Going on thirteen

While my experience as a parent is limited to a teenage boy, I actually was a teenage girl, once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away. (That’s not a complete digression; one of the highlights of the year I turned 13 was the release of the original Star Wars, now referred to as “Episode IV.”) Thirty years ago, I officially entered my teen years. Ten years ago, I returned to the world of the adolescent, this time completely on the other side, as the mother of a boy. This week, I will enter those storm-tossed waters one more time, as my stepdaughter Tall Girl turns 13. (And with five years between her and her younger brother, we’ll barely see her to her 18th birthday before his turn comes.)

Your child’s adolescence is a time when you may develop a lot of empathy for your parents, now that you’re in their shoes. I reflected on numerous occasions during my son’s teen years that no matter how challenging things got, I was glad he was a boy, since I was pretty sure teenage girls were even more difficult – not that I knew this from a parent’s perspective, but just based on having been one. And my son was a “good kid” (as I was back in the day) but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all smooth sailing. Friends who had both sons and daughters assured me that I was right. A coworker whose daughter is a couple of years older than Tall Girl has been endlessly amused at the prospect of my getting to learn this for myself, and now my time has come.

I met Tall Girl when she was ten, and it’s amazing to think about how much she’s changed in just the two and a half years since then. (For one thing, she’s grown nearly a foot, and that’s not an exaggeration. And speaking of feet…well, they’ve grown too.) Middle school has had its social challenges for her, but academically she’s still on track, and she’s begun to find and explore new interests and activities. She’s funny and smart and very drama-prone. She has strong values that we hope won’t be shaken during the turbulence of the next few years. She’s a “good kid.”She still enjoys family time, but her parents do sometimes lose her to sleepovers at a friend’s for parts of their alternating weekends. She’s less interested in boys than I recall being at her age, but I don’t think either of her parents is all that unhappy about that. She’s not very into appearance and fashion yet either – although she does like shoes for her size-10 feet – but she has great raw materials to work with. I’ll never forget the look on her dad’s face when we went shopping for a dress for her to wear for our wedding, and she came out from the fitting room to show us the dress we ended up buying. (“She’s going to be gorgeous,” I whispered to Tall Paul when she went back into the fitting room. “And your face said ‘My little girl has grown up!.'” “I don’t want to talk about it,” he replied. He was in shock for a little while.)

But in a couple of years, she could be someone else entirely, or she could be an enhanced and improved version of who she is know. I’m curious to see where it goes. I’m also curious to see how my relationship with her evolves. We’ve always gotten along very well, we like doing things together, and I rarely treat her like a kid unless it’s warranted. But adolescence is a time for parent/child tension – my theory is that this is nature’s way of making them want to leave home, and making us want them to want to – and since I’m not actually her parent, I may be able to buffer some of that. However, as a quasi-parent, I may not. Time will tell.

One way in which the teenage years are particularly rough for girls is the social pressure to look and act inappropriately “womanly” for their ages – it’s been there a long time, but it only seems to get worse. (I understand that two hundred years ago, thirteen-year-olds were considered women, and could marry and have children of their own. And I know that even now, thirteen-year-olds have children, although they’re unlikely to be married at that age. I don’t really think many parents want that for their thirteen-year-old daughters today, however.) There was a great post by Rita Arens on BlogHer recently reflecting on this:

(L)et’s talk about 13. Thirteen is the beginning of high school or the end of junior high (if they even still call it “junior high” these days). Thirteen is braces, study hall, wishing you could drive, navigating catty girls and still-too-short boys, slumber parties and lip gloss. Thirteen is the tip of the adult iceberg, when your body starts to go there but your brain and emotions have not caught up yet.

…Thirteen is when you need your parents the most, when you’re not sure if you have to leave childhood behind just yet, when you want to be older, but it’s kind of scary. Thirteen is when many girls start to look like women, when their bodies blossom without the cellulite and stretch marks of an adult woman…Thirteen is when you start thinking you have to do things you’re not sure if you want to do in order to move up in the world. I know – I was in dangerous waters at 13. Thirteen reeks of cheap cologne and sweaty boys, varsity football games and chewing gum…Thirteen thinks adults know what’s best. Thirteen needs adults to be the adults in the room.

One thing about already having gone through the teen years with one kid is that it gives you some solid skills, including confidence that you can do it again. And by the time we get through this round, we get to face it one more time – with a boy again, which will test whether they really are easier. With teenagers, you truly have to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst – and you have to do your best to prepare them for what’s to come.

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  1. Wow. You reminded me of what it’s like to be a teenager. That was fun to read.

    I am sure you’ll be a great step-mom, and that Tall Girl will turn out great!

  2. Working Girl – I’m actually very fortunate in my stepchildren. Their parents have been doing a great job with them already, so that makes it easier for me :-). Also, the fact that I have 23 years of parenting experience helps a lot!