Twelve : The Gateway Year

Twelve isn’t, in and of itself, a particularly noteworthy age. It isn’t 10 (double digits!). It’s not yet 13 or 16 or 18, all of which carry special significance. There was no magical owl to arrive, either. Just… twelve.

As I searched my memory for twelve, one of the first things to come to mind was The Hunger Games. Although most of the characters in the series are older than 12 (and, in the case of the second book, much older), I nevertheless remembered that 12 is the age at which tributes from each district can be chosen.

Starting at twelve, these boys and girls are thrown into a literal life or death situation. They forage for food, sleep outdoors with no provisions or cover, create and wield weapons, and fight to save their own lives… while simultaneously killing other children. At age twelve. This is, of course, Suzanne Collins’s fiction; that doesn’t necessarily make it less jarring.

Ella turned 12 last weekend. She had been eagerly anticipating it, not so much because 12 is so special, but because her birthday fell on a weekend and, for the first time ever, she was able to celebrate with friends on her big day. This past summer, I remarked to Nick that Ella seemed so much older. In fairness, she’d just graduated elementary school, so perhaps there was a natural transition from “kid” to “a bit older kid”… but still, she just seemed different – more mature, more confident, more poised.
img_8552
After her first band concert of the year; I wish I could rock a white parka like this.

This trend has only continued. The girl who once had to be hounded to complete her homework now finishes everything during study hall or immediately upon arriving home. Where as she had, only last spring, being hesitant to talk to her teachers, she now maintains full and open relationships with them, asking questions, advocating for herself, and holding her own. She takes full responsibility for everything she needs for school and swimming, with her bags and lunches packed before I can even remind her.

Ella’s not only more mature on the “doing stuff” front; she’s also somehow more grown-up in her behavior as well. She is easy to talk to and offers keen insights. She has a dry wit and makes fantastic puns. She is also quick to laugh at herself, something that only a few months ago was not really happening. She considers other people’s opinions and is excellent at owning her own mistakes – not necessarily in the moment (because, really, none of us does a good job with that), but upon reflection, she is remarkably astute at dissecting a situation, figuring out what emotions were in play (“I was nervous that I wouldn’t make it on time, so I got mad when you asked if I was doing okay”), and determining where to go from there. I know adults who still suck at this, so Ella is pretty much an emotional mindfulness guru.

Nick and I have begun to share movies with Ella that we’ve been dreaming about since before she was born – The Birdcage and Mission: Impossible were our first picks – and she not only got them, she enjoyed them. I no longer worry about introducing her to stories and songs with swear words or more adult concepts (thanks, Hamilton!), because she understands their context and we can talk about what’s going on.
img_9830
Birthday cannoli! 

So, I guess, in many ways, twelve is a turning point – for Eleanor, anyway. She can cook and bake. She babysits. She can stay home alone (for a bit), be trusted to do the right thing, and knows what to do in an emergency. She’s curious and smart. She is a tremendously empathetic and supportive friend. She is cautious but determined, quiet but bold. She is Shakespeare’s famous, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” and all that.

I suppose, reluctantly, I can see why Suzanne Collins decided that twelve was a reasonable age for Hunger Games tribute-hood.

And yet… Twelve is still but little. At 12, Ella still reaches for my hand. At 12, she and her friends giddily discuss the latest update of an animated hair design app. Twelve is still wanting to be tucked in. Twelve is arguing with your sister argue over who has to shower first. Heck, at 12, there is still opposition to showering, for the love;  apparently, twelve year-olds dislike being clean.

Despite Ella’s awesome desire for knowledge, at 12 there is still so much she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why people are fighting over Aleppo (then again, in fairness, most of us don’t know that, either). She doesn’t know how to set aside time to complete a big school project. She doesn’t know how to navigate social media. I mean, just a few days ago, we had to explain to her that it’s not safe to put metal in the microwave – after she removed a metallic travel mug from a 30-second nuking – because she simply had no idea. No one had ever told her: metal + microwave = bad.
img_9820
You can see her holding the offending mug in this birthday morning photo… Close one, y’all…

Somehow, I feel like maybe Eleanor wouldn’t do so well if she were dropped in the middle of a biosphere and forced to battle to the death. I suppose this mature-childlike dichotomy is exactly why Ms. Collins decided to use 12 as a starting point… but when it’s your own child you’re imagining, the Book Club discussions become a lot less fantastical.

Twelve is a gateway year. It is the only thing standing between child and teenager. And, oh, how people dread the teenager thing… Everyone knows that teenagers are, like, terrifying, angst-ridden, dramatic, trouble, troubled, hell on wheels, exhausting, always hungry, sarcastic, withdrawn, moody, know-it-all (go ahead and fill in the blank) creatures whose sole purpose seems to be to antagonize their parents. At least, that’s what society has us believe… Which means that in about 361 days, Ella will instantaneously morph into a hormonal, self-centered devil-child with whom I will argue every moment of the day. OH YAY!

If twelve is the precursor to teenage-hood, you’d think that Ella would already be showing at least some characteristics of The Dreaded Teenager. But here she is, twelve years old, still delightful, still utterly herself – every day wittier, kinder, more full of gratitude. Perhaps – just maybe – the buffer of twelve isn’t a last hurrah before morphing into a new, defiant, sweaty, completely unfamiliar human… but a merely gradual transition into an older, more mature, more certain version of the children we already know.

I’ll be the first to tell you that Ella has her moments. We have, um, clashed on more than one (like, many more than one) occasion. I am under no illusions that we will make it to adulthood without the stuff that accompanies virtually all of us on that journey. That’s not only a healthy (and inevitable, so I’d better get used to it) thing, it’s a good thing – because if the growth Ella has shown in the past six months is any indication, I don’t want to miss out on this.

So far, I really like twelve.

Happiest 12th Birthday, E-Bean. You embody the “tween” stereotypes and smash them, at the same time. Can’t wait to see what comes next!

Advertisements

Becoming a Parent

I knew that having a second child would change things. I knew instinctively that no two children are alike. But I’d never fully understood what it would mean to parent siblings until having Annie (funny how that works…).

As I’ve mentioned before, Annie’s pregnancy was not planned. To say that I was less than thrilled when we got the news is a significant understatement. Although I eventually grew excited for her arrival (it took 8 months, but I got there), it was a distinct kind of excitement because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

I’d given birth before. I’d held a freshly born baby on my chest. I’d cared for a newborn. I’d raised a baby into toddlerhood, the whole shebang: sleepless nights, leaky boobs, dirty diaper testing via bum-sniff, teething, sleep training, making bizarrely chipper noises while “zooming” lovingly pureed sweet potatoes into my cherub’s mouth (and then scraping at least half of it off her sweet potato-spackled cheeks). I’d oohed over head control and sitting up and pulling up and crawling and walking and talking.

I had this mothering sh*t down.
(HAHAHAHAHAHA. I know. I KNOW.)

Perhaps the first clue that Annie, and my relationship with her, would be different from Ella was when she became stuck in the birth canal and I gave birth via emergency c-section. Instead of holding my freshly born baby on my chest, I stared at her from across the operating room as Nick stood beside her and declared that she was definitely an Annie (not a Katie, our other contender). It took hours for me to finally have my baby in my arms and once I did, I didn’t want to relinquish her (in part out of new birth haze and in part because lifting her up out of the bassinet hurt my stitches).
annieportrait

The next clue came immediately; I’d been expecting it, but it hit me hard nevertheless. As I cozied up with baby Annabelle at the hospital, Nick returned home to nearly two year-old Ella. When she came to visit the next day, I remember being so overwhelmed, I could hardly stand it (yes, a lot of that was probably hormones, but whatever). Because of my surgery, I couldn’t pick Ella up; it devastated me. Seeing how much I wanted to hold her, Nick (or one of her grandmothers) lifted her onto the hospital bed beside Annie and me. I had prepared for this – for loving two children with the very same heart that, a day ago, had only loved one – but it felt so unfamiliar. Not bad; not hard; just uncharted territory. Despite my emotional pep-talks, I was unprepared.

As the oldest of our siblings, Nick and I have only experienced what it’s like to be a firstborn. We both share that stereotypical firstborn trait of Doing Things The Right Way, of Following The Chosen Path. We play by the rules and we expect others to do the same. Growing up, I was always a bit mystified by my friends with older siblings. They were constantly playing catch-up; someone else went to middle school first, got braces first, drove first, left for college first. Like nearly all eldest siblings, I was the leader and the guinea pig, all in one. I knew nothing else.

Ella is, in many ways, a stereotypical firstborn. She, too, likes to Do Things The Right Way (and finds it irritating when other people don’t). I absolutely relate to this. The sign says No Parking, so don’t park – yes, we’re talking to you (except not really ’cause we hate confrontation). The rules say that your knees must bend naturally at the edge of the seat in order to be safe, otherwise you still need a booster; OMG SO MANY PEOPLE ARE UNSAFE. This is not so hard, you guys!! Ella and I are so in sync on this.

Whether due to birth order or personality, or simply because I’d already had (nearly) two years to get to know her, I knew I’d be empathetic toward Ella once her baby sister arrived. I’d grown up with a younger brother; I understood the challenges of sharing, of having someone pester you when your friends came over, of a little sibling continuing to make faces in the car after Mom had told us we weren’t even allowed to look at one another anymore. And so, when Ella was confused and jealous after Annie was born, I was ready for the pang of recognition and empathy.

I didn’t expect to feel that way about Annie.
img_8505
Birthday breakfast.

Yet I did. If Ella wanted my attention while Annie was being put down for a nap, I made sure to finish up with Annie first – not out of obligation, but because I genuinely felt a tug on my heart. As they grew a little older and Annie began reaching for Ella’s toys, I empathized with Ella’s frustration that her little sister was all in her business… while simultaneously empathizing with Annie’s desire to enjoy the same fun stuff as her big sis. When Ella needs space but Annie wants to play, I can almost physically feel my Mama heart encompass Ella’s desire for alone time and Annie’s desire to be with her sister.

Although I hadn’t planned to, like, give Annie the shaft after she arrived, I simply assumed that I’d instinctively understand Ella more.
It hasn’t worked out that way at all.

From the moment Annie was born, I’ve been just as fiercely empathetic toward both of them. It’s been a fascinating and unfamiliar experience, putting myself in the shoes of the younger sister. The seeming injustices that were endured as an older sibling are now seen through both the big sibling’s eyes and the little one’s, and I find myself growing maybe a little wiser (and needing more wine) every time.

Ella made me a mother. Annie made me a parent.

img_9697

Annie’s birthday was yesterday, and she could not wait to be ten. Double digits! The big time! I’d worried that her hitting this milestone might make me wistful or even sad; can my youngest daughter really ben TEN?! Instead, I just felt happy that she was so excited. Perhaps that’s because, in many ways, she acts older than her years. She makes dinner, she does her homework without being asked, and I’m pretty sure she could pick a lock if she needed to (or, heck, if she were bored). But also it’s just been a really fantastic experience being her Mama, so rather than being upset that she’s hit a new decade, I’m thrilled to see what her coming decades will bring.

This isn’t to say it hasn’t gone by in the blink of an eye. Last night, we watched the video I made for her first birthday and I cried more than once – some for the people we’ve lost, but some for just how viscerally I remembered the way she used to watch Dora; when she crawled for the first time; how she fit in my arms. It’s so, so fast, this growing up business.
img_9699

But if the next ten years of Annie are even half as marvelous as the first, it’s going to be worth it, no matter how fast it goes.

Happy 10th Birthday, Nini. We adore you so.

She got this light-up skirt for her birthday. Pretty rad.