My husband and two teenaged kids have decided this post-Christmas night would be best spent watching one of their all-time favorite movies, Nacho Libre. I watch with them as Jack Black’s character spits bad orphanage food out through his nose then ask them how many times they’ve watched this movie. Three? Four times? They can’t settle on a number and I decide I’ve got better things to do.
I slip out of the family room and crawl into bed with Driftwood, Elizabeth Dutton’s novel about a California road trip. An hour and a half later – I’m halfway through the book – the bedroom door creeps open. It’s my 15-year old daughter. “The boys are asleep on the couch,” she says, then pauses before adding, “Can I sleep with you?”
After spending the past few years adjusting to a reliably steady dose of stinging parental rejection, I’m both shocked and flattered by the request. She is, after all, turning 16 in January. Normal, I know. She crawls into my husband’s side of the bed and we both fall asleep without many words. I don’t know how much later it is because I always avoid looking at the clock in the middle of the night, but I am awakened by her voice. She mumbles something.
“What?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer. She’s talking in her sleep. But now I am awake.
After a futile half hour, I concede it may be the stillness of the night itself that is amplifying the waves of thought in my brain – it’s not going to turn itself down without a fight. I stare across the bed at the shadowy form of the lanky, outstretched body next to me that now measures just an inch shy of my own 5’11” frame. Turning 16. Dear God, how did that happen? Another month and she’ll take her driver’s license test. Another two years and she’s off to college. In my sleeplessness, I consider that as 2016 nears its end, so does my daughter’s 16th year.
With her adolescence now whittled down to its last remaining days and my son – at 13 – just behind her, my nights of being interrupted by crying babies and scary nightmares are now just a part of a blurred past. I manage to twist the present time back to the years before she started preschool. That was when our days together seemed to last forever – and the thought of her someday leaving us would have been incomprehensible. Back then, my tired body ached from lack of sleep and carrying my one-year-old son around on my right hip all day. Now my body aches feel more like previews of old age, with my past injuries from my youth spent riding – and falling off – horses coming back to haunt me.
16 years was a charge of lightning that came and went so quickly I can’t even be sure I was there to experience it. It’s a sneaky trick parenting plays on you. When you put your focus on a child’s life, your own chronology disappears like an open but unused app on your smartphone. You don’t notice it, but it’s there running in the background using up battery life. What really gets my head spinning is to consider that 16 fast years from now, she will be almost 32 years old, which will make me a solid senior at 64 – an age that never even seemed within the realm of understanding in the context of my own life. Not until now.
When she was a baby, I would pluck her from her crib before the sun came up, after my husband left early for work, and bring her to bed with me. My body would envelop her tiny one as she’d reliably reach her right arm over her head and graze her fingers on the side of my face. I remember waking up this way one sunny, late summer morning when she was seven and a half months old, turning on the bedroom TV and then shooting up in horror as I learned of the 9/11 attacks that had happened as we slept on the West Coast. In somber grief, we hung an American flag outside the front of our home later that day as a carousel of incessant thoughts spun through my head – What about the children who lost parents? The parents who lost children? What kind of world would my child grow up in? This harsh awakening from the haze of early motherhood illuminated one fact: Every moment matters. Don’t forget.
My brain is just getting going. I toss and turn and keep thinking. What would I have done differently over the duration of her childhood if I’d known then what I know now? I wish I could have recognized that, as her father and I wondered what kind of person she would grow up to be, she was already providing us with big-picture clues. Her first word, “pretty” (pronounced p’tee) was prompted by her admiration of the holiday lights around town at her first Christmas. Clue #1: She is moved by aesthetics. After her first birthday, as our friends’ same-aged son could pretty much run and catch football passes, she showed no motivation to walk – despite our constant urgings. It wasn’t until she crawled on hands and knees along the scratchy sand of a Hawaiian beach at 13 ½ months that she decided to stand up and walk. Clue #2: She does things in her own time and only when she is good and ready.
These early yet undetected clues as to the person she was might have helped as I fretted that at seven years old, she seemed to have little interest in doing anything other than spending time by my side. Because her father coached, she had a passive interest in soccer. We tried ballet, but she stood at the bar in a pink leotard staring at me in the parent viewing area the entire time as if to ask, “Why?”
I took her to a barn and introduced her to horses, thinking maybe there was some “love of animals” gene I may have passed along to her. It was a lock as long as I let her take it slow. I was so thrilled to see her blossoming enjoyment that I lost my head and bought her a pony of her own. He bucked her off more times than I can count – but he also taught her toughness and tenacity. I watched as she went from being an awkward bouncy child on horseback to an elegant hunter/jumper rider with countless blue ribbons that still cross her bedroom walls. But as her long legs outgrew the pony at 11 years old, she’d decided that if she could no longer ride him, she had outgrown riding too. It was just as well because the cost of pony ownership was threatening to outgrow my bank account. No, we could not keep the pony as a pet. We sold him to another family and I watched as her heart broke for the first time. Would I do it all again had I known the pain it would bring? The many hours we spent together at the barn riding and caring for the pony returned gifts for both of us: A slew of life lessons and a passion that can be enjoyed together for years to come. So yes, I suppose I would.
All that time at the barn kept us close, it seemed, long after other girls began to pull away from their parents. We enjoyed traveling together, just mom and daughter – usually last minute overnight trips to nearby places. But then in successive years I took her with me to Europe. Still 11, we held hands as we walked along the Thames River, up the Champs Elysees and spent circuitous hours exploring the Louvre. We rode horses together through the Swiss Alps. An oppressive Saharan wind was blowing across the European continent at the time and after an afternoon swim in the hotel pool, still wrapped in a towel, she looked out our room window on to the green velvety landscape in front of her and told me Switzerland reminded her of Hawaii.
On the following trip two years later, handholding was no longer allowed. We were in Italy and it was hot again. Holding hands made her palms sweaty, she explained. But I could see in her eyes that holding hands with her mother also made her feel awkward. She and I both noticed young men begin to stare at her on this trip, a fact that made us both uncomfortable. She began locking the bathroom door of our hotel rooms in an unexpected demand for privacy. Here my husband and I had been worried she was a little too attached to me, when in reality she was beginning to separate from me, just on her own timetable, and only when she was good and ready.
After nearly 16 years together, our prior closeness seems to escalate simple bickering into bitter arguing before sense gets the best of us. I remind myself that it’s all biology – it’s what she’s meant to do. I’ve concluded that the only parenting books worth reading are the ones that deal with the real physiological facts of growing up, as in here’s what’s happening in your child’s brain right now. Over the past year, I’ve read a lot about dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. In a rough explanation, the levels of dopamine in a teen’s prefrontal cortex drop at the onset of puberty. This makes for teenage moodiness and an innate desire to raise those dopamine levels by seeking out new and different things. I get the biological drive here – pulling away from your family and venturing out on your own is a necessary step toward maturity and independence. Understanding this process doesn’t make the pain of the separating any less palpable, though does bring comfort to this parent’s bruised heart.
As she continues to gravitate away from her family and toward her peers, I live in constant conflict about when to pull her back and when to let her go. Other motherly worries drift the same way – her eye toward aesthetics and aspirations toward creative things are in diametric opposition to the Silicon Valley mantra that parents should push STEM at all costs. Therein lies another conflict: Will allowing my child to pursue her own interests put her at a disadvantage in life? From ages four to 16, my educational concerns have evolved from preschool basics to how a well-adjusted white, upper-middle class girl from the California suburbs with only a passing interest in science, math, engineering, and technology will be able to compete for a spot in one of the state-run universities her father and I attended – without becoming a burned out stress-case in the process.
Just like when she was a baby, my daughter continues to reveal the person she is to my husband and me. I capture these glimpses of her true self when she is the happiest and in the psychological state of “flow.” When her ebullience, cleverness, creativity, and interest converge in certain moments, I get the same sense of anticipation and relief one might get as a 16-year mystery begins to unfold. Aha – it’s all starting to make sense! But every time I begin to admire the image as it forms before me, the sullenness of adolescence storms the stage once again and reminds me that great mysteries never unfold simply in a matter of pages. Nor can they be fully appreciated without multiple elements of suspense along the way.
By now, she has tossed and turned several times in her sleep next to me and I wonder what she is dreaming about. Volleyball, her favorite sport? [Name redacted] her latest boyfriend? So many experiences still to come as she heads into the time in her life when everything bleeds with searing beauty. Was it really that long ago that I had the world to conquer? Was it motherhood that drew the intensity out of me, or merely the fact that I’m just getting old? The perspective of 16 years helps me see that while I still want things, the things that I want most are ethereal things for my family that money can’t buy – a sense of purpose, confidence and the desire to do good things in the world.
I begin to feel the weight of exhaustion bear down on my thoughts. Time to let it all go, I suppose because at 16 the seeds of parenting have been planted. Now I need to watch how they grow. I hope the unique pairing of my daughter and I will produce a friendship someday, like the one I enjoy with my own mother. But my guess is we may have another 16 years before that can be fully appreciated: Until then, I’ll be tending to her as normal and likely driving her crazy, at least half the time
Sleep returns. I dream that Nacho Libre has come to stay at our house as an exchange student. Maybe on the fourth or fifth time my family watches that movie, I’ll sit down with them and see what all the fuss is about.
About the Author
Michelle Warford is a Silicon Valley writer, wife and mother of two active teenagers who could probably recite the exact coordinates of every basketball, volleyball, football and lacrosse venue in the entire San Francisco Bay Area from memory. When she’s not writing or watching her kids play sports, she hopes you’ll find her on the back of a horse, traveling in Europe, hiking with her dog in the Santa Cruz Mountains or curled up with a good book.