had time to notice, I was no longer “young mother with small child,” but a woman in her 40s.

Maybe it happens this way for everyone. I find myself still single, chipping away at a writing career, and still very much living in survival mode. In the suburban town where we live, the parents at pickup chat about kitchen renovations and upcoming vacations. On social media, I read about the well-established careers and accolades of friends. Just like my daughter misses the crayons of her younger years, I miss my thirties and the feeling that I was still on a level playing field with most of my peers, all of us still climbing up the hill, not starting to coast down.

My daughter misses the attention she got when she was younger. “Nothing I say seems as cute anymore. No one laughs as much!” she says in dismay one morning. I actually miss the old women telling me to “enjoy her while she’s little” as I pushed her in a stroller through supermarket aisles. Even though she says she feels awkward now on playgrounds, she misses her days of endless monkey bar swinging until her palms were blistered and pink and she came to show me, “Look at my hands!” To my surprise, I actually do miss the endless quality of those long days with a young child. Now it seems there are ends around every corner. Recitals, spring concerts, graduations.

Julia Cho

She misses picture books and bounce houses, and also just feeling completely uninhibited the way a younger child does. Now there are reading logs, standardized tests, and there is self-consciousness. I miss my days of being a night owl, and I miss my narrow waist. Now there are night time skin serums and new spots on my face, and I am surprised by my sudden vanity when I notice them.

For my daughter, this was the year of pierced ears and a palate expander. There was a lot of swabbing crusting ear holes with saline solution and the unnatural turning of a “key” to crank open her mouth. “I wanna go back to the time when I didn’t have pierced ears or go to the orthodontist!” she cries out in frustration one day. For me, the last few years have meant the start of yearly mammograms that compress my breasts into an impossibly, unrecognizable flat shape between two sheets of plastic. I’ve been introduced to a vernacular I’d never even heard of in my thirties—words like “highly dense breast tissue,” LSH and FSH hormones, and perimenopause.

I think we both feel a bit blindsided.

My daughter and only child, I realize one day, is in the middle of her time with me. In another nine years she will be in college. We have only eight more summers to take family vacations. I am entering the middle of my life, and I still barely recognize it. I’m not at all where I expected to be. But here we both are together for a brief moment—in the middle.

The middle is unassuming; it doesn’t have the freshness of a beginning or the accomplishment of the ending, but it’s usually the part of a narrative where transformation happens. Maybe that looks like braces and an “awkward phase,” or maybe it’s realizing you’re not where you want to be, and it’s time to make some changes. “Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth,” writes Brene Brown.

One night she finally breaks down and cries for a long time. “I miss being little. I was so carefree! Everything was so new and exciting. I wish I had just enjoyed it then! I was so eager to grow up, and now I don’t like it!” I can’t help but smile just a tiny bit inside listening to her diatribe because what she’s expressing seems so beyond her years. But I get it. I really do. I hold her tightly while she cries.

I tell her that, yes, something is ending and it’s OK to grieve that.

But mostly I tell her, “You’re actually still in your childhood. If you keep spending your time wishing you were three or four, you’re going to wake up at 13 and realize you missed this time, right now, being nine.” “You’re right…” she says thoughtfully.

After she’s done crying, we both feel better. We cuddle up like we always have at night while we read in my bed, and tonight, instead of a longer book, she gathers up a few of our favorite old picture books. Before she goes to sleep, she wiggles her newest loose tooth with pride. “It kinda hurts though,” she says. It does.

Julia Cho

The next morning after I drop her off, I dutifully take my 30-minute walk, enjoying the feeling of stretching out my legs, and the bursts of color in the yellow forsythias spread around the park. Afterwards, I put on what I call my “mid-life red” lipstick and head to Trader Joe’s for my weekly groceries. I always buy flowers, but today while I’m already on line to check out, I run back to get a second bouquet of daffodils. I don’t really know what the future holds: more mammograms, more poignant conversations with my daughter, and probably a few surprises. Who knows, maybe a published book, or even falling in love again—but right now it’s spring. And I don’t want to miss it.