That afternoon when I picked up Blair and her sister from after-care at school, we immediately drove to the local library. As usual, Blair trotted toward the picture books, but I ran ahead to intercept and redirect, literally pushing her into the juvenile aisle, where the chapter books are. It’s not a fun place, the juvenile aisle. It’s not even a fun word—juvenile. The books are shelved in stacks that are way too high for a short seven-year-old—actually, for any seven-year-old—to browse. So I started pulling them down.
“What about Magic Tree House?” I asked brightly. “What about Clementine? Geronimo Stilton? What about these fairy books …” I thought better of it. “No, not the fairy books.”
“Let me see the fairies,” she begged.
“They look kind of silly,” I explained, using “silly” as code for “not even slightly challenging enough to prep you for the Hunger Games trilogy you’ll be starting at the end of the week.”
I should have just stated aloud what my brain was yelling: Hurry up!
Somewhere in the linty pockets of that brain, I knew I was being ridiculous. Kids learn to read at different times; not only had I read that in Parents magazine, I’d written the article. I’d spent months researching the trend of parents teaching babies to read, flipping flash cards in front of four-month-olds who couldn’t even babble yet. The bottom line: No matter when kids start reading, they typically end up on the same page by second or third grade. Blair was just starting second.
Even so, I couldn’t shake the idea that she was going to be the child left behind. So I did what any rational mother would do: I blamed myself. This was my fault. If I’d quit working so the kids came home from school to read with me instead of screwing around at after-care making God-knows-what out of paper plates and Floam, she’d be breezing through Lemony Snicket by now. If I’d been reading her The Little Prince at bedtime as opposed to Barbie in A Mermaid Tale, she’d have renamed the pink beanbag in her room her “reading chair.” If I’d banned the TV like my friend Amy had, Blair would have won the cool art kit during the library’s summer reading contest, instead of just playing with it at her friend Callie’s house. Because Callie won it. Because Callie’s mom is clearly a superior parent.
“I’d really like to have an art kit like that,” Blair had said.
“Well, in order to win a reading contest, you need to read,” I scolded, which is always an effective tactic when one wants to convince a kid to do something.
“Or I could just go to Callie’s house and play with hers,” she reasoned.
“You will not! You will not!”
I thought I might be going crazy. Then Mara confirmed that maybe we all are. “I’m finding I’m tortured by what other kids are doing,” she said.
Except I was also feeling tortured by all of the blaming I needed to do to temper the torture. It was everyone else’s fault that Blair was growing up too fast; it was my fault that she was growing up too slow. It’s the maddening Catch-22 of my generation: We want our kids to stay little till their Carter’s wear out, while also making sure they know French by age five so they can start shoring up that application to Yale. But the truth behind it is the worst torture of all—kids grow up regardless. And there’s actually nothing you can do about it.
So, naturally, I started to do everything about it. Banning access to lipstick and belly shirts, assigning chapter books, controlling the time allotted for iCarly—I began helicoptering like the last bird in Saigon, as if I could somehow take charge, as if this would grant me a say about the speed with which this all flies by, as old ladies in grocery checkout lines always insist on reminding me, usually when I’m contemplating just leaving my kids there.
“Mommy, can I have a phone?” Blair asked a few months ago, standing in the kitchen after the second-to-last day of the summer rec program at her school. “Everyone has a phone.” By everyone, she was referring to kids fifth grade and below. Before I could answer, she started singing a song she said she’d heard on someone’s phone that day: “Remember all the things that you and I did first/And now you’re doing them with her.”
She opened a drawer and pulled out a whisk to use as her microphone, and sang that line—over and over and over—as she hopped around the room.
“This is ‘sexy dancing’!” she announced, then began jutting out her arms on random beats she heard in her head, cocking her hip while she kicked her leg out behind her—looking like a kid is supposed to at seven. Awkward. Silly. Fumbling in that twilight between being a little girl and being a “juvenile.” And finally I saw it: We were in the same place, Blair and I.
“Yes, indeed,” I said. “That is sexy dancing.”