There is a tween in my house.
I know this not because of chronology – although, yes, the ripe old age of 10-in-two-months is kind of a dead giveaway – but because when I say things like, “I’ll be in the kitchen making breakfast,” in response I hear:
“AAAAAUUUUUUURRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHH, WHYYYYYYYYY DO YOU HAVE TO TEEEEELLLLLLLL ME THAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!”
And because of conversations like this:
Isabel: “What’s the temperature today? What should I wear?”
Me: “It’s going to be a bit warm. Jeans and a t-shirt would be fine.”
Isabel: “WELL I’M JUST ASKING BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO BE COLD! WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT????”
The child is CRAZY CAPS all. the. damn. time. Holy hell. I love her. And I even like her a lot, which is really saying something because I am not one of those people who likes children simply by virtue of them being children. I wish I was, truly. I once said to my mother, “I’ve come to realize that I’m not actually a person who enjoys children very much,” and the ferocity of her shocked gasp practically exploded the phone line. If I’d confided to her that I wanted to wear a coat made out of the fur of 101 dalmatian puppies, or that I intended to wed a pygmy goat, I’m certain that she would have at least retained her ability to form coherent sentences in reply. “That could get quite messy,” perhaps, or, “Should we send gifts to your house or the barn?” But in the wake of my offhand comment, she was so dumbstruck that it took her a solid 45 seconds to piece together the words to say, “Well… Well…. That’s not very nice!”
I agreed with her and backtracked with weak excuses about a long day. But I was thinking, Really? Why is that not nice? Why are children miraculously off-limits from the same reach of judgment with which I’m able to declare that Limburger cheese tastes bad and Citizen Kane was boring? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I dislike children. I don’t. I enjoy their questions and interesting perspectives and honesty; I adore watching as they learn or experience something new, how wonder dawns first in their eyes and then grows to the rest of their face and all the way down to their feet. The way they smile and dance on their toes and look around to make sure you’re seeing it, too, this amazing new thing that just revealed itself and transformed, magically, from unknown to known, and the power of that knowing. Absolutely love it.
But then there’s the noise. And the stickiness. And the tantrums and demands and messes. Endless bickering that gets nowhere. Putting foreign objects into mouths, ears, noses. Bathrooms that look and smell like frat houses. Wreckage from “I don’t know” and “I didn’t see.” This is all part of the package, too. Some days it’s most of the package, and on those days, I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh, children are so delightful, look at how they learn physics by slamming their friends into walls.” No, I’m thinking that I need a sensory deprivation tank and a drink, not necessarily in that order.
Isabel, though… I really like her. She is a very cool kid. She has Nick’s temperament, which means we generally do well together and enjoy one another’s company. This is in contrast to Aidan, who has my temperament and with whom I often have to find ways to extricate myself from power struggles that arise seemingly out of nowhere, the two of us both screaming at each other to stop screaming. Maybe because we are so different, Isabel and I have always had a good sense for one another.
Or, at least, we did.
These days I’m a fish out of water, flopping hopelessly through new terrain. When she was a baby and we co-slept, I always woke up precisely two minutes before she did. I thought it was the movement of her growing wakefulness that stirred me from sleep, but when we stopped co-sleeping and Isabel was in a different room entirely, I still always woke precisely two minutes before she did. No matter what the time or why – whether it was a bad dream at 1 am or playtime at 7, I always knew. That ability gradually faded away as she grew bigger and bolder, until the night that she had to wake me up – shaking me, hard – while sobbing in fear from a nightmare. I mourned the loss of something special that night, a connection we’d had that was only ours and that she doesn’t even remember now.
Here I am, mourning again. This time it’s the loss of instincts that I’d trusted would always help me protect her nurturing heart, and of a time when she still sought out my gaze in order to share the excitement of something new. Now we contrast where we used to coordinate – she’s the Alex P. to my Elyse Keaton, the pragmatic Type A to my meandering Type B. Most days I feel like I’m living with a tiny hall monitor, who counts down the minutes that I’m running late and complains from the backseat that my music is too loud and storms off in a huff when Aidan and I want to watch “just one more” Queen video on YouTube.
And all of that sounds frustrating and tiring, except that Isabel still also manages to be thoughtful and clever and funny and insightful and interesting. Which is to say that I still like her, in spite of the fact that even if I question whether or not I enjoy children, there’s no question that I do not like most tweenagery-acting-human-people. The truth is that, at 10-in-two-months, Isabel is spot-on in her assessment of my weaknesses and will almost certainly be more intelligent, more responsible, more successful, more wise in every single thing she does than I could ever hope to be in even one of my many ill-planned endeavors. I like her, a lot, and in all my ruminating about whether or not I like children and the rightness or wrongness of that answer, I never once considered that there might come a day when one of those children would decide that she doesn’t really like me back.
This time will pass. I don’t know when, and as Isabel would gladly tell you, even if I did know I’d probably be late, anyway. But one day this girl I like so much will be a woman I admire so much, and she will at least have learned to tolerate me with kindness and maybe – just maybe, if I’m lucky – like me, too. Until then, you can find me trying to figure out the right way to answer questions, turning down my music, attempting to follow a schedule, and generally getting it all wrong. Mourning. Waiting. Reminding myself that once upon a time, I was always two minutes ahead. And knowing that even if my brilliant little 10-in-two-months tween doesn’t really remember that herself, in every slammed door is the remnants of that time, evidenced in the fact that though she may slam the door, my Isabel never once questions whether or not I will be there when she decides to open back up again.