The older kids get, the more parents find themselves caught in the middle. (Hopefully, not between the judge and the bailiff.) Especially with milestones.
Milestones are both nice and essential. They let families know exactly where they stand in relation to each other--- offspring, with respect to their parents’ checkbook; parents, with regard to their children’s proximity to bar stools. In the vicissitude-ridden scheme of daily life, milestones provide a connect-the-dots sketch for the present and, unlike those later on, which tend to be of the gall and kidney variety, something to look forward to.
There’s one milestone, however, that, from Mom and Dad’s perspective, cuts both ways. It’s devastating, and because it arrives with the randomness of a meteor shower, you can’t prepare for it. Call it the eclipse of cuteness.
When kids are small we make allowances for them based on their age. “Boys will be boys,” we say after Little Joe tried to flush our Cairn Terrier down the toilet. Later, after the pooch has been dried and sedated, the incident acquires a humorous patina and becomes part of family mythology. Little Joe may even grow up to be a veterinarian to deal with latent guilt feelings and patent a new drug to help hyperventilating dogs.
But what about when Joe’s older? When he should know better? Suddenly the incident has serious repercussions of maturity.
An old For Better Or For Worse cartoon captures both sides of this equation perfectly.
New mother Elle cradles baby April as three women friends look on. Every gurgle and gastric expulsion the infant makes elicits paroxysms of delight. Meantime, Elle’s teenage son Michael sidles by, swilling from a can of pop, and lets go with a glass-breaking belch. Elle immediately chews him out. The last frame shows him looking at us in total befuddlement.
Ain’t it the truth. And were he a few years younger, his perplexed look would be worn by his parents. Especially if he were female, and especially by Dad, with whom such behavior can resonate chauvinistically.
Try as I might, I can’t help having some increasingly outdated notions of youthful femininity. My idea of a tweenie still conjures someone in a frilly smock seated on a swing reading Charlotte’s Web, not Little Ms. Bowflex. I envision Anna on pointe in ballet class, hygienic beyond a horse barn, proceeding to womanhood gracefully and immaculately, not breaking someone’s nose with a karate kick or pummeling her in the mire. (Later on, of course, I’ll expect her to rip a rival’s ponytail off and pasta-wrestle her for the favor of some yahoo who washes in his own sweat.)
Not so long ago, such antics would have been mitigated by the cuteness factor. Bringing down the kitchen light fixture by trying to rappel the fridge, though impacting insurance premiums, would elicit a sigh and a shrug, but no panic. “Tomboys will be tomboys,” we’d say. It’s only temporary, a chuckhole on the tarmac to maturity.
On the cusp of teendom, though, such behavior sets off alarm bells. The mind leaps ahead, envisioning, instead of the prom queen, a roller derby Amazon. As our young women approach the milestone of puberty, we reach one ourselves, compounded equally of denial and anticipation. We want them to stay cuteness-accessible while also moving toward grownup savvy. Being aware of such ambivalence doesn’t seem to help; it just stirs guilt and ruefulness and a thousand other emotions into the mix.
As much as anything, athletics and athleticism can trigger such conflict. While I applaud girls having more options in sport (and life generally), I’m still getting used to it, especially with my own daughter.
Having involved Anna in soccer early, I’m awed by her lithe and powerful physique and her progress in the game. And recalling the recent past, when simply making contact with the ball was cause for celebration, I’m amazingly regretful at times. When I see her galloping downfield like a racehorse, I feel not just the cuteness factor but something more vast subsiding like the wind, and realize that milestones mean more than transitions. At such moments I’d cheerfully swap the thoroughbred in her for the foal she used to be.
Even if it means extracting a cat from the commode now and then.