This piece was reprinted at the fabulous online mag RoleRoot on June 2, 2014.
It's a good name - "middle" school. They're not quite who they used to be, and not quite yet who they're becoming. We were so haughty at 6th grade orientation three years ago - we thought we knew our girl. But middle school is somewhere and nowhere at once, and like a tilt-a-whirl it shakes you up and spins you silly till you want to puke. Then it spits you out, wobbling on the street, in an dazed aftershock.
Although I can be sentimental, here at the end of middle school the only sadness I truly have about these past few years is that today my middle schooler moves on, and I won't be at her graduation. In an old-fashioned twist of cold shoulder policy, each graduating child gets exactly and only two tickets for today's ceremony. Only her mom and dad will go. No stepmoms. Her sister, her stepdad, and her godmother won't be there either. Over all, no recognition of the village, or the times, or the tremendous accomplishment that, somehow, all of us survived middle school.
Q: How many middle schoolers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: One -- she holds it in place and lets the world spin around her.
Or is it:
None -- they're all on Snapchat.
The middle school years, with the sky-high and death-valley mood swings, was challenging to us all. The love-is-all and hate-you-all sway; testing rules and parents and pretty much anything from anyone over 30 or without a catchy chorus. These few years have been the toughest of step-parenting so far.
Meaning: they have been gloriously rewarding.
As a step-parent, I have the dual role of managing my relationship with the kids and managing my relationship with the kids as influenced by their other household. I've tried to keep my eye on the long road -- I have a vision of us ten years from now, sharing a bottle of wine in front of a campfire, shooting the shit, sharing stories. I try not to get caught up in the weather at any particular bend -- even when it has blown in gales from the other household and poured down directly on me. Luckily I have a steady and wise companion. He's known our middle schooler since birth, and he knows the other household well. Like all of us, he's navigated the middle school years without a north star, but when I've gotten close to rocky shore he's shined a light to help me back to calmer seas.
There's a sweetness our middle schooler used to have that still peeks out, and I think it will re-emerge more fully as the years go by. The snarkiness that jokingly showed its face 3 years ago became almost malicious through 6th and 7th grade, but lately, mostly, has tapered. She's more self-controlled. More compassionate. More discerning. She's fiercely driven. She gets incredibly frustrated, and is slowly figuring out how to work through her difficulties rather than throw up her hands in feigned apathy. Me too.
While she was learning algebra, I learned patience. While she was navigating her social dramas, I navigated dual household dynamics. While her moods were swinging like Madagascar monkeys, I learned to be kinder, more steady, open.
She didn't do well on every test.
Neither did I.
High school, they say, is tougher.
But I'm not looking at high school yet. Right now I'm looking at a girl who is almost my height. With blond hair, blue eyes, and slender figure, she's a knock-out, and she looks nothing like me. I wasn't there the day she was born. I missed her first nine years. I didn't help her learn to read, and sadly, never sang songs to her in the bath.
But: I measure her height on the kitchen doorpost. I help her with homework, band aids, boys. I am sometimes, when lucky, her sounding board. And when I am unlucky, I feel her fury. She tells me her dreams. She asks me to help her visualize them. She is my oldest daughter.
She's big as a grown-up now, but every night we still read bedtime stories. She giggles until tears pour down her cheeks about a line from her favorite book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, Farmer Boy. When the lights are turned out, I give her massages to work out the tense muscles from horseback riding and dramas at school. I cover her with a blanket and a hug. I tuck her in.
So, I won't be at graduation. I'll hear about it, like so many things, second-hand. I'll see the diploma later, maybe, and the photos of her graceful walk across the stage. But, we'll have a celebration dinner this weekend and begin to settle into the languorous days of summer. We'll discuss plans for the next few months - sleep away camp, time at the barn, Disneyland, camping, bike rides.
Of course, if it's anything like last summer, these next few months are bound to hold plenty of drama, especially after camp. It'll be interesting to watch how it plays out. I suspect, though, that it will be a grass-blade's-width easier. She is more polished for the rub of middle school.
Ah, don't you know, we all are.