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Adolescence doesn't always turn into a parental nightmare

Author Karen Stabiner records her daughter's journey into the teenage years, and what it means for her as a mother. Read an excerpt from "My Girl."
/ Source: TODAY

Author Karen Stabiner didn't want to believe that when her daughter Sarah became a teenager, their close relationship would suddenly disappear. Instead of listening to friends and the media, she chronicled her daughter's 'tween years — the time between 10 to 14 — and found that growing up needn't be the nightmare that is often portrayed. Read an excerpt from "My Girl: Adventures With a Teen in Training."

Baby LoveChildren get younger right before they go to bed. Sarah is ten, all angles and bones, but when she is drowsy, wrapped in her flannel cocoon, she is six, maybe seven, flushed peach cheeks, soft curls, and a hazy grin. Back then she had light bones; I could hoist her in the air long after other kids her age were earthbound. Now I wonder how long it will be before I cannot carry her.

She says that if I pick her up every day I will always be able to, which makes sense so long as I do not dwell on it. I pick her up about once a week, but not the way I once did, scooping her up one armed, swinging her onto my shoulders, spinning her until I felt the centrifugal force tug at her wrists. I was loopy with affection; I could turn her upside down.

Tonight, lifting requires strategy and cooperation: She sits at the edge of my bed, wraps her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist, and on the count of three I step back and she holds on tight. My lower back complains, which it did not used to do, but we make it down the hall, Sarah squealing, "You can do it, Mommy," and I drop her backward on her bed.

She gets under the covers, I slide in next to her, and she tells me I should not go to New York tomorrow morning. We have this conversation every time I go, and I was wrong to think that it would get easier as she got older. Sarah clearly has inherited her father's high school debate-team gene and believes that she can talk me out of what I have to do. Resolved: There is nothing so compelling that it can come between us.

I say the same things I always say: lucky that I only go once in a while. Nice that daddy works at home. None of it makes a dent, and I don't blame her. Life is not a consolation prize. Lunch an hour from now is useless when a child is hungry, and almost home does not help if she is tired. Back on Tuesday means nothing when I will be gone for the six days between now and then.

I could act like leaving is no big deal and hope that she follows my lead, but who wants to raise a stoic? I pat the place where teachers still tell kids their hearts are. "You know," I say, "it's like me and my daddy. He's always with me here, even though he isn't around anymore. And I am always, always with you, no matter where I am."

That's good. Reassure her by bringing up a dead parent. Luckily, she is too young to be morbid. For her, my father is shorthand for great parent, the kind of guy who still makes a strong impression twelve years after the cigarettes won.

"Mommy," she finally replies, "I would rather be with you forever than own a horse."

Sarah would rather have a horse than breathe. "When I'm mad at you it won't feel that way," she goes on. "But it will still be true."

Mad at me? I was happy being better than a horse. I do not look forward to being the object of her scorn — and for the first time, I realize that there may be no way to avoid it.

A woman I barely know had come by a few weeks earlier to salvage my spindly rosebushes, a favor she dispatched with a quick display of five-leaf pruning and a stern lecture about horticultural neglect. Then she settled in for a cup of tea and the real fun, an unsolicited appraisal of my relationship with Sarah. I do not know her well enough to recall her teenage daughter's name, nor did she observe us long enough for her tea to grow cold, but that did not stop her. The specifics of our life were frankly beside the point. She had a universal truth to impart.

Life between a mother and a teenage girl gets as bad as it once was good, she said, and then, if the mother is fortunate, the girl takes off altogether.

This was not the first time I had been so warned. Women who said such things always had daughters who were old enough to drive, and their girls were rarely around when they made the prediction, having driven to the mall, the movie theater, a friend's house — the destination far less important to them than the ability to get there. They were elsewhere, which was all that mattered, while Sarah still wrapped herself around my shoulder like a vine.

The visiting mom seemed quite relieved to have been left in the dust, since lately being in the same room with her daughter involved a level of histrionics she found intolerable.

I meekly suggested that I would miss Sarah when she is grown up, but the older and wiser mom corrected me.

"No, no," she said. "Trust me. By the time she gets her license, you'll be thrilled to have her out of the house." Bereft, it seemed, was but a way station on the road to bliss.

She had no qualms about saying this in Sarah's presence, which struck me as unkind, like telling a child that the tooth fairy is a con. We were happy, even if it turned out to be temporary. Why did people want to tell us it would end? Because they were jealous, I told myself. I preferred this explanation to the alternative, which was that they were just like us, once, until adolescence made hash of their mutual affection.

Sarah was staunch in her defiance, probably because the woman's pronouncement scared her as much as it scared me. She clung to me ever more tightly and announced that it would not happen to us, and the other mother smiled a knowing smile and shot me a wink. I did not offer her a second cup of tea.

After she left, Sarah wondered how anyone could say such a thing. I shrugged. I told her I love her, which is my default position when I am confused.

My mother lives half the country away, and I do not recall much talk of love between us, but then, I had a more restrained childhood than Sarah does. In a midcentury midwestern suburb, we were big on proper behavior and suspicious of extremes of any kind. When my mother spoke of love, she did so with exasperation: It was a given in any good family, which was what we aspired to be, so there was no need to mention it. I suppose I am making up for lost time. I like to talk about love.

Bedtime always brings on the hyperbole. We can get a call-and-response going to rival a revival meeting. Sarah usually starts with a question, to signal that normal conversation has ceased: You want to know something? she asks me. What?

I love you. I love you, too. You're fabulous. I think that about you, too.

We invoke infinity and endless galaxies, and then, when superlatives threaten to fail us, I bail us out with the same last line I have used since we started to do this.

"I love you more than words," I say, and she is satisfied. My husband, Larry, once asked if I meant that I love Sarah more than words can express or more than I love words.

Yes, I said. The older she gets, the longer we go on, even on nights when I do not have a suitcase to pack. Mere mortals like the rose lady might fall by the wayside, but not us.

Or maybe we both know the truth, which is that someday she will want the car keys, and I will stay behind. Maybe we are shouting across the abyss.

Excerpted from “My Girl: Adventures With a Teen in Training,” by Karen Stabiner. Copyright © 2005 by Karen Stabiner. Published by Little, Brown & Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.