At a tea date with Diana, a neighborhood acquaintance, I asked what was new. “My daughter’s best friend broke up with her,” she said. She had a teenage daughter I’d never met. “I’ve been spending a lot of time dealing with that.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“It sucked away a year of our lives,” she said, the steam from her tea curling around her face. “We’re just now coming out from under it. We were good friends with the parents, too, so there were really two breakups.” Diana told me the details, the friend deciding one day that Leah wasn’t cool enough, Leah becoming despondent and almost leaving the school. Diana spoke about it with such earnestness it was as though she were talking about herself.
Her kid must have been too needy, I thought. That’s why it happened. She was weird all along and the friend realized it and that’s why she got dumped.
What are you doing? I answered back. Why are you blaming the victim? You’re as bad as that mean girl who dumped her.
As Diana told me the rest of the story I realized why I was so quick to judge Leah. I had been in her position myself, at 12, and even as an adult I still wasn’t over it. In sixth grade, I got dumped by a group of girls at my elite Brooklyn private school. They hadn’t always been mean—they been my friends since early childhood—but the summer before sixth grade they turned into a clique. For the first two months of school I hovered on the periphery of it. I was on the advisory board but not the executive.
Then one day they cornered me in front of the synagogue where we all went to Hebrew school and the messenger, of course, not the ringleader, said, “This is what I’m supposed to say: If you’re so good at math and only five of us are going trick-or-treating together, can you figure out which one of us isn’t going?” I had to sit through another hour of Judaica studies before I could race home and sob into my pillow.
When my mother determined that I had been injured emotionally and not physically, she let me be alone for a little while to cry. When I emerged from my bedroom, woozy and tear-stained, she asked what happened. I told her. “Why do you want to be friends with such horrible people?” she asked. I couldn’t answer her. This wasn’t logical, it was about my soul.
She told me to go to school the next day, ignore the horrible girls, and make new friends. Eventually I did, though it took months and not a day. The following year, in part due to the stress of the breakup, I left the school.
Twenty-five years later, this rejection remains the defining event of my young adulthood. It gave me a lifelong fear of rejection and a fear of being different that has come coupled with the sometimes-liberating idea that being different is better. It shaped most of my romantic relationships in that I always liked the mean, nasty guys the most. I could even argue that it turned me into a writer, moving me from participant to observer. But none of that means I am over it.
And yet, as I sat there listening to Diana, wholly invested in her daughter’s dilemma, I also found myself feeling skeptical of her as a mother. She seemed more wrapped up in her daughter’s problems than it seemed right for a mother to be. Had it taken a year for Leah to get over it—or for her to?
A television show on ABC which premiered in November, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, takes this kind of maternal overinvestment as its premise. On the show, two fortysomething moms who were losers in high school (Annie and Nikki, played by Jaime Pressley and Katie Finneran) have raised popular, beautiful girls. Those girls have now turned into meanies. The inmates are running the asylum: The daughters have the mothers wrapped around their fingers and all the moms can do is mug and weep. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” story.
IHMTD takes as a given that the mothers have bought into the very shallow values that made their own lives so miserable—popularity and social status. Though the humor can be too campy and overly cruel to its middle-aged heroines, as several critics have noted, the show has a clear moral message behind the jokes. To be a mother of a daughter is to be in a unique kind of pain. It’s an opportunity to relive girlhood, but maybe that’s not such a good thing when girlhood can be a period of such deep agony and insecurity. To become a mother of a teenage girl is to go right back to hell through a different entrance.
My own daughter, A., is only 6, and so far she has been heaven, not hell. Her wonder years have mostly been wonderful. She hasn’t experienced bullying (yet), but there have been social predicaments, a problem I hadn’t expected to encounter until much later. There have been children’s birthday parties to which she was not invited, and friendship threesomes that became twosomes. I haven’t handled any of it well. I’ve emailed teachers, texted moms, privately cried. My husband, who takes care of her most of the time, has mostly remained above the fray. He wanted a daughter and was exuberant to get one, and has enjoyed experiencing parenthood without any of the issues that I bring to the table.
Not long after I started watching IHMTD I picked up A. from school. She had just started first grade and though she knew several of her new classmates I was worried about her tendency to be shy. Remembering a nursery teacher’s injunction not to ask your child “How was school today?” I opted for a more specific question, one designed to elicit an answer longer than one word.
“What did you do at recess today?” I asked. I was curious about recess and had even emailed one of the recess coordinators to volunteer to be in the yard.
“I sat by the climbing wall and watched people play,” A. said.
I gulped but tried to remain cool. “Why didn’t you play with anyone?”
“I used to be Lucy’s friend but now she’s Eve’s friend.” She was factual and not emotional.
“Oh,” I said. “Maybe you can all be friends.” She looked at me like I was crazy.
A week later I asked her the same question. I got the same answer. Two hundred and fifty children were running around the yard entertaining themselves, but mine was gluing herself to a wall. Was she a loner, a loser? Why wasn’t she socializing? Should I have had a second child?
The next day I got an email from the recess coordinator, Maria, about the volunteer schedule. In my response I described A. to her. I said she had been playing alone and asked if Maria could keep an eye on her.
It turned out that Maria knew exactly who A. was and had been prodding her to play with different groups. She said some kids took a little while to get comfortable. The year before, she said, there had been a first-grader who sat for the entire recess period with her lunchbox in her lap so she could be first in her class line at the end. But now she was a happy, sociable second-grader.
Instead of reassuring me, this email terrified me further. A girl who sat there the entire year not playing? What if that turned out to be my kid? It could get even worse.
After that, I stopped asking A. who she played with. I decided that it was in her own hands now (and Maria’s), and the more I bugged her, the more self-conscious she would feel.
One day, about a month later A. said, “Mommy, ask me who I played with at recess today.”
“Who did you play with at recess today?” I asked, in a silly, sing-songy voice meant to convey that I wasn’t invested in the answer.
“I kicked a ball with some boys and then I went on the jungle gym with Ruby and Hank.”
“That’s wonderful!” I shouted. “I mean, that sounds fun.”
She had figured it out. It just took time. And she had done it without my interfering. Whatever social challenges she was going to face in the next 20 years, I wasn’t going to make them better by mixing them up with my own.
Now we have a new problem. She has developed a crush on a boy who sits at her table in class. He wears Celtics T-shirts and roars like a lion. Recently when I asked her what she did at recess, A. said, “Ollie chased me around and then he locked me to the gate with invisible handcuffs so I couldn’t move. And even after he ran away I stayed there pretending I was trapped. And you know what, Mommy? I liked it.” We were going to have to talk.