When you’re pregnant, people say, “Enjoy your sleep while you can!” When they’re babies, people say, “Enjoy it before they’re mobile!” When they’re toddlers, people say, “Enjoy it before they start talking back!” When they’re in preschool, people say, “Enjoy it before the friend problems start!” When they’re in elementary school, people say, “Enjoy it before they’re teenagers!” But when they’re in middle school, well all that “enjoy it” shit comes to a screeching halt.
Why do people say these things anyway? Is it to give you pause, make you think? Is it to make themselves feel better? Or is it so you can look back and say how fucking brilliant they were? By the way, it’s not really a loving little tidbit meant to engage you in the present. It’s a reminder that they have laid the groundwork, you are the novice and your happy little life is about to get a kick in the ass. In any event, you won’t find many middle school parents telling you to enjoy it. Sure, it’s the last rodeo before teenager-hood sets in. But it is a road paved with tricky twists and turns. It was formed from the anxiety that you experienced not so long ago. After walking this road for about a week now, I’ve decided that I need to pull over. I need to regroup.
In my house, we’ve had our share of nervous excitement, first day jitters and existential preteen drama. What I was unprepared for, what I am still unprepared for as a parent to this day, is how completely and fully I inhabit their experience. After my first heartbreak, I remember my mom telling me, “As a mom, when you hurt, I hurt. When you’re sad, I’m sad.” As a fully realized teenager, I of course shrugged it off. How could she possibly know how I feel? She is old. She is married. She is boring. But as the years pass, it becomes clearer and clearer. She was right.
In a 2013 article published in the journal Neuroscience, saliva samples were obtained from middle schoolers who were making the tough transition from elementary school. As it happens, their saliva is chock full of cortisol-meaning they are in a state of stress where their brain is having to intervene to try and achieve some calm. In addition, a preteen’s brain is way more focused on emotional processing than logical reasoning. Uh-huh. I see you all nodding. This is referring to the moment when your preteen’s head literally explodes in front of you and you are left wondering, “who the hell is this person?” All of a sudden, when everything seemed to be going along swimmingly, you are having to set boundaries, delineate rules and establish order. And guess what? Despite the fact that chaos is ruling your home, it’s all perfectly normal.
There’s nothing like novelty to get your brain supercharged. Some people thrive on newness. They get bored when things are all routine and predictable. They need intrigue and new ideas to explore. I am not one of those people. And guessing from the talk of the suburbanites around me, we are all feeling a bit challenged. Yesterday at a mom gathering at a friend’s house, some of the moms were wondering where their child had gone and who was that stranger now occupying their body? (Here is where I apologize to parents of younger children. I won’t be that bitch who says, “Enjoy it! Before your kid gets to middle school!”) Last night, my husband astutely told me I was in supermom mode right now, but that it was temporary and everything will normalize soon. It’s all gonna be fine. I tried to believe him.
But it wasn’t until today while talking to my wise friend Tami that it all came together. She was talking about how she had left a note on her daughter’s bed before she left for work. Without knowing the exact wording, essentially it said the following: I’m sorry. I love you. This is a transition for me, too. She acknowledged that she was going through this as well. We are in this together. I’m not perfect, but you can count on me. Isn’t that cool?
There are no easy answers, I suppose, although I wish there were. There is great advice to read and be gained from your friends who have been there. But, there is heartache ahead for your child, no matter who you are. My daughter, who is too big for my lap, cuddled up in my lap last night. She said, “When I was little and I had a nightmare, you told me it was okay and I wasn’t scared anymore. Now I guess I have to do that myself.” Sniffle, yes. We can help. We can listen (not to be confused with that other “L” word: lecture). Spend time with them without their siblings. Keep our shit together when she is losing hers. Remind ourselves that their brains aren’t finished growing yet; that emotions often control their behavior.
And let her know, your lap is always there if she needs it.
Thanks to Barbara Paulsen, for the beautiful photos. She has a high schooler and a middle schooler. You should talk to her about it. She’s a great mom.