Last month’s “Birthing the Mother Writer” column asked readers to submit essays about mothering during a child’s adolescence. In this essay, Sarah Marxer writes about how, since she adopted a daughter who was five years old, this is the first such transformation she has witnessed.
Spin, Daughter, Spin
by Sarah Marxer
Most parents, I imagine, are used to seeing their children transform by the time the kids reach adolescence. If you raise a child from birth, you watch her move from floppy newborn to bouncy baby to run-around toddler, all in a couple of years. My daughter was five years old when she came to our family, so I missed her in all of those early stages. Instead of growing into motherhood by tending to the simple, if enormous, needs of an infant, I ran alongside the already moving train of my daughter’s life, with just moments to get a firm grip and heave myself aboard before she hurtled out of reach.
Mariah was a complicated, rough-and-tumble little girl, thirsty for books, and always eager to hold my hand. As she nears her thirteenth birthday, she still plays with her legion of stuffed animals on occasion, but she’s more likely to spend her free time building a solar-powered robot or exchanging texts with her friends. She needs time alone now, time to follow her thoughts wherever they go. I see her turning inward, beginning to spin a chrysalis where she can undertake the transformations of adolescence.
The day we met Mariah, my partner Lisa and I drove from foggy San Francisco out to the Central Valley where the day was heavy under a hot sun. We had seen a grainy photocopy of a fax of her picture, which showed a little black girl smiling obediently into the camera as she sat on a couch with her sweatshirt zipped all the way up and her hair pulled into a puff on top of her head. We wondered if we’d recognize her when we got to her foster home.
Her foster mother greeted us warmly and led us across the white-carpeted living room to the kitchen, where Mariah and Olivia, another little girl in the family, were sitting at the counter, earnestly drawing. Mariah showed us her picture: big flowers on stick stems, hearts, some clouds. Lisa and I tried to make a good impression on the foster mother and the three social workers (ours, Mariah’s, and the foster family’s), even though excitement and fear flooded us. There she was! Only through force of will could I follow the adult conversation; I just wanted to focus on Mariah.
One of the social workers suggested that Mariah show us how she could ride a bike, so we took her and Olivia out on two rickety little bikes with training wheels. They both needed help, so Lisa and I jogged alongside them, helping with steering as we made our way around the block. “I can braid my own hair,” Mariah said looking over at me while she pedaled. “And I do a good job.” (That statement was far more aspirational than accurate.) In the pictures from that day, she looks pale, skinny, watchful.
It had been a month since Mariah arrived. She would start kindergarten in two weeks. Already reeling from a new family and new home, now she’d be going to school for the first time. She was preparing diligently.
Every morning she watched Sesame Street with a spiral-bound notebook propped on her knee and a crayon in her hand, carefully writing down the letter and number of the day. Sometimes I helped her call Lisa at work with a report. “Today the letter is M and the number is 12. We had raisins for our snack.”
She practiced writing the alphabet, her shaky capital letters reaching crookedly across the page. “I need to learn this so I can go to school,” she told me gravely.
The letter K gave her problems. Again and again, it came out like a barely legible H. She glared at me, eyes burning, and snapped her crayon in half.
A tall first grader, she desperately wanted to learn to ride a bike. She had outgrown her little pink hand-me-down bike with training wheels before she learned to ride it. The guy at the bike store looked at Mariah’s height and convinced me to buy her the very smallest adult bike, arguing that she’d grow right out of the biggest kid-sized bike momentarily. I took her outside for a test ride. Her arms and legs were almost long enough, but she had to reach a bit for the handlebars and the bike was heavy for her. The sidewalk was crowded and we didn’t go far, but her face glowed. She nodded that she wanted the big bike. No training wheels.
I took her to a small stretch of closed-off road in Golden Gate Park where they stored service vehicles. Remembering my own frustration while learning to ride, I prepared for some scenes; maybe she’d throw the bike down or scream at me when she realized just how difficult this was going to be. It wasn’t long ago that she’d ended up shrieking under the kitchen table when she couldn’t make out one particularly troublesome word in her kindergarten reader.
I had underestimated her. She let me help her, so I held the seat with one hand and guided the handlebars with the other. Back and forth we went while she got the feel of the bike. She was ready for me to let go. She made it a few yards, wobbled over — and then got to her feet, picked up the bike, and climbed right back on. She did this again and again. She learned to ride.
She had just finished her homework: a math worksheet about adding two-digit numbers. Mariah had struggled with this the week before, but seemed to have gotten it now. The worksheet put away, she settled into a game of pretending to be a kitten, meowing to me while I started washing vegetables and chopping onions for dinner.
Before long, she looked up at me. “Soon I will have new math. And it will be hard. But then I will learn it.”
As Mariah grew from five to eleven she changed by the week, but always seemed to be the same girl, albeit a bigger, stronger, more skilled and confident version of that girl. She became a girl who could read, spell, add — even multiply fractions. She lost her baby teeth and grew big new permanent teeth. She could visit the neighbors on her own, peel apples for a pie, bike off with her friends. The little girl was still visible in the big girl, though. Her legs were longer, but her hips remained narrow. She still let me do her hair almost any way I wanted: twists, cornrows, or little braids, sometimes with beads on the ends.
Now that she’s almost thirteen, she walks around in her adult-sized body, and looks at the world with a new sophistication. She has her own assessment of politics — how President Obama is performing, or what it would take to stop bullying in middle schools. Not only do I not get to choose her hairstyles, but she came home from school one day with bangs she’d cut for herself. I catch glimpses of my little girl, but she’s undeniably in a new stage of life.
This is the first wholesale transformation I’ve experienced with Mariah, and it feels more like metamorphosis than simple growth. When I look at my broad-shouldered, suddenly womanly daughter, as I watch more and more of her attention going to her friends, I see that her childhood is over. She needs mothering just as much, of course, but it’s not the mothering of dressing her, playing imaginary games, and reading aloud every night. My chance to do those things for her has passed. I think of the accumulated childhood moments — holding her hand while we crossed the street, using crayons to turn an empty box into an undersea world, laughing as we wrestled on the living room rug — as a store for her to draw on as she spins the silk strands that will hold her steady in her chrysalis while she moves from child to grown woman. That store looks to me rich, but inadequate. We simply didn’t have enough time together before her childhood ended.
I imagine that the children whose parents raised them from birth have more filaments to spin with: many more years of cuddling and laughing and guidance, more messes cleaned up, more skinned knees well tended, more nightmares rocked away. But maybe this is the most important thing for Mariah to learn on the way to adulthood: how to spin from the material of her own life — however inadequate, harsh, or beautiful. If she learns this lesson, perhaps it will be enough, after all, to sustain her as she moves through this metamorphosis and the ones that will follow.
Sarah Marxer is a mother and researcher at a social justice nonprofit. Her work has been published by KQED Public Media, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Momoir Project as well as Literary Mama. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
This wonderful essay went through several transformations during the revision and editing process, and I’d like to share a bit of that with readers so that you might ease your way through the writing chrysalis.
People often think, because essays, personal stories, and memoirs are read from beginning to end, that they are also written in this way. Not so. In my experience, there are 4 main stages to writing and revision.
1. Draft. This is where you learn what you are going to write. In writing your piece, you let the writing lead you into what wants to be written.
2. Heart. After giving the draft time to cool, go back and read your piece for the heart of it. In this case, it was the story of adoption and how this was the mother’s first witnessing of her daughter’s transformation. I asked Sarah to go back into the heart of this and tell us stories, give us scenes, help us see what this looked like.
3. Tail. Again, allow yourself some time away from the writing and re-read your new heart. Ask yourself, what is the main message here? What do I want the reader to learn? What transformation has taken place over the course of the writing? The answers to these questions then become the final section of your piece.
4. Head. Now is the time to go back and write a new introduction. Your introduction in the draft was an opening, an invitation for the writing to find its way through you. You cannot know how to begin your piece, really, until it has moved through the first three stages. Once you do, the introduction flies from you onto the page. If you are struggling with the beginning of a piece of writing, it is a sign that you need to go back to one of the first three stages.
Try this: go back to a piece you know is unfinished. Try to begin again with it, using the Draft, Heart, Tail, Head approach. See what happens. See how your writing needs stages, and time, to transform into a beautiful butterfly.