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August 06, 2008

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

381861_holding_hands It was bound to happen sooner or later.  I guess I just assumed it would be later. 

For the first time ever, my daughter, Bella Bambina, refused to hold my hand in public.  Not because she was angry with me, not because she was in a hurry, not because she was being ornery or contrarian.  Just because.  Just because she’s nine-and-a-half.  Just because she’s growing up. 

As she and her brother and I walked down a busy and very public street in Beverly Hills, and as my son sweetly slipped his little paw in mine, my daughter committed her first sin of omission (at least that I know about).  She simply did not take my hand.  My heart took a little dip.  I walked a few more paces without saying anything.  Finally, weenie that I am, I couldn’t take it and asked if she wanted to hold my hand.  She looked around quickly and then shook her head, no.  Not wanting her to realize how hurt I was, I pretended to pretend to pout (meaning I wanted her to believe I was pretending to pout, but in reality, I was sort of pouting) and asked why not?  One beat, and then another without an answer.  I could tell she was trying to think of some reasonable explanation that I would buy.  “I have a book in my hand,” she finally replied.   Not one to give up, I said, “Well, why don’t you put it in your other hand?”  She just shook her head again.

I let it go, and with it—a little piece of my heart and her childhood.

Anyone who is not a parent would probably say “Big deal.”  But to me, that first refusal was like an ice pick to the heart, one of the first signs that my child won’t always need me and, even worse, won’t always want me.  I began to picture groups of giggling tweens in her room, going silent when I entered.  I saw her spending lots of time on the phone, rolling her eyes at my stupidity (although, to be fair, she’s already started doing that. . .), getting ready for a date.  I could hear saying “But Mo-o-om (what happened to “mama?”), you just don’t understand.”  I could see her packing for college, bringing home her first serious boyfriend, engaging in earnest philosophical debates with her father about politics, religion, pre-marital sex.  (Okay, knowing my husband, maybe not the latter. . .).  Career, marriage, children.

I was starting to hyperventilate.

Lest you think I was vastly overreacting (I will admit, however, to overreacting just a teensy bit), let me put this in context.  My daughter has always been deeply attached to me, and some would argue, unhealthily so.  How much of that has to do with my having had postpartum depression after both her birth and that of her brother, is open to some conjecture.  Unfortunately, I conjecture all the time.  I’m sure her state of mind is at least partially a result of my emotional unavailability during those periods.  And even though I know deep down it was not my “fault,” in that the PPD was not something in my control, I feel guilty each and every day about what my mental state may have done to her psyche at a pivotal time in her life.

Given all that, it is unsurprising that she has been one of those so-called Velcro kids.  She didn’t separate easily in preschool.  She needed my reassurance for just about everything.  From the time she could walk, she grabbed my hand whenever we were walking together.  (In fact, there were times when I wished she wouldn’t—when I wished I could feel free of her sweaty clasp—when my arms could swing easily, when I could clip clop along quickly and alone.   Now I wish I could take back each and every one of those wishes).  For goodness sake, she still can’t go to sleep without me next to her-and here she was refusing to hold my hand?  One of those self-same hands (Ack! When did the back of my hands start to look like my mom’s?) that has been the object of many a fight between sis and bro? (“No, this is MY hand. . . Unh-Unh, I got there first.”  Ha! Ha!  I’ve got the better hand . . .”).  Yep, that was my hand hanging there—empty, naked, purposeless.

Okay, I guess I am laying it on a bit thick. . .

Still, my feelings were real, and their strength took me by surprise. I’m not a particularly sentimental person (except when it comes to those manipulative sons-of-bitches at Hallmark and Kodak.  Those damned commercials get me every time).  I don’t feel the need to hold on to everything my children do or say.  I don’t feel any particular need to keep all my children’s clothes or toys or art projects.   I did not cry on my children’s first day of preschool, kindergarten or first grade. I was not overwhelmed by the loss of my child’s first tooth.  To the extent I was excited or moved about such things, it was because my children were excited or moved.  Unlike many other parents, I was not unduly emotional about the standard milestones.  I didn’t long for the past.  For example, I heard many friends bemoaning the fact that this was “the last time” they’d have a child in kindergarten.  That didn’t bother me in the least, although it did make me wonder if I was defective in some crucial maternal way.  I enjoyed each of the stages my children went through (with the exception of colic and tantrums—and it remains to be seen how I’ll feel about my daughter’s teenaged years. . .) but didn’t feel the need to prolong them, and was not particularly sad to move on.

If I’m being completely honest, I have to admit to crying at various end-of-the-school-year slide shows, but I swear, it was all about the music.  Set a bunch of slides of adorable, wide-eyed kids to “Teach your Children” and other music of that ilk, and I’ll break down every time. (I believe I’ve already mentioned the Hallmark and Kodak commercials. . . )

So, as I said, I was surprised at my strong reaction to such a little thing as my daughter deciding not to hold my hand.  Maybe this is the first time I’ve really felt the “threat” of my children’s independence.  Before, I always knew I was needed, for good or ill. Now, I could finally see my daughter taking her first real step toward independence.  The first time, from my perspective, that she has made an obvious choice, as small and seemingly insignificant as it was, to be separate from me.

And I know it is a good thing.  The right thing.  She needs to grow up by making her own choices.  She needs figure out how to become her own person, guided by me for a while, perhaps, but not directed by me. Yes, it is good.

I have to admit, though, when we were in a new place the other day-- a very busy out-of-town airport --and my Bella Bambina once again grabbed my hand while we were walking, I couldn’t help feeling relieved; there’s still some little girl lurking in that rapidly growing body of hers.  I suspect we’re just about to enter a Jekyll-and-Hyde period in my daughter’s life.  On some days she’ll need me like the little girl she really still is, and on other days, I’ll be catching glimpses of the teenager and young woman she will become.  And I’ll just have to enjoy whichever Bella Bambina shows up on that day--and try not to dwell on what used to be.

When she's not contributing original posts to the Los Angeles Moms Blog, of which the foregoing piece is one, Karen S. can be found writing much less sentimentally on her personal blog, Nouvelle Blogger.

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