My daughter walks home alone from school now. She takes the same path we’ve traced year after year, beginning in kindergarten when her backpack touched the backs of her knees, and her baby brother was strapped to my chest, and her little sister was in the stroller. Last year in third grade, I stood at the corner and watched to make sure she safely crossed the street and followed the instructions of the crossing guard. Now, in fourth grade, she meanders quietly home, processing her thoughts after school without the constant chatter from a sibling or probing questions from me.
During the early years of school, I would pester her when I picked her up at her teacher’s door. What did she do? Who did she play with? But she would refuse to answer my questions, despite trying the alternative, “What was your favorite part of today?” or “What games did you play with your friends today?” I was constantly met with, “I don’t want to talk about it!”
I retreated to give her space, stopped asking her questions that only caused her to bristle. Instead, I let her be independent and sort out whatever she needed to. I didn’t know the thoughts in her head, so I prayed that all was fine at school, that bullies were not tormenting her. I kept in contact with teachers and was told that all was well.
After her walk home today, she rings the doorbell, despite it being unlocked. I open the door to greet her with a hug, examine her face for signs of anything out of the ordinary. She has her sweatshirt tied around her waist, forehead sweaty from the walk home in the bright afternoon sun. She tosses her backpack and sweatshirt on the couch and walks to the kitchen. “How was school today?” I call after her.
“Fine,” she stops to answer and looks at me. “Can I make myself a sandwich?”
“Do you have any homework?” I reply. I ask this question every day. She rolls her eyes at me. “No, I did it in class.” She also tells me this every day. This year has been a breeze for her, and she hasn’t had homework since the first week of school. I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse. We had some epic homework battles, but it was also nice to sit with her and communicate.
“Yes, you can make yourself a sandwich,” I tell her. “But wash your hands first!” I get another eye roll.
Later, I notice her facing the whiteboard easel we have by our dining room table. She holds a purple marker and looks up at me. “What should I write here?” she asks, marker poised. She’s drawn a simple picture of a girl resembling herself: short brown hair, headband, and plain t-shirt. The girl stands alone on a hill, an empty thought bubble hovering above her head, waiting to be filled.
I grasp for something witty and inspiring and cute and not too silly for this girl at the top of the hill, something that will glean a positive reaction from my daughter and allow us to bond. I weigh phrases in my head, probably overthinking the impact of any words I might suggest. “I don’t know,” I finally say. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
I look at her and realize she’s turning ten next week. I no longer see the tiny baby I screamed into the world, the infant I couldn’t bear to set down after we brought her home from the hospital. Those blue eyes constantly gazed into mine, her hunger seemingly insatiable, our bond a primal, physical one. Three years where she was literally attached to me through breastfeeding, years she doesn’t remember and have blurred together in my mind. Back then, I anticipated her every need, knew which cry meant she was hungry or tired or irritated. She was always so focused on making her thoughts heard. Now she is focused on a book, a screen, or on the world around her.
In the evening, she stomps into my room after her bedtime. “Go to bed!” I growl at her, annoyed that she’s interrupting my quiet time. She’s great at bedtime procrastination. Most nights she has a book in hand. “You have to read this one!” she declares tonight, placing it onto the ever-growing pile of books on my nightstand. “Why?” I ask. “What did you like about it?” I’ve read the parenting books about rephrasing questions to get answers, but this child of mine sees right through it.
“Just read it!” my daughter snaps at me.
“I just want to know what you think!” I snap back.
I feel the pressure to help my children grow into productive adults—to mold them and shape them and do all the things a parent is supposed to do—but I don’t even know what that is. I just know I’m probably not doing it right when I feel this chasm between my daughter and me; I find my words to my daughter are more commands than conversation. “Did you brush your teeth? Did you wash your hair? Is your room clean?” She argues with me, not wanting to follow my every order. I wonder if I’m being too hard on her, if I should relax and let her work out life skills with less robust instruction.
At night I browse Amazon for books on different topics—how to handle frustration, how to hold conversations with friends, how to take care of her growing body and mind. I think of questions she might have but hasn’t asked, and search for books to fill the void.
“Are you ever going to read those?” my husband asks, indicating the giant pile of juvenile novels my daughter has given me. I glare at him, masking the guilt I feel for not making an effort for her.
I pick up the latest book she left for me and flip through it. I read a few sentences here and there to get the gist of the story. The main character is a girl who knows weird facts about bugs and somehow gets turned into a superhero. Maybe those are all the details I need.
The next morning my daughter asks if I read the book. “I did!” I say cheerfully. My daughter’s demeanor changes to surprise. My usual answer is, “No, not yet.”
“What did you think of it?” she asks me.
“I liked how she knew all those cool facts,” I tell her.
“I thought it was weird she did that whole cocoon thing,” my daughter says.
“Oh yeah?” I say. I don’t recall a cocoon from my quick skim, but I’m determined to hold my own in this conversation.
“That was kinda weird,” my daughter says.
“I can imagine it would be,” I tell her.
“I think the moral of the story is that it’s okay to be different,” my wise daughter informs me.
“I think that’s a good moral,” I say back to her, beaming with pride at her insightful statement. I bid her goodbye as she walks out the door to school.
I notice the whiteboard after she’s gone. The picture of the girl on the hill is still there, and this time I see the smile drawn on her face, the way the girl’s eyes turn up in happiness. The thought bubble has been filled in with my daughter’s handwriting and spelling: “I’m beutiful and perfect!”
I glimpse an inner piece of my daughter, alone on that hill. I don’t know the minutiae of her days, can’t decipher every look and sound anymore. But despite my curiosity, I don’t need to. The intense physical bond we once had is gone, but I realize I don’t need to pester her with questions to know her thoughts and needs. She tells them to me in her own way, and I have to choose to listen.
When she gets home from school today, I’ll greet her at the door with a hug and ask her how her day was. She’ll ask me for food, and I’ll ask her if she has homework. When she says no, she’ll go play or read, and I’ll tend to household chores. But later, when she storms into my room after finishing a good book and demands I read it too, I think I’ll at least give it a good skim. Then tomorrow, we can talk about the thoughts she had.
Beth Robinson resides in Northern California with her husband and three children. A former public school teacher, she is now a mom with a minivan, driving her children from place to place. It’s okay, though, because they listen to audiobooks and pick up coffee and find out-of-state license plates and stop at random parks along the way. Beth attempts to document life through writing in hopes of remembering the too-quick days of motherhood. You can find her on Instagram.