Jan. 21 2015 12:17 PM

Where old and new territory collide


This summer, my daughter will turn 10 and will officially be a double-digit midget, as my mother used to call me once I'd aged into the tween years. Offensive, I know, but it was 1980. And it was my mother, so that about gets to the bottom of that.

Every parent says it, but—wasn't it only moments ago that I was parenting a little baby? A little baby that did little baby things: cry, eat, poop, sleep; wash, rinse, repeat.

It's stunning, the way time contracts between the day you need to dive across the room to prevent your wobbly 18-month-old from smacking her forehead on a glass coffee table and sending her on a field trip to Los Angeles, armed with an iPad and the ability to text. "iloveyoumama" is one I'll save as the antidote for when she sends one that reads, "I hate you, mom!" (Future Ruby uses proper grammar and punctuation, I just know it.)

Rounding the corner on the tweens is pretty wild. The child's brain is changing, but so, too, is her body; it's been a delicate balance to introduce the bralette (so wish I'd had those as a kid) without creating body-consciousness. Even as there's still a little babyish-ness left, honey-child is lanky. She looks like a foal and frequently smells like a convenience-store beef stick. She wants to stay up late and watch Downton Abbey like a big girl, yet she argues pointedly for her right not to shower. She also wants to snuggle and watch My Little Pony on repeat. It's totally bipolar.

No longer pliable and unquestioning of my expertise, she's instead very much her own person trying to emerge. I've done a lot of stepping back this past six months, recognizing that she doesn't need me to speak for her or tell her how best to do things; she's got that, even if it's slower than a dying snail.

What my pre-teen needs is for me to step back and let her handle her business and this, my friends, requires no small amount of purposefulness. And humility. And self-awareness. And tongue-biting. (Nobody should have to look this closely at herself. It's absolutely devastating, I tell you. It turns out, I have all the flaws and then a few that have yet to be labeled. Thanks, parenthood, for the insight.)

This age can't be easy for li'l Ruby, either, as she's stuck in a sort of personality purgatory. Sometimes she's as distractible as a preschooler in front of a bubble machine, and every parent knows the only way to compete with that noise is a new pony or Minecraft, and good luck to you after that. To this day, we still have to offer too many decreasingly patient reminders just to accomplish simple daily activities—like the novel brushing of teeth! And, yes, after nine-and-a-half years, our closing argument can aptly be titled, "Only Brush the Ones You Want to Keep, Darling." 

Other times, however, Ruby's taking the initiative to wash all the dinner dishes (water conservationists would shudder in horror at the event), or offering to cook me an egg for breakfast, or asking a powerful question. If Sam and I are bickering about, oh—any number of nitpicky things that people in a nearly 20-year relationship might bicker about, she'll come at it head on. "No, no, no! We are not doing this right now," she'll say before applying her conflict-resolution tactic. "Mama! You need to stop. Cool off. Breathe. Talk. Remember?"

In the words of MC Hammer, the kid's "too legit! Too legit to quit, hey hey!"

Honestly, that is the kind of stuff that makes me so damned proud, I want to type in all caps, a no-no at CityBeat. But still: I AM SO DAMNED PROUD!

The thing I find most harrowing about this age is my acute awareness of precisely how fleeting childhood is. On the continuum of a human life—from zero to 100, say—childhood is little more than a blip. And at 9-and-a-half, Ruby is starting to wane. I have the sensation that we are running ahead of an approaching avalanche. We are out in front of it still, but soon it will engulf us and then this part of our relationship will be over.

I feel this as Ruby asks questions and grapples with the ugliness that is the adult world knocking. "That's mean," she said about the colonists when I corrected her school's whitewashed version of Christopher Columbus' story. And I feel it, too, when I'm doing homework side-by-side with her, the clock ticking against all that can't possibly get done.

Lately, I've found myself resenting all things that compete for the remaining hours and minutes of Ruby's childhood, and for this reason, I've become a fierce protector of her right to explore, to play, to be free, to be sillier and to be more ridiculous than ever. I find myself saying no to worksheets and yes to pillow fights.

I expect that by the time she's 14, my daughter's extensive Lego collection will have been handed down in lieu of other teenagery things; she likely won't hold my hand in public and definitely won't play hide-and-seek with me along the Prado. And it pains me in an indescribable way to know she'll no longer gaze at the sky with wide-eyed wonder as we drive and exclaim that the moon is following us.  

"Please don't grow up," I tell her frequently in my effort to squeeze every last drop from this amazing time in her life and mine. 

"No way, mama," she said to me the other day. "Being a kid is so, so fun."

Which is exactly how it should be, from 10 until forever. 

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at aarynbelfer.com and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.