When I was eight years old, I started cracking my knuckles. I can’t remember who taught me, or why I thought it was a good idea, but once I started, I couldn’t stop.
When I was eight years old, I got the world’s worst. Freaking. Perm. Ever. It was hideous.
I also got glasses that year.
I was diagnosed with both allergies and asthma when I was eight years old, and began the hell of weekly allergy shots. I detested them, even though my mother would take my brother and me to a local bakery for a treat afterward, to ease the sting.
You might infer based on the previous three items that I was a bit of a dork at age eight. You may be right.
When I was eight, my imagination was boundless. I was a superhero with an exotic name, long black hair, and an arsenal of descriptive words ready to explain my character to any of my rapt (or weary) playmates. I was one of the Boxcar Children, one of the Bobbsey Twins, and the quintessential Cabbage Patch mother. I was the orchestrator of games, theatrical productions, magical daydreams, and rainy day escapades.
When I was eight, my third grader teacher Mrs. McLaughlin had our class push all the desks together in the middle of the room for a class Halloween party. Then she told us the story of how one day she returned home to find her husband hanging in the basement, having committed suicide earlier that day. I was eight.
We learned long division that year, and I learned to become horribly anxious because I didn’t understand it. I also couldn’t see the chalkboard. Getting glasses helped, but the pervasive anxiety that I really had no idea what the hell was going on never really went away.
When I was eight, I was characterized by a perplexing dichotomy: my entire being was torn between confidence that comes from a deeply-rooted belief in one’s own innate abilities and a seemingly incongruent sense of self-consciousness and anxiety that perhaps I didn’t really fit in. If it is possible for an eight-year-old to be neurotic, I have no doubt that I was. In some ways I was painfully shy and awkward, in others—full of buoyancy and limitless self-assurance. How did two such personas distinctly exist within one body?
My oldest daughter turned eight this week, and has started third grade. When I look at her, in many ways I see myself at that age, but I also see a different creature, one with less shyness, fewer inhibitions, and more unconditional confidence in herself.
She is a voracious reader, delighting in the characters and worlds she inhabits when she holds a book in her hands.
She is verbose, and feisty, and clever; she struggles to find the line between humor that is appreciated by both children and adults and downright rudeness. I firmly believe she hears a laugh-track to a tween sitcom when she opens her mouth to speak. She delights in eliciting a genuine laugh from me, her wry mother.
She is anxious about the weather, frequently asking questions about the severity of storms, how much rain is too much, how safe is the car, the school bus, her home. We have worked to combat that anxiety and worry, but part of me believes it is embedded in her person—that it is simply who she is. Sometimes it lies dormant for months, only to appear again later in a different form.
When she dances, she is unaware of how she looks to others. She moves the way she is moved to move, with her spirit and exuberance rushing through her limbs as she sways and spins and shimmies. Someday she will lose that beautiful confidence, that lack of inhibition. It will be replaced by the curiosity of who is looking, and what do they see?, and the fear that maybe she looks foolish. My heart aches when I imagine that day. If a mother could somehow arrange for her children to be spared that particular rite of passage while still growing, still increasing their efficacy and independence, wouldn’t we all do it?
She is polarized by the ferocious love and protectiveness she feels for her toddler sister and a deep irritation that she is negotiating with someone who speaks only the most primal language of self-indulgence and impulsivity. She is proud of her status of big sister, and honored when her sister showers her with affection, and also perturbed when her privacy and plans are not respected.
She is comfortable in her own skin; she lacks the paralyzing self-consciousness that caused me to deeply evaluate whom I might play with at recess or join in the cafeteria. She walks naturally into the school building, calling out to friends of both genders with a self-assuredness that eases my heart. She can identify when her peers are anxious and concerned, and she genuinely tries to make her friends cared for—she is a nurturer.
Eight changes things. It is a giant leap away from the preciousness of childhood, from the type of “cute” that begins to change as the permanent teeth take up residence in their unrestrained smiles. Eight feels monumental to me—we have reached a precipice, and there is so much to learn, so much at stake. As a mother, I feel a certain urgency to protect the smoothness of this transition into the next stage of childhood. I am compelled to protect her fragility and sensitivity, to prolong the confidence and social graces she naturally possesses, to attempt to cushion her from any forces that could break her in the next two years.
My wish is that she will emerge from eight with her belief in herself and her dreams still intact. That she will grow, and learn, and shed some of the necessary innocence without losing the most beautiful purity of childhood. I hope that it is within reach—to move through those last years of childhood feeling empowered, comfortable in her body, and safe in the world, that she might spring into her tween years feeling connected and whole.
Today I am at The HerStories Project sharing my tips for teaching our daughters about friendship struggles and breakups. Have you had to teach your young daughters about the challenges of girls’ friendships? Stop by and join the conversation!
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