A few months ago, I was in my daughters' room, making their beds (don't get me started), when I ran into Chip the Monkey. Eighteen inches tall, dressed in Army fatigues and sporting a small beret, Chip is the product of a Saturday afternoon trip to the Build-A-Bear store in midtown Manhattan, where my then nine-year-old daughter, Bridgette, constructed him from hide and stuffing -- plus ample doses of love.<
The sight brought me up short. Now more than two years old, Chip looked out of place beneath the ceiling posters of Hilary Duff and Usher. I'd assumed Bridgette had outgrown her stuffed animals.
To be sure, a plush menagerie still occupies the lower bunk bed, where my younger daughter, Audrey, sleeps. But that's understandable. She's seven.
Bridgey, on the other hand, is my unrepentant tween, my sophisticated sixth grader. Standing there, I surrendered a wistful smile. I also felt a knot in my stomach. How did a throwback like Chip figure into the ever-changing life of my older-than-her-years daughter? And more to the point, why did the sight of him make me feel like crying?
"Like toddlerhood, pre-adolescence is a constant dance of backward and forward motion," says Sherry Cleary, executive director of the Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York. "As children develop new components to their identity, they take inventory of the identity they had before. It's as if they always need to check in with who they were as they become who they are."
I thought back to an earlier time in Bridgette's life and reflected on the kind of traveling companion I'd been to her as she journeyed from little girl to, well, bigger little girl. I remembered how she cried on the way to her first sleepover. Her friend Bebe lived in Brooklyn, and at five, Bridgey had never flown solo through the night, not even in our own neighborhood. To be honest, I'd given Bridgette mixed signals when she first broached the idea of a long-distance sleepover. I reminded her that Bebe's family had a dog -- and that she wasn't crazy about dogs. I told her that it's sometimes scary to wake up in the middle of the night in a strange place. I cautioned that Brooklyn was a little too far from Manhattan for a midnight bail-out.
The Tween Years
In other words, I did my best to change her mind.
But Bridgey was determined. As she trudged down the subway steps with Bebe and her mom, glancing at me over her shoulder, I frantically tried to make up for my selfish counsel.
"You'll have a great time!" I shouted. "And don't stay up too late!"
Bridgette wasn't buying it. She must have seen my eyes filling up, too.
The next afternoon, she barreled into our apartment, raving about how much fun she had. This would be the first of many times she'd toss off the security blanket of childhood as she climbed one rung higher on the jungle gym of young adulthood.
But now it was six years later, and I was staring that monkey in the face. For a guy who's kept a close watch on his kids' growth, I felt humbled, as if I'd suddenly lost track of who Bridgette really was.
Experts say this is natural -- that most parents feel lost in the fog as their children enter the tween years. The backswing to stuffed animals and other trappings of babyhood, they say, not only helps kids negotiate the road ahead, but also allows them moments of safety during preadolescence.
"If your daughter is feeling particularly young," says Cleary, "she may cuddle up with Chip. But if she's feeling 'teenage' that day, she may push him aside or even be embarrassed by him. It's a minute-to-minute thing."
So if all of this explains the presence of Chip on Bridgette's bed, I still didn't understand my feeling of melancholy. Shouldn't I be thrilled to see my child grow?
"It's fascinating," says Cleary (who's also a parent). "We're committed to supporting our children's growth, but we feel a nostalgia for the past and we know we won't get it back. We hold onto glimpses of their childhood, understanding that we're on borrowed time. But, we have to let them grow up. That's what parenting is really all about."
Recently I've discovered a fool-proof way of reconciling the push-pull of Bridgey's pre-adolescence, especially during the heart-tugging moments when I imagine her hand one day slipping from mine: I hang out with Audrey. Indeed, now that my younger daughter is in second grade, she's starting to exhibit restless feet herself, trying on Bridgette's clothes, experimenting with slang, even hanging around during Bridgey's playdates.
But when she's alone, she'll confess a weakness for one of her old My Little Pony disks, or play dress-up, or get out the crayons. And she's always a pushover for a storybook cuddle.
I also try not to look at Chip when I'm in the girls' room. This would be a lot easier, of course, if my daughters made their own beds. But like I said, don't get me started on that.