new ground

by Janelle Hanchett

You know what’s scary? Now that I have a kid who’s almost 11, I somehow consider the baby/toddler time the “easy” portion of parenting.

Yes, I know. “Easy” is perhaps not the most appropriate word. Being 20 in college is “easy” (though at the time, we are somehow just so overwhelmed with it all). Sitting on a beach with a beverage and an open schedule is “easy.” Somebody said Sunday mornings are “easy,” but I beg to fucking differ. Sunday morning is when I realize all the things I didn’t do on Saturday now must happen today.

How is that easy?

Anyhoo, the thing is, when you have a baby, you just respond to his or her needs. And yes, they have a remarkably large number of needs. But I don’t believe a baby manipulates or gets crafty with the parents. I know there are parents out there who believe a baby exits the womb with a parental-unit attack plan, but I don’t buy it. I think a baby cries when it needs something and so my job is clear: do something when my baby cries. Meet needs. Love. Play. Repeat.

But then, all the sudden (not that this happened 8 years ago in Sacramento with Ava or anything) your 2-year-old starts banging forks on a table in a Chinese restaurant and throwing her body across the bench seat, totally ignoring you as you realize “redirection” is not going to work in this particular situation and suddenly you’re like “Oh, damn. We better start disciplining this creature right now.”

And it’s all downhill from there.

Because then, all the sudden, you’re responsible for instructing and guiding and doing the real parenting work, which will either mold the kid into a well-adjusted human or break her soul.

No pressure though.

And you can read all the books and ask all your friends, subscribe to some “school” of parenting that tells you exactly how to talk to your kids, how to handle each situation, how to not break souls, or, you can be like me (though I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it), and just go into important parenting moments (the crossroads, the high-stakes shit, the deal-breakers) totally unprepared, vastly confused, and slightly terrified, hoping your gut will pull through with something, cause fuck me I have no ideas.

Sounds like a winning combination, right?

Sometimes when these real stumpers come up, when I’m looking at my kid and they’ve just behaved really badly, or the kids at school are mean to them, or something profound has come up in their young lives that must be addressed in one profound way or another – I get this pang of anger toward motherhood, for making me the one responsible for this shit, but providing me no actual tools to do so.

Recently we were at my mother-in-law’s house. After dinner, we were all upstairs in her office when I realized it was nearing 8pm and we needed to get home. So I started the “let’s go” broken-record routine (you know, where you repeat the same words 6 thousand times and not one single kid acknowledges you until you start yelling and barking empty threats?)…ten minutes later, Georgia was removing the contents of a box she found, Rocket was engaging in some nonsense involving headphones and a fork, and Ava wanted to look at a pile of photographs she found in a box on the floor. She asked me if she could look. I said “No,” and then continued my efforts toward departure.

Five minutes later, when I was nearing my breaking point, I turned around and saw Ava sitting on the floor, looking at the pile of photographs.

And for some reason, I got really, really mad. So mad, in fact, that it took every shred of my restraint to just say (okay, fine, maybe yell): “Ava! What are you doing? I just asked you not to do that! LET’S GO!!!”

When we got in the car, I was fuming. Something about the blatant disregard for my direction infuriated me. It was the way she just said nothing, indicated nothing, but sat down and just DISOBEYED, right in my face.

Now, if it were Rocket, a special gentleman who blatantly disobeys me approximately 4 thousand times a day, I wouldn’t have been trippin’ so much. But it was Ava. Ava doesn’t do that. It was like WAY out of character.

And as I was talking to her in these angry exasperated tones, trying to decipher what the hell just happened, trying to be The Effective Disciplining Mother, I looked at her sitting next to me with her frizzy little head and dusty jeans, and I saw a look on her face that leveled me. It was a new look. It was a look of apathy. It was a look of boredom. It was a look that announced in no uncertain terms, “Mom, you’re talking to me, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you’re saying.”

And in that moment my voice fell silent. I looked out the window at the barely decipherable mountaintops against the rising moonlight. I saw the gorgeous order of the farmland rows, the perfect symmetry of the dirt, the impeccable lines of green, and its harmony seemed to mock my own chaos. My eyes filled with tears as the thought crept in, so clearly, so brightly, so plainly: “she’s turning into a teenager.” A couple of them poured down my cheeks. I looked out at the land, silent, turned my head away.

I felt like a stranger in this car, sitting next to this kid. My feet were on no ground, my heart yearned for an indication of my role in this new story, my task in this moment, my spot next to this person, who I barely knew and yet knew completely, with all my soul.

I felt the truth like a dagger: she’s becoming her own person for real now. She’s walking a path that doesn’t involve me the way it did 5 years ago, or last month, or maybe even yesterday.

I felt disarmed, fumbling to find myself in this new place, this place that just showed itself, this very moment, in the form of a kid with a hint of adult, bubbling just beneath the surface.

I wanted to reach out and grab her and beg her not to go. I wanted to scream with all my might “Don’t ever disobey me! Don’t you dare walk away! YOU MAY NOT GO!” I wanted to whisper against her petal soft cheek “Please, baby girl, stick by my side. Tell me how to make this all right.” Tell me how to get through these next few years.

Tell me how to let you go, little by little, as you need it, even though I can’t.

I just can’t.

And yet, I could.

I’m doing it right now.

I knew my place was not to scold her. My place was to hear her, see it from her side. I found myself asking “Ava, did you look at those pictures because you couldn’t see what my reason was for saying ‘no?’ Did it seem to you I had no purpose, like I was just telling you no for no reason?”

She answered with a barely perceptible sigh of relief, emphatically, “Yes. That is why.”

Then something came out of my mouth that I really I didn’t expect. I grabbed her hand and said “Ava, if I ask you to do something and you don’t know why, please ask me. Question what I’m saying and I promise you, I’ll explain it. If I’m wrong, if I don’t have a valid reason, I will say ‘yes.’ But please, baby, don’t just ignore me. Don’t just walk your path behind my back. I will always do my best to be reasonable with you, but you’ve got to trust me, and I’ll trust you.”

She smiled and said “okay, mama,” and I told her I loved her and we cruised into the moonlight, on this new ground I never asked for.

Me and my little girl, who’s moving right along just fine, into the fringes of adulthood, dragging me behind, kicking and screaming and confused, wondering how we got here and where we’re going now, thinking of the toddler banging on the table just a few years ago, wanting to hold her and put her on a damn “time out,” but instead settling for a spot beside her.

Right here, beside her.

In awe, in love.

In that strange place of motherhood, where only your gut can guide you.

us, then.

  • Laurie

    Wow. Good words. My oldest is 10 and I’m terrified, but I think you’re right on the money here. I’ll try to remember as he turns into a teenager too. And I’ll try to enjoy my preschooler and my 2 yo in their “easy” years. 🙂

  • Erica / Northwest Edible Life

    Could you please stop making me cry? I’m kinda mad at you for that. And also for reminding me about this thing that happened yesterday with my 9 year old daughter where I yelled but should not have. This is hard, huh, sometimes?

  • Rebekah C

    How do you do this? So often, I find tears slipping down my cheeks while reading your insights. I think it’s just, that, honestly, you’re not the perfect, has all the answers mom. You present yourself as someone that hears all the hullaballoo but does her own thing, and thats’ something I can relate to. thank you for being honest and thank you for sharing this.

    One thing: “… you can read all the books and ask all your friends, subscribe to some “school” of parenting that tells you exactly how to talk to your kids, how to handle each situation, how to not break souls, or, you can be like me (though I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it), and just go into important parenting moments (the crossroads, the high-stakes shit, the deal-breakers) totally unprepared, vastly confused, and slightly terrified, hoping your gut will pull through with something, cause fuck me I have no ideas.”

    Yeah…fuck that. I read the books, get the e-mails and score the e-zines.,..guess what? Nobody wrote me a manual on MY CHILDREN and I’m just as in the dark as the next bitch. I wish we could all figure that out. Our children are as unique as our fingerprints…nothing can touch them. So I watch you navigate your journey, hoping to find some scrap of wisdom that will help me navigate mine…but I never, for one second, think you, Martha Sears or any other child-rearing guru has it figured out. Don’t you think so, either. We’re all lost and some of those sharing “advice” just like hearing themselves talk while others are just desperately hoping that some poor sods like us will hear something they learned from their own experiences and it will fit, like a puzzle piece, into our lives. God bless you and good luck.

  • Jennifer

    I agree with Erica — I wasn’t expecting that lump in my throat. Just tonight I was sitting with my five-year-old in my lap rubbing his legs and thinking, “How much longer can I do this?”

  • Vicki

    Reading this gem before bed…and crying because your words convey what I’ve been feeling with my 9 year old son. He’s been purposefully ignoring things I say. I yell. I get short. But after reading this I’m starting to think he’s just standing on the very edge of adolescence…and that breaks my heart. My son and I have always been so close, having survived years where his innocent eyes were witnesses to his father abusing his mother. I don’t want to let go yet. He’s been my rock, my muse, my hope for so long. He’s only 9. I’ve still got a little more time, right?

  • Marie

    Are you bugging my family or something. I just had an almost identical experience except with my 14 year old. I mean, right down to the crying on my part…

    I’ve spent my life teaching my girls (14 and 10) to be independent and always thought I’d be ready to handle it when they would start pulling away. Oh, how wrong I’ve been.

    The blatant disobedience/apathy shook me, but it was that realization of my little girl isn’t little and is her own person who has her own life where I don’t know all the details that just left me feeling like I was punched in the gut.

    All I can say is I shed a tear with you and I’m buckling in for a wild ride!

  • Marisa


  • Claire

    I’m so glad you shared this – thank you!! My oldest will be 12 in December so I’ve been dealing with this myself for quite some time.

    Support and sharing among other parents has been the only thing that has helped me get through these early teen years. Its just like baby-hood in that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prepare you for teen-dom.

    Totally gut wrenching – way more challenging than baby.

    I love what you said to her in the car and I’m totally going to steal it and use it the next time that comes up.

    Also, I really feel like there’s something so powerful in having other powerful women in their lives (not me). Adults who they can go to and get perspective.

  • Lisa Seymour

    I’ll get right to the point. I don’t know you well, but your writing comes across as authentic and sincere. I have not met your children but it sounds like they’re growing up fine. And I think you’re doing a great job as a mother. Sometimes a person just likes to hear they’re doing a good job. And you are.

  • Calamity Jane

    Beautiful. Just beautiful. And absolutely terrifying, though I’ve got a few years yet.
    And yes, I also fucking cried.

  • Super Carl

    I’m going to remind you of the key phrase that has changed my life since you spoke it to me in last week, “You’re doing it right now.”

    I can’t get over how you make all things that people feel and think so tangible, accessible, and LESS scary (minus the labor stories). What people are realizing is that SHARING is CARING and the more we know that those around us mull, stew, and ponder over the same issues, the more we can alieve, support and rejuvinate those in our circles, whether the inner or the outer.

    I like you. A lot. Now let’s dance.

  • Sara

    I need to stop reading this at work, because then i am crazy crying girl. again. and i only have you to blame.
    and i am bookmarking this for 10 years from now, so i can remember what you said and how you said it, because it is perfect. I also cant help think how different i would be if i had a mom like you (or your mom).

  • Shan

    I’m just wondering what this says about my life that I feel like Mad is trying to get to where Ava is… at age four.

  • Tani

    Late to this party, but my daughter will be 12 in a few weeks. Every. damn. word. you write resonates. Thanks for doing this.