Today is my eldest child’s fifteenth birthday.
The birthdays of my offspring make me think about a lot of things, ranging from what the appropriate present might be to planning the inevitable family dinner with the ex. But the 15th birthday of a girl child makes me think more than usual, about the passage of time and about the transformative power of motherhood.
I remember my own 15th birthday well. (In Hispanic culture, “sweet sixteens” are actually celebrated at fifteen, so it was a big one). I remember thinking at 15, “This is who I am and always will be,” and being both right and so breathtakingly wrong. Right because I don’t think we give teenagers enough credit and make ourselves feel grown up by dismissing their feelings and struggles. The things that mattered to me at 15, the things I valued and held dear, still matter to me today. Wrong because while it was true that the core of my character was well-formed by fifteen (as my daughter’s is) I wasn’t prepared for how much experiences would shape me. Because… how could I be? I hadn’t had the experiences yet.
I was not the girl who dreamed about motherhood. I dreamed about traveling the world, writing books, owning businesses, falling in love. I knew motherhood was a possibility, but I didn’t see it as either a foregone conclusion or a burning need. It sounded kinda messy, pretty stressful and like a definite kink in all my other plans.
As any parent knows, it proved to be all those things when it finally came to pass. On paper, it’s a rough deal: lose sleep, clean poop and vomit, give up all hope of ever peeing without someone screaming for you. When I had two babies within 18 months, the enormity of the responsibility hit me like a flying Mack truck. I felt unequal to the job.
Even so, when, as a young mother, I looked at “old” mothers, the mothers of teenagers, they scared me way more than my sleep-deprived, spit-up-on sisters, the new moms. Experienced moms were battle-hardened, like the cynical old sergeant on the battlefield, taking no crap from anyone, barking out orders. They knew the location of all socks and school things telepathically, calling out their parameters before even being asked. They could predict things like the spilling of a cup and swiftly move to prevent it with force and military precision. They knew schedules and hosted dozens. They dealt with injuries swiftly and dispassionately. My big daily accomplishment as a new mom was taking a shower. I didn’t think I ever could be (or would even want to be) that in charge.
But I was a kid then. I valued about myself the things that society tells us to value about women: softness, beauty, my unlined face and my sweet demeanor. I tried hard to hang on to them. Motherhood, that anvil, thwarted me in that endeavor. And, boy, am I glad. Nothing shapes you more than knowing people are relying on you and you’d better not screw this up.
I can predict when cups and glasses are going to get spilled now. I can do this because I’ve cleaned up the shards of dozens of them, terrified I’d miss a piece and cause the severing of some important artery in a wandering child. I can call out the location of every item in my house because, ultimately, if it’s lost, I’m going to be the one to look for it or replace it. I can marshal the creation of a science project with fifteen minutes’ notice and a box of Q-tips. I can soothe a broken heart. I can triage injuries large and small without my heart rate rising a blip. I can play video games and watch bad reality TV not of my choosing in the name of bonding. I have been in the trenches for a long time, and it’s changed me. I am that hard mother at the door, calling out reminders from a mental checklist, keeping everyone moving to our next destination. My face is no longer unlined. And I like it this way better.
Motherhood did change me. It made me dig deep for reserves I hadn’t tapped fifteen years ago minus a day. It made me reexamine everything. It sent me two strong, wise teachers who challenged my assumptions and taught me to laugh at myself. (These particular lessons are ongoing). And I am so grateful and proud.