Where Did My Little Girl Go?

You have a baby. You fall in love. And then that baby grows up and turns… mean? This is how Laura Munson got through her lowest mom moment raising a teenager.

The author and her daughterBy Laura Munson, REDBOOK.

There's one comment every new mother gets, usually from someone you could never imagine being yourself: an empty-nester-or, worse, some mom of a teen, touching your shoulder as her daughter stands next to her, visibly annoyed.

"It goes so quickly. Just you wait."

I've abhorred those words since the moment my little girl was born. Every time, it's like a cast spell, and I ward it off by thinking, No. We will go slowly. We will not be like you.

But here I am, at exactly the place I thought I'd never be, and my daughter is only 11. I have years to go before she leaves the nest. But it's like she woke up the other day and was… different. Defensive, cranky. Like her love for me drained out in her sleep. I am sad and I am scared. I've even started having nightmares-ones where she's in danger and I can't get to her. They wake me at 3 in the morning, and I creep to her room and find her, in her new PBteen bed, sleeping in her braids, the blue light from her clock radio showing me that she is still alive, yes, and so suddenly big.

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When she was a baby, I'd get up in the night and put my finger under her tiny nose to feel the warm ebb and flow. Sometimes I'd kiss her forehead, or her unobjecting lips. I did it just last night, and for once, no irritated preteen hand swiped my kiss away.

The morning comes, and she's at my bedside at 7 a.m., grumpy that it's another cruel day, one in which she will be forced to suffer the drudgery of family life. Getting out the door will be brutal for her; just the act of zipping up her parka will bring her to boiling frustration. She will tell her little brother to shut up, even though all he said was, "You've got it inside out," and she'll yell at me even though all I asked was, "Do you want turkey and cheese or ham and cheese?" I know it's her job to move on beyond the universe of her family; it's the progression of life. So this is less about her and more about me. I am grieving a very particular loss: the loss of the "little" in my little girl.

You know, for a long time her childhood did go slowly. There was a delicious stretch of years that felt static and impermeable. She'd slip her hand into mine at the street corner. She'd stroke the tiny hairs between my eyebrows, not scorn their lack of grooming. She'd pull a chair up next to me at the kitchen counter and watch as I cut carrots and celery for my tomato sauce and say, "Your food is made with love" (not that pasta makes you fat, like she does now). More than anything, she liked me to sing to her-at bedtime, on walks, in the car on the way to school. She loved to sit at the piano with me and "take a ride" on my fingers as I played her a sea shanty called "The Golden Vanity." She'd suck her first two fingers as I sang that sad, long song. In fact, her slide into tweendom began with "The Golden Vanity."

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"It's depressing," she announced one day when she was 10. "Please don't sing it anymore."

It is a depressing song, I rationalized. About a vainglorious cabin boy who eventually drowns. What was I thinking, singing that to her for all her formative years? And I told myself to let go. She could pick her own music. Her own clothes. I breathed deep. This is all natural, I told myself. But then it snowballed, and my girl got swallowed up whole by somebody else. Someone who, today, will roll her eyeballs at every one of the following: Please feed the dog. Don't forget, you have a piano lesson. Have you brushed your teeth? And even: I love you so much. In fact, her eyeballs will rotate so much that I'll seriously worry about retinal damage.

Just how am I supposed to mother this person who stole my precious baby girl? When she mocks me for my "mom jeans," my first impulse is to jump on every word, match her and raise her one. Needless to say, it doesn't work. So I've learned to tell her what isn't acceptable and quietly remove myself. My sister-in-law-a mother of five-calls it "selective hearing." She knows from experience: Don't take it personally. Savor those occasional, spontaneous moments of beauty (like just the other day, when I got a note on my bed with the words J'adore, surrounded with a pink heart), because those moments will come. And remember that sometimes we're the absolute worst to the people we love and trust the most. When it comes right down to it, I suppose those eye rolls are a good sign. She feels safe; she knows I will love her always, no matter what. "This is natural," a friend with older kids assures me. "In order to leave the nest, we must defy it. It's just a stage. It'll pass," she says, all pro.

"But she's only 11," I whine. "And the worst of it is: I don't particularly like this 11-year-old kid. She's disrespectful. She's mean."

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"She'll come back around," my friend says, smiling. And then I recall that she was one of the ones who said, "It goes so fast. Just you wait." She wasn't grinning back then.

When I'm feeling mature, I can say: "Mother hood is a truly selfless act. We fall head over heels in love with our little ones, and then we mourn the loss of them with the same passion. It's part of the job." In my less-mature moments, it's more like this: It's a scam and I fell for it! The whole cute toddler thing's a setup to continue the species! If they came out of the womb at 11, we wouldn't even keep them in the house, let alone coddle them and feed them food "made with love"!

Just this morning, I hit rock bottom at the grocery store. A mother is holding up an apricot to her 2-year-old and sing songs, "apricot." The baby pats both of her mother's cheeks, smiles, kisses her, and says, "apricot." I meet the mother's eye, an almost-venom tangling in me, and I actually say, "She'll be grown up before you know it!" And I can tell: That mom would punch me in the throat if she weren't so spellbound. I feel sorry for my words, but sorrier for myself. I want my own baby back.

I'm not saying that my love is reserved for the cute and pudgy and compliant. Or that I'm not signed up for the future, whatever it may hold: cars, boys, teenage hormones. Or that my kid isn't an amazing miracle of a person, even in her worst moments. She is. I'm simply saying that my little girl's not coming back. She was a person in my house whom I lived with for a decade, rubbing her back every night. She didn't care what my breath smelled like or if I was four minutes late to pick her up from soccer practice. She liked peas then, and squash, and red meat. She liked being the little girl in our family. She liked me.


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