When your children get older, their younger selves vanish. As glorious as it is to watch them grow up, it’s a loss, too. I think often of a quote that I’ve never been able to source, “Children are the only people who disappear without dying.”
My daughter, M., is now 14, and I’ve felt that steady ache of loss as she becomes a teenager. It’s a different pain than the one that comes from co-habitating with a being who tends to see me as a nagging irritant, if she sees me at all. But an unexpected side effect of the COVID-19 lockdown has been a softening of that loss. It’s with surprise, and gratitude, that I’ve witnessed a resurrection: my daughter has returned.
This isn’t my first teen rodeo. My son is 16, but he’s a quiet one, content to watch adolescence from the sidelines. In contrast, M. has always been the most spirited, most social person in our low-key family, drawn to action and high drama. She started grade 9 like a sprinter off the blocks, as if she had been waiting for high school her whole life. Overnight, the girl who would snuggle up with her mom to binge Gilmore Girls was on her phone all night, every night, door sealed shut.
She seemed to possess a handbook for maximum teendom: black eyeliner, crop tops, ears pierced with a safety pin, boyfriend with a skateboard. She remained kind, and a good student, but there were some truly stupid, brain-not-yet-evolved incidents of rebellion that involved panicked late nights and developing new disciplinary muscles on my part. Mostly there was just a cold, abrupt separation, an absence. It’s normal, my husband and I told ourselves. It’s imperative, in fact, for her to carve a path away from us. But God, it hurt.
And then came the pandemic. To those making popsicle-stick puppets with toddlers 40 days in a row, I say, hats off, and also: at least your kids like you. Small children are still attached to their parents, while teenagers are in the process of severing that attachment. M. had been way out in the distance on a retractable leash for months, when we suddenly had to pull her back in. The kid who was off on sleepovers or hosting a crowd every weekend is now in mandatory proximity to her family. She’s been forced back into our clan at the exact moment when her fixation is joining clans outside the family. Trapped between these walls, she’s had no choice but to acknowledge us, the people she had become expert at ignoring.
Which means, hallelujah, that I get to have her back. I’ll say, “Want to go for a walk?” And miraculously, she’ll say, “Why not?” We walk through the empty streets with the dog, side by side, M. as tall as me now. In her boredom, I think that she forgets it’s me she’s talking to as she offers up her views on religion and books, meandering through her thoughts. I tread delicately–if I say the wrong thing, she might deliver a patented “That’s exactly why I can’t tell you anything,” and retreat. On a Saturday night, she plays charades with the rest of us and I get to see her as others see her, goofy and lighthearted. I love her because she’s my kid, but I love this person she’s becoming, too.
A tenderness returns to our interactions. We are all more tender with each other these days, safely locked indoors, attuned to the suffering so nearby. On a rough day, when I’m worried about my own far away parents, she sees my face and asks: “Are you okay?” She’s forced to think collectively, to break out of the self-centredness that defines early adolescence. On a walk, a young man coughs behind us. She’s enraged. “There are old people around!” Good, I think. Empathy. I go up to say goodnight, and she lets me stroke her hair. She and her dad play guitar together. We are hugging more.
Of the four of us, this is hardest on her. As fast as she’s catapulted into maturity, she’s still a kid under the biggest stress of her young life. I worry how this time will affect her, and all the kids in this already anxious generation. Research suggests that when we are safe at last from this virus, our emotional needs will emerge full force. Young people between 16 and 24 years of age might be particularly at risk of psychological trauma: their social selves were just evolving when they were wrenched out of that process. There are days when I find her sleeping in the afternoon, her long, adult body hidden under the quilt. It used to be that I worried about her being vulnerable in the world: she talked about a man on the streetcar harassing her, or a kid at school making fun of her for being tall. Now I worry that she’s missing out on the world. She should be out there, learning to navigate all its imperfections and dangers.
Unlike her, I was not very good at being a teenager; she’s far more popular, more open than I ever was. But I do relate to her instinct for independence and flight. When she does crazy things, a little part of me thinks: “Go, girl.” When I report to my mom that M’s bedroom is a den of surliness, my mom makes little clucking sounds like, “Karma.” But in this time together, I’ve stopped examining my daughter’s adolescence as some warped version of my own. We got a surprise reprieve from our new dynamic, a strange timeout. I’m easier on her because I suddenly know her better, and I can see her more clearly. She said, half joking: “When this is done, I won’t be around for about a month.” I believe it. But I take comfort in a new sense of who we both might be when we meet on the other side of her childhood, and this lockdown, both of which will prove temporary.
Katrina Onstad’s new novel, Stay Where I Can See You, is out now.
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