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Lessons in Mothering from the First Day of School

August 25, 2014

My daughter started middle school today. Yesterday, over an endless game of War, she confessed her fear:

"What if I can't open the door?" she asked, trumping my 10 with a Jack. "I'm not sure I can walk inside. It's so big!" 

I nodded, thinking back to my own school days. Then, taking her 7 with a queen, said, "You'd be surprised how far a deep breath can take you."

Today, I remind myself of this, and remember to breathe.

Unlike many mothers, my daughter's first foray into the world of cheerleaders, boyfriends, changing classes, electives, dances, and parties doesn't make me feel old. (My mother's unexpected death three years ago brought me as close to terms with my own mortality as I'm likely to get in this life.) Instead, it makes me feel helpless. 

Helpless, because I remember how mean 12, 13, and 14 year-old girls can be. Helpless, because I remember how crass and aggressive 12, 13, and 14-year old boys can be. Helpless, because she's entering the age when her hurts will be far larger than my ability to soothe them. 

As parents, we want to protect our children from pain. We baby proof our houses and debate the ideal ground cover for the neighborhood playground. We call up other parents when our elementary-aged children come home with bruised egos and scraped knees. We comfort and console with ice cream, movies, day trips, hugs, and whatever else we have in our arsenals. We do everything we can to make it better.

My days of doing this are, largely, over now, and this is only partially because she has made the grown-up decision to go live with her father. 

Once our children hit middle school, their peers become far more important to them than their families. This means that not only do they want to hang out with their friends more than us, but that they also place more value on what their friends and peers think than on anything we might say. Our words no longer serve as solace, because we can never - no matter how gifted our delivery - overcome whatever what's-her-name said. 

Middle school marks the beginning of far more than boyfriends and parties. It is a time when peer pressure skyrockets, and kids start reaching outside of their personal comfort zones to "fit in." It is a time when eating disorders and self-esteem problems begin to manifest. It is a time when girls act stupider than they are and boys act tougher than they are because the media and their peers tell them doing so will make them more attractive to the opposite sex. It is a time when the opposite sex, and everything they might expect, want, and/or need, starts to become important. 

I can't do anything about this. Kids in early adolescence have been dealing with the same issues since "childhood" became a protected thing. I can't stop some boy from calling her "flat-chested" or some girl from calling her "fat." (Neither of which she is, but people who hurl insults never care about facts.) I can't stop her from caring about what these idiots say and crying herself to sleep at night. I can't stop her from getting her heart broken. 

I can't stop it, and I can't fix it. At this point in our lives together, all I can do is hope I raised her to be strong enough to stay true to herself and to rally when needed. And, if that doesn't work, I hope I've raised her to be able to ask for help when she needs it. I may not be able to fix it, but I can certainly lend support while she figures out how to fix it herself. 

For now, that's going to have to be enough. I'll just have to remember to breathe. 

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