Monday, October 5, 2009

relative irrelevance

"To have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart
go walking around outside your body."

— Elizabeth Stone

I have become irrelevant. Overnight, and without warning, my thoughts/feelings/experience have lost most, if not all, of their weight/importance/value, and I have been reduced to someone to be pitied and/or ignored, take your pick.

All of the above forward slashing comes to you courtesy of my teenage daughter, who is responsible for eliciting her own share of forward slashes in me. By turns, she is charming/annoying, adorable/loathsome, my baby who spoke in entire sentences from the age of 18 months/a silent, brooding harpy who, if provoked, can reduce me to tears with the most vicious of word choices.

Welcome to Young Adulthood, and the roller coaster ride that is the Mother/Daughter Dynamic. Please, fasten your seat belts and keep your hands/heart inside, as this is promises to be one wild ride.

In all fairness, I knew this was coming, I suppose. I saw it happen with my nieces, the younger of whom just went off to college, which means that the memory of her ups and downs is still relatively fresh, the lessons taken away from observing and taking notes as my sister-in-law learned to navigate the choppy waters of hormones and coming-of-age there at the corners of my memory, easy to recollect when I need the comfort of experience to talk me off the ledge of despair or self-criticism.

But, foolishly, I thought I could sidestep the turbulence, could, with careful planning and sacrifice and the laying down of solid foundations for her to root herself in, avoid the wild ride altogether. As if it were possible to forge another route, to skirt adolescence, and the necessary push me/pull you of growing up and away and into adulthood.

But it's not about sidestepping at all, but rather stepping back, taking a breath, and realizing that, however nauseating the ride, and however much you'd just rather not go at all, it's a necessary part of what's next. It's what has to happen: If she's going to stand on her own, she has to learn to stand apart.

The apart part — there's the rub. That's where the hurt comes in. As much as it has to happen, as healthy as it's promised to be, it's no picnic.


When she was a little girl, about six months old, our brand-new television set blew a tube, leaving us with one of two options: We could replace the set, or go without. We chose to go without, spending our time together instead on walks throughout our San Francisco neighborhood to Golden Gate Park or the grocery store, or visiting family across the Bay. Weekends, we'd tune into A Prairie Home Companion or Mystery Theatre on the public radio station, not really aware that she was tuning in, too, soaking up stories that outpaced her comprehension, dousing her subconscious in hero journeys and turning points and plot twists, planting seeds that would someday sprout in a literary imagination that now grows wild and out of control.

And we read. Book after book, till she could recite them word for word, again long before she knew what she was saying. Soon after she finally was able to string together a thought of her own (her first sentence, at around 13 months of age, was spoken to our neighborhood cat whom we had come across on a walk one day after not seeing him (her?) for a while. "Maestro," she said, laying flat on top of him/her right there on the sidewalk, as was their custom, "I no see you long day."), she delivered her sentences in what we called Book Speak. An exclamation, an observation, a question — each was followed by her own self-reflective narrative. "'I'm tired,' she said sleepily." "'Can we go to the puppy store?' she asked excitedly." "'Where's Nana?' she wondered, puzzled."

And so it went. She was bright and gifted, a tiny little thing that powered her way through the mall talking to anyone and everyone who would stop to listen, charming them with her mop of spit curls and command of the language. But she was also the product of her environment, the result of having two engaged, present parents who were willing to bypass lofty job titles and fat paychecks to be there for her, to give her what money couldn't buy: our time and our attention.


15 years on, and it is hard to accept that that little girl who once bowled us over with her language skills can now cut us to the quick by choosing to not say anything at all. These days, she's busy chatting with friends on Facebook, and suddenly, we're not to know about those conversations. "Please don't read my status updates," she asks, when she asks at all. Most of the time, if she does update, it's set to private. I know what she lights up her Facebook talking about, am certain she's discussing boys and making plans for prom and seeking comfort from her friends when another girl has hurt her. It's not about what she's sharing, it's that she is selective now in what she'll share with us, that she is choosing to "outclude" (her word, circa age three) us on things that only weeks ago she would have come to us on.

And I know that it doesn't get better from here, not really. Naturally, necessarily, she will move on and out, will (God willing) find someone to share herself with, will build a life full of moments and memories that have nothing to do with us, just as we have done.

And if we do our job right, if the investment of our time and our selves pays off, this is exactly what should happen, what has to happen, if she is to be the strong, healthy, whole woman we want her to be. What's unknown, then, is who I will be, once all is said and done. Once this relative irrelevance becomes a way of life, and not just a terrifying next step. I have a few years yet to figure that out. In the meantime, the challenge is to hold on and let go at the same time, to know when to step aside or step up, and how much room to give, even when she doesn't ask for it, and to stay relevant.

Because for all she does and does not say, she needs me. She'll always need me. And for that, I'm grateful.
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