I watch my daughter come out of a long, twisting water slide, arms thrown out triumphantly, eyes and mouth wide open, soaring for a moment through space before crashing into the pool with a loud splash. We are on a two-week family road trip and are at a hotel pool. She turned 10 just a few days into the journey. And she is brave.
I’m afraid of water slides and afraid of this one. I marvel at how one moment, my daughter can be fearless, climbing to the top of a water slide and jumping into it without a second thought, laughing all the way down and going back up and down again. Then the next moment, she wants to be held, comforted and protected.
At one truck stop on the trip, she strides into the convenience store, insisting that she can go to the restroom on her own. My eyes dart vigilantly about as I try not to follow her too closely, try to give her a wide enough berth so she doesn’t feel smothered. At another truck stop, she refuses to go to the restroom unless I’m with her and holding her hand the entire time until we enter our separate stalls. Another time, she insists I go into the same stall with her. I can never tell when she will go from wanting me with her to not wanting me around.
She is 10. She is unpredictable.
When I tell her to be careful, to be aware of her surroundings, she rolls her eyes at me and thrusts out a hip, hand resting on it in a pose about six years too old for her long, lean, undeveloped body. I cringe as I hear myself tell her that her favorite pink denim shorts are “way too tight and not appropriate” because I don’t want to sound too critical or prudish. But they make her look like one of the pre-teen girls we see at mall in too-tight short-shorts and skimpy tank tops, looking awkward and provocative at the same time — looking dangerous.I’m not ready to let her go yet. I want her to be courageous and daring and strong, and I want her to stay a little girl forever.
I’ve always given my daughter a lot of leeway with how she chooses to dress, letting her mismatch things or wear big boots in summer or pajama bottoms as pants. My dad once commented that he was amazed to see how I let her express herself through her clothing.
“It’s just clothes,” I said. “I want her to be able to find her own style.”
But too-tight, too-short pink denim shorts — that is not longer self-expression, or at least she is still too young to be aware of what she might be expressing. She is not yet aware of men watching her as she walks through a store or into a restaurant.
She is 10. She is innocent.
When she was younger, I worried she would be snatched by a stranger. Now I worry she’ll be ogled and groped, then snatched. At the same time, I am proud at how brave and independent she can be and terrified that I will no longer be able to keep her safe.
I want her to be aware of her surroundings, to take precautions, to make good choices. I’m keenly aware that she doesn’t have a fully formed brain yet, so she doesn’t have the capacity for consistent good judgment. She rolls her eyes when I say, “Be careful.”
“I’m not a baby!” she tells me. And I hear myself say the same thing my mother said to me:
“You’ll always be MY baby.”
She is 10. She is defiant.
She’s the girl who never cried when we left her with a babysitter. She’s the girl who didn’t cry when she went on her first sleepover; she didn’t plead with her friend’s parents to take her home in the middle of the night like so many of her friends did their first time away from home. She is social and friendly and confident when she is in her element or when she wants something new to be her element – like Hip Hop dancing or making funny videos or swimming or sliding down twisting water slides.
I am secretly pleased when she knocks on our hotel door and begs to sleep in our room. I’m not ready to let her go yet. I want her to be courageous and daring and strong, and I want her to stay a little girl forever.
She is 10. She is on the brink.
Slowly, I climb the many stairs to the top of the water slide. I can’t think about what I’m about to do for too long or I’ll retreat back down the stairs. I sit with my legs in front of me and proceed to squeeze my nostrils shut with two fingers while pushing off with my other hand into the dark tubular slide. I try to stay sitting upright because she told me I’d slide more slowly that way, but I topple over, flailing in the dark.
I start to panic as I keep taking a breath and holding it and letting it out and taking in another and letting it out, realizing I’m still sliding or, rather, toppling. I know the water at the other end of the slide isn’t too deep and that I won’t sink or drown, but now I’m terrified. I’ve always been afraid of water slides. What am I doing?
I splash into the pool, still pinching my nose, and immediately stand up. She cheers.
“You did it, Mommy! You’re so brave!”
She hugs me. I’m glad she doesn’t sense my fear.
“Want to go again?”