Today is Nora’s eleventh birthday.
At times I feel like Nora’s birthdays are celebrations, but also tiny losses. They’re bittersweet moments to marvel at future possibilities and find joy in the past year’s accomplishments, but also moments when I mourn the loss of tiny, sticky fingers reaching for my hand or slow, warm breath as she slept curled beneath the quilt on my bed.
Over the years and months – sometimes over a single day – I watched Nora’s babyhood melt away like an ice cream cone in the hot sun. Childhood never lasts long enough no matter how you try to savor it; dripping down your fingers despite how strongly you will it to stay cold so you can enjoy it more slowly.
Each year I think about how the last 12 months have slipped away. It seems like she went from a tiny baby to a toddler, to a six-year-old missing her front teeth, then a tween in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps it’s always that way for firstborns: you’re never really ready for them to grow up and every milestone comes and goes when you’re looking the other way. Then suddenly they’re on the cusp of their teenage years and you realize that there’s only a handful of years left until they leave home on their own forever.
This is Nora at eleven:
Still the kind and thoughtful girl that she was at two. A beautiful spirit who thinks about others first and is our “right-hand woman” around the house, helping with her sisters and chores happily. She’s studious, loves to read, plays piano, is a beautiful dancer, and thinks she might one day want to be a writer.
Mothering Looking Forward
I don’t have sisters, only a boatload of brothers, and never had a large group of female friends in high school or college, so I’m approaching the years when we’ll have multiple teenage girls in our house with a measure of caution. I’m female, yes, but I’ve never surrounded myself with lots of other girls or women, and I’ve never been a girly-girl.
That said, I’ve certainly experienced more than my fair share of teen drama and emotions run rampant, and as we start to near the teenage years I’ve been reflecting on how my own experiences can shape who I am as a mother of daughters.
From the early days of when I became a mother, I have tried to foster an environment of trust and open communication between me and the girls. Chris and I have never lied to them – not even about holidays – and have tried to involve the girls fully in our life choices, dreams, and realities. That means we have had many transparent conversations about things I never had with my parents, like about finances and money. We’ve involved them in major life decisions like moving and invited them to be present at the births of their younger sisters.
My hope is that if I make it easy for them to talk to me now, and show that I’m just as honest with them as I expect them to be with me, that will continue into adolescence.
Last year, Nora and I started writing in a shared journal, part of The Care & Keeping of Us books by American Girl. This has been a wonderful way to write back and forth between each other and has led to some great face-to-face conversations as well (though I’ll admit that I don’t always respond as quickly as she might like me to).
Recently Nora asked me in our journal to tell her more about what makes me mad and what makes me cry, and as I started to think about how to adequately write her back, I thought I might also share my response here. This is what I wrote.
A Letter To Nora at Eleven
In some ways, I cannot believe that you’re already eleven, but in other ways, I cannot believe that you’re only eleven. I’ll admit that there are moments when you are growing faster than I’m ready for, but you’re also incredibly responsible and mature – much more so than I remember being at eleven. I’m excited to see what your 11th year will bring as you complete your last year of elementary school and take on new challenges like competition dance. I’m looking forward to seeing you blossom into a young woman…and maybe earning a trophy or two! 🙂
You asked me a while ago in our journal to tell you more about what makes me mad and what makes me cry, and I’ll admit I let those questions sit a bit longer than I should have – partially because of the craziness of getting school started and everything that is going on with our business, but also because I didn’t want to give you a superficial answer. Today, on the eve of your birthday, I’m going to try to answer those questions as best as I can, starting with the answers to those questions from when I was around your age.
As a kid…
When I look back on my childhood and teen years, I have flashes of very good and funny memories, but I also have a lot of memories that are unhappy. I was a tearful, highly emotional teen and, even as young as fifth grade, your grandma and I “butted heads” a lot. She, like I for you, had high expectations of me and we didn’t always communicate as well as we should have, which led to some strong emotions and loud arguments.
My parents divorced when I was 5, which was very emotional for me as a child, and I didn’t have a sister to confide in. I moved schools a lot (attending two elementary, two middle, and two high schools), which meant that I never had super close friends who were in my life for more than a couple of years. I struggled with depression from middle school through early college, and high school was probably the worst period of my life.
At that time, the things that made me mad or made me cry were typical: mostly stemming from feeling like I wasn’t allowed to do or wear things that other kids my age did, or having my feelings hurt by another kid/person at school. No one wants to feel left out or like they don’t fit in, and it’s frustrating to feel like you don’t have freedom or control over your life when you think you’re old enough to make your own decisions.
I wish I could protect you from experiencing feelings like these, but they’re a common part of growing up and you’ll likely experience them at one point or another.
These days, the things that make me “mad” are most often related to work.
- You know I sometimes feel frustrated and sad that I have to work as much as I do and that I can’t be a stay-at-home mom with you and your sisters anymore.
- I occasionally get frustrated if I feel like my hard work isn’t being recognized by our clients or if they’re making unreasonable demands with regards to how much they expect my team to do for the money they’re paying us.
- Very rarely, I’ve felt frustrated when I think someone isn’t pulling his or her weight or if I see the same mistake being made by one of our employees repetitively.
- Every once and a while, especially after a long week of work or if I’m tired, I get frustrated if you and Zara are arguing or Addie is whining excessively.
Those are all the things right now that make me “mad,” but I think it’s important to note that I labeled all of these things as things that “frustrate” me rather than things that make me angry. Anger, to me, is a deep-seated emotion that lingers and can be hard to get over. Anger can be all-consuming and cause you to make rash decisions that you’ll regret later or cause you to stew and keep yourself from moving on. As much as possible, I try not to get angry at things, because anger is not usually productive. Instead, I try to step back from the situation, gather myself, and look for a solution. That one thing that I hope your dad and I are able to teach you.
When it comes to crying, different things have made me cry at different points in my life. I know that you have seen me cry more than once, and it was usually related to feelings of deep disappointment at how my life was going or feeling incredibly overwhelmed with a situation, and a rush of emotions spill out of me as I talk about it with dad. You probably remember this happening mostly during the year following Addie’s birth; I know we’ve talked before about how hard that year was for me.
The important thing about all this:
It’s always easy to analyze your life in retrospect when you look back on things from an older age, months or years later. Looking back, what I’ve learned about myself is that at times when I frequently felt mad or was easily brought to tears or felt overwhelmed, it was often at a time when my hormones were going crazy (like after having a baby) or when I was tired or hungry or there was some other compounding factor.
It’s normal to get mad and there’s nothing wrong with crying if you feel sad or upset. It’s healthy to cry. Crying or screaming can even make you feel better sometimes (though hopefully, you’re screaming in your room or outside and not at a particular person).
No one can be happy all the time and no one expects that of you. But, if you find yourself feeling mad or sad a lot, that’s when it’s important to pause and self-reflect. I ask myself questions like:
- Is this really a big deal? Will I care about it (or even remember it) months from now?
- Are there any compounding factors that are making me think this is a bigger deal than it really is?
- Can I see the situation from the other side?
- Can I remove myself from the situation, even if only temporarily?
- Who can I talk to about this to get another perspective or a sympathetic ear?
- Am I okay or do I need to ask someone for help?
You’re at the age now where you’re going to start feeling the effects of changing hormones. You’re going to feel mad. You’re going to feel sad. Sometimes, you may feel a million different things at once and won’t even know how you feel. I know how hard it is.
I wish I could take all the bad parts out of your life and magically leave you with only the good ones, but these struggles and challenges we experience are part of what shapes the women we become, and I can already tell that you’re going to be an amazing and wonderful young woman.
Don’t ever forget that dad and I love you more than words can say, and we’re here for you no matter what. Even on the craziest of emotional roller-coaster days, I will stop whatever I’m doing to listen if you need someone to talk to, and that stands whether you’re 11, 18, or 35.