As my child navigates the next stage in growing up, it’s up to me to be sure I’m still here for her in the ways she needs – even if neither of us are always sure of what that is.
Life with a tween girl is figuring out how to keep her close while also giving her room…
The first time my daughter went camping, she was just shy of a year. At night in our small pop-up tent trailer, I’d zip her into a sleep sac, and then lay on my side, my body curled around hers. I slept on the outside of the bed platform, with my back to the damp canvas wall so there could be no chance she’d roll off the bed and under the canvas to the ground below (a virtual
impossibility, since it snapped into place on the underside of the platform). If she rolled in the other direction, away from me, she’d only drop an inch or two onto the converted seating area where my son, almost four at the time, slept soundly. There was no space between our mattress and his, so she couldn’t fall to the trailer’s floor, and I knew his body would block hers from rolling all the way to the far edge.
Despite the well-planned logistics, I got no sleep: I refused to move from my curled position or turn my back to her, so one of my hips pressed against the hard metal platform through the thin mattress all night long – the spot was bruised for a week – and my neck, bent at an odd angle, was sore for days. I couldn’t stop imagining that she might somehow wriggle out of the circle of my arms, and get under the canvas wall – or worse, that someone or something might reach in and grab her. I worried that if she did drop to the next bed, her older brother might roll on top of her unaware, and she wouldn’t be able to breathe. Or she’d crawl her way over him and tumble head-first to the floor below. What if I slept through it? I’d woken at the slightest noise since my children had been born, but what if? My husband was an incredibly deep sleeper, almost impossible to rouse. Making sure she stayed safe in that tent trailer was entirely up to me – and it was hard work. As I lay in the dark, body aching, waiting for dawn, I remember thinking: this will get easier … this will get much easier, someday.
And in the physical sense, it has. She’s almost 12 now. A tween girl. Her brother is nearly 15. They can tie their shoes, put on their bike helmets without assistance. They are better swimmers than I am, they climb trees without getting a scratch. They wake in the middle of the night, stomp up and down the creaky stairs, get a glass of water and go back to bed – and I sleep through it all, somehow. When they were younger, they’d come to me for that glass of water or, more often, simply for a cuddle. Sometimes I’d walk them back to their beds and lay down with them; sometimes I’d just let them climb in with me, and we’d fall back asleep together. As they got older, it became less frequent of course. And then it stopped altogether – first for her brother, being three years older; sometime over the last eight or nine months, she stopped as well.
Despite the fact I got much more sleep (and had often groaned in exhausted frustration when they called out in the night) I actually missed those cuddles after they were gone. The end of an era, with unknown territory ahead. I took solace in the new rituals, in particular the pre-bedtime “hangout” that seemed to have spontaneously become a habit – again, first with her brother a few years ago, and more recently with her, too. They sit on my bed in the evening, delaying bedtime for “one more minute,” chatting about the day, making jokes, telling me about some new Lego kit or Xbox game – and yes, also fighting with each other about who should get the better pillow, who should cuddle the cat, who should tell me their story first. Then they go to bed, tuck themselves in, and that’s that. It’s a routine that speaks to blooming maturity and independence, to needing me less in some ways and more in others, and I hope it continues indefinitely.
But “almost 12” is a very particular age, a unique waystation in growing up. A tween girl is neither child nor teenager, but something uniquely in between. Some days, it’s hugs and crafts and “please read me a story” and the next it’s big feelings, and body changes, and moods that can change in a heartbeat. It’s marked by needing more independence one minute, and wanting less the next one, and neither she nor I seem to always know which is which at the right time.
In the last month, the middle-of-the-night “can I come sleep with you” has suddenly reappeared. “Of course you can,” I always whisper, throwing the blanket back. There is not nearly enough room in the bed, and chances are good I won’t get much sleep. But I know if she’s asking – after the streak of independence over the last year – that there’s a good reason for it. And I also know that each time might be the really-for-sure-definitely last time.
I remember being almost 12; it was a complicated and confusing age. And unlike my daughter, I didn’t have to navigate it after two years of covid-related restrictions and uncertainty. I have no experience parenting my tween girl at this particular age; what worked for her brother at this stage, won’t necessarily work for her. I feel mostly clueless and fumbling in the dark, as I have at each stage of their lives.
But if I’ve learned anything at all along the way, it’s that children will tell you what they need, if you listen, if you watch, if you pay attention. Mostly, if you’re willing to realize it might not be what you think they should need, when you think they should need it. And what she needs right now, it seems, is to be close by – at least, sometimes. The whole day might be moody grumps and independence, posting “please knock” signs on her door, and rolling her eyes at her brother. Maybe after a long day navigating this new stage of her own life, she simply needs the reminder that I’m still right there, even in the middle of the night, ready to keep her safe – and she’s still young enough to request it.
So she crawls into bed and I lay on one side, unmoving, curled around her again – symbolically if not literally, since she’s almost as tall as me now – just as I did in that tent trailer so long ago, my body getting sore. Morning will come without enough sleep. This part of raising a child is hard, I think to myself in the dark. It’s so hard, just like the stage before and the stage before that, each in their own ways. But I remind myself, as I have in the past, as I will no doubt in the future: this too will get easier, this too will get much easier, someday.