Last week, I had one of those mothering moments that I know with certainty I will remember when I’m 90. It had the kind of clarity that makes you feel like you’re watching your life from the outside, like it’s a movie. And it represented a turning point in my life, my daughter’s life, and our relationship.
My eldest daughter, who is 10, has been being a real brat for the last couple of months. I’m sorry, I know name-calling isn’t nice, but there’s simply no other word for her attitude and behavior. I knew that part of this brattiness was due to the inevitable tricks nature is playing on her body and hormones right now, but I could also feel, deep in my gut, that it was more than that. For weeks I struggled with what could be going on with her, trying to figure out what had happened to my sweet little girl. Friends told me not to worry; that her behavior was normal and to be expected. But I just plain knew better.
So one night last week, as we were sharing the final minute of our day together as we do every night before I kiss her and turn out her light, she unburdened herself. Her little face scrunched up, and big fat tears began to fall before she even spoke. And when she did speak, the words tumbled forth with barely a breath in between, as if seeking the freedom of the air and the solace of forgiveness.
She had been keeping a secret from me. Lying to me. For six long weeks. It was the first time she has ever done this. And it was killing her.
When her face began to crumple, before the first tear spilled, my heart froze and the breath caught in my throat. I knew something bad was coming, but on what magnitude? How awful and life-changing were the words that were about to be uttered?
As secrets and deceptions go, it wasn’t a horrible one. Her father and I had forbidden her from getting her own email account, and on her 10th birthday, one of her friends, knowing of our prohibition, had helped her create an account anyway. Since then she had been emailing with various friends, including one little boy who, apparently intent on proving that he’s not a nerd (because he is a nerd), had been using some pretty vulgar and sexual language, which made her uncomfortable and a little frightened.
My first thought was how relieved and blessed I am that she felt that she could tell me. That I didn’t have to discover this some other way. That this little transgression hadn’t resulted in harm to her or anyone else.
My second thought was: But she’s only ten. Are we really here already?
I hugged her and thanked her for telling me. I reassured her that she would not be in grave trouble because she had been forthcoming instead of allowing us to find out in some other way. I told her she would receive some kind of consequence for disobedience and lying, but that I would have to consider what that would be. I outlined for her the much harsher punishment she would have received if her dad or I had discovered the truth on our own. Lastly, I explained, in graphic and scary and clear terms, why young girls are vulnerable online and why we hadn’t allowed her to have a private account. Finally, I kissed her and held her and let her cry it out.
Then I went downstairs, poured myself a drink and called my ex-husband to tell him the news. He was as stunned as I. This daughter of ours is so naive, so innocent and trusting and guileless, that her 7-year-old sister is cooler and savvier than she is. We were in uncharted waters with an ill-prepared sailor, and we were both scared.
I went to sleep that night feeling the full force, once again, of the weight of being a parent. There are these moments in parenting — these milestones or benchmarks — that signal loud and clear that the game has once again changed. All the rules that applied yesterday no longer apply, and all the certainty you had about the future is gone. Instead, you stand in the middle of the vast uncertainty, peering desperately into the haze, and clinging to the hope that you are capable enough and strong enough and good enough to sail your child through this challenge and pass them safely to the other side.
Hopefully, I have a few more years before drugs and alcohol and pregnancy become realistic fears. Or maybe not. On my daughter’s tenth birthday, we crossed a line, into that gray and murky area where children begin to do things that we don’t want them to, and lie to us about those deeds. Natural behaviors, to be sure. But that is small consolation to a mother lying awake in bed at night, praying that her little girl stays little just a bit longer.