Middle School Stole My Mini Me
Yeah, you….the girl in the Lululemon, with your venti-soy-skinny-macchiato-with-two-Splendas in the car cup holder. You’re probably reading this article during car line…. in between responding to the PTA emails, confirming next week’s sleepover, and rescheduling the orthodontist appointment you double booked.
I bet you’re psyched for your idyllic planned-down-to-the-minute winter break trip, am I right? You know, the one with your perfectly paired “travel family.” I’m guessing Turks and Caicos this year? Maybe Aspen? Husbands get along perfectly, your kids have been best friends since preschool and, of course, your “we’ve-been-friends-since-Mommy & Me/Barry’s Boot Camp or Soul Cycle buddy/Co-Room Mother” best friend. I’m guessing your child is in fourth grade…maybe fifth. Right? You and your bestie have probably been commiserating over lunch dates about how the kids are adopting unpleasant little microexpressions lately (i.e. eye rolls), talking more about social media (which you’ve thus far been stringently overseeing, or so you think), dancing a little sexier than you’d like, and beginning to worship internet sensations that completely contradict every morsel of healthy body image rhetoric you’ve drilled into your tiny angel’s head.
I remember you well. I WAS you. Blissfully unaware that my little world would change so radically in such a short period of time. You, my beautiful friend, are in the halcyon days of Pre Middle School.
Enjoy them. Take mental snapshots of those precious moments when innocent little girls play nicely with each other, when your child looks at you with admiration (rather than anger), and snuggling together is the norm. Relish these trips with other families while everyone still harbors no animosity. Appreciate every car ride conversation with your child. Gaze at her lovingly in her bedroom while her door stays happily open and welcoming…and treasure the smile she gives you when she catches you staring.
I tell you this because, in all likelihood, this wonderful world you’ve painstakingly created will, without much warning, come to a grinding, painful halt. I never got the memo. You probably haven’t either. When my Middle School maelstrom occurred, I was on round two. After a seamless transition from elementary school to middle school to high school, I was, in retrospect, naïvely overconfident regarding my mothering skills . My eldest is a boy. In most instances, boys ARE easy.
Everything changes with a girl. E V E R Y T H I N G. And nothing prepares you.
Knowing what I know now, I would love to sit down with my old self. I’d give her a really big hug and promise her that she will get through to the other side (and it will have been worth every shed tear). I’d show her that I survived (with no visible scars). I’d share with her what I’d learned while in the trenches…and hope she can find some shortcuts or alternate routes. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’d give her a bottle of Xanax. She’ll need it.
Since I can’t time travel (nor prone to sharing prescription medications with strangers), I’m giving you the Cliff Notes that I’d wish someone would have given me:
1) Your daughter will undergo a personality transformation that will make you question the existence of demonic possession. Yes, your pretty little princess…so don’t kill the messenger. It will start off gradually. A snarky comment here, a dramatic eye roll there. She’ll have a look of revulsion when you speak in front of her friends. At first, you’ll assume she’s tired or being precocious. You’ll eventually recognize that this behavior is the new normal. I promise you, there is a light at the end of the tunnel*. (*note: it’s a really long tunnel)
- Once you realize that the transformation has begun, it is essential that you recognize that other moms are going through this, too. Reach out to them and be each other’s support system. Each child reaches her demonic peak at different times, so be there for each other’s crises. Be objective and nonjudgemental. The special select few women who ended up being my sounding board were moms who were honest about being on the front line. We picked each other up and found humor in the midst of the insanity.
- Most importantly (and I can’t emphasize this enough), don’t ever be “that mom.” We all know her: the one whose child is NEVER misbehaving, NEVER a mean girl. Her daughter may have been present during a “teachable moment” but was NEVER involved (HINT: they use the word “NEVER” a lot). You don’t ever have to ask “that mom” about her daughter’s involvement. She’ll tell you. “That Mom’s” child is perfect. Bitch, please.
- While we are on the topic of “that mom,” also beware of “competitive mom.” We are all proud of our children; no parent needs to compete and compare her child with yours over grades, popularity, clothes. There’s always one or two in the bunch. In hindsight, I can try to rationalize this vicarious behavior as insecurity on the part of the mother. Honestly, when you’re knee-deep in middle school craziness, you don’t have room in your life for that level of insanity.
- Remember that “travel family” I mentioned earlier? Well, there is a very good chance that her daughter and your daughter will align themselves with different groups. One will inevitably be with the more popular group du jour (this status, by the way, changes hourly in middle school). The other child will be heartbroken. Your friend (or you) will be distraught because your world is about to be rocked to its core. Popular girl will be torn between her allegiance to what she believes is the “cool” group she associates with and her relationship with her childhood friend. Here’s where you need to tread lightly, regardless of what side of the fence you happen to fall on. My suggestion is to have this discussion with YOUR friend BEFORE middle school begins. Your friendship needs to remain a “drama-free” zone if you harbor any hopes for survival.
2) Drama. I’m talking Grey’s Anatomy cliffhanger-level drama. It will occur daily. Your child will come home from school tearfully recounting an event that could only be described as ripped verbatim from a script of “Mean Girls.” Disregard your first instinct because, chances are, it’s diametrically opposite of what you really should do. Don’t call the school, don’t call the parent, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t go after the kid. Assume that any and all advice you give your child will be met with more tears, some light screaming, and an inevitable, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!!!”
- Before you turn into Erin Brockovich, please take my word that this drama is ever evolving. Tomorrow it will be something else…and someone else. Save your credibility and your sanity and sit tight. The ride has just begun.
- We’ve all been angst-ridden teens ourselves so, in theory, we do understand. If we haven’t blocked our own memories out of our subconscious, most of us can somewhat remember feeling the way our daughter is feeling. But here’s the thing: we didn’t grow up with social media. We didn’t have instant access to our peers’ “stream of conscious” thoughts or a real-time window into their after school social lives. If we called a friend after school and they weren’t home, we saw them in school the next day. Our daughters are inundated with photos, tweets, and posts hourly. An unkind post/tweet or a “BFF” pic sans your child can turn on the waterworks faster than you can change the wi-fi password. Like your daughter said, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!”…at least not yet. Just be there as a sounding board. Don’t try to fix this…because you can’t. Welcome to FOMO.
- Every now and then, be the proverbial “punching bag.” Aside from battling the newly minted hormones swirling through your daughter’s bloodstream, she spends her days dissecting every comment, every microexpression, and every power play of her peers. She spends way more time than you’d imagine analyzing her peers and her position in her social group. She’s probably regretting something she said or did. Or didn’t say or didn’t do. It’s exhausting. This is akin to the “terrible twos” and sometimes, within reason, a good old temper tantrum and cry is just what the doctor ordered. You couldn’t fix the tantrums then; you definitely can’t fix them now. There will be time for “teachable moments” later. I promise….
3) Teachable Moments, aka “the Bubble or the Rope.” Here’s where I ask you to really think back on your secrets you shared with your friends at this developmental stage. There will be parties, get togethers, after school activities, sleepovers — and at these parties there will be boys, alcohol and yes, sometimes even drugs. Please do not put your head in the sand at this point and refuse to believe these activities exist in middle school. Instead, ask yourself one question: bubble or rope? The Bubble Mom puts her daughter in the bubble. Every party is screened (as best as one can) or forbidden entirely, every friend (and their parents) is thoroughly vetted, every phone and computer is monitored daily. If you can successfully pull off a perfect “Bubble Mom” without one hitch, kudos to you. I haven’t met one truly successful one yet. The other mom is the “Rope Mom.” Rope mom gives her daughter a sense of personal accountability (the rope). Daughter can either use it as a means to stay connected to mom, or as a noose. I’m a Rope Mom and, thankfully, my daughter hasn’t ever made a noose. My daughter goes to parties, uses her phone and computer unrestricted (with the caveat that I could look at it at any time), and chooses her own friends. We maintain an open dialogue about the perils of poor choices. I recognize her need for privacy and secrets amongst her friends. She is very clear about consequences of poor choices. To date, I am immensely proud of my daughter for the choices she’s made, because she was given the trust and opportunity to be exposed to various situations and utilize her own moral compass. Now I recognize that a good deal of luck played into how my daughter turned out; however, I have been the rope for many a daughter of a “Bubble Mom” who needed guidance after poor choices were made and they needed an adult to turn to. Regardless of your personal choices, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a village of moms with whom your daughter relates.
There is no “one size fits all” formula for this. Some girls breeze through this period with barely a hiccough. Others alter the dynamics of your home so much that it filters down into other relationships. Some days will seem unbearable…and you’ll cry for the child your daughter used to be. You may have a short fuse yourself some days and completely lose it. All of these are normal. Listen closely to the subtext underneath the screaming and the tears. Trust your instincts.
There’s an old saying that “you’re only as happy as your most unhappiest child,” and, for me, this expression never resonated more than during the tempestuous years of Middle School. As I sit here amidst the clutter of college brochures as I prepare for my youngest to embark on the next part of her life, I find myself reflecting back on this journey of motherhood, and more importantly, the biggest challenges I faced. Just like every other parent, obstacles often peppered my years as a full-time mother but none affected me so viscerally as the years my daughter spent in middle school.
Good luck. You’ve got this.