I fell into motherhood like a stone into a pond, and I lay on the soft, warm mucky bottom through the birth of a second child, through the toddler years and elementary school. I loved underwater life, but when the elder of the two entered middle school, the life-before-children siren-songed me toward the air and the light.

When the younger started sixth grade, I broke the surface and made land-fall. Like Ariel the Mermaid, I sought myself out in a mirror: OMG, where did the girl go? The wall that was her belly was furrowed with silver stretch marks, and alluvial deposits of skin hung above the pubic delta. Breasts that had moved only with the heaving of her lungs were…well, one of them resembled the girlish orb, but the one both babies preferred had become pendent. Widened hips, flattened feet, veined legs, gray strands at the temples, smile lines, and herniated bags around and under the eyes—O my!

Toweled off and bone-dry, I now stood like a paper doll that I had played with as a little girl, the tabs of the cut-out clothes pressing over my shoulders, on my hips and around my ankles. Mom-friendly pajama-like pants and a stained T-shirt: neither one snug but both apt. I was no longer a girl.

My daughter, my first-born, is still a girl, though she has passed the threshold of 18 years. She is magnificent in her girlness. She wants to love! to be loved! and her body is healthy and ripe; she has bloomed and her face is turned to the breezes. Wild curls lift. She is haloed with self and eagerness; she is all forwardness. Sheʼs tempestuous and loopy, and just as keen and deliberate. As of this moment, four months before going off to college, she has announced that she is going to be an English major with enough bio and chem to qualify for medical school; she is going to cure world hunger; she will curtail infant mortality; she will write poetry. She will marry and have at least three children. When her father and I are old, she will soothe our miseries; we will never want. She will remain close to her brother, and their children will grow up together like puppies of the same litter. Her desire for life is celebratory.

I miss my ancient desires, and I have been deeply mourning my girlhood since my apprehension in the mirror of its end. For years, Iʼve tried to reason with the loss: The girl goes because the body ages. The girl goes because the woman forms in her stead. In the course of our lives we are stones in successive ponds, and the accumulated experience weathers us. We come up from the muck, crones in our own late-night movie, but to remain a girl is to sacrifice our lives. Endless girlhood is equivalent to early death.

I especially like that last statement—not only the sound of it but its concision, its summary bite. It stands in for my long labor toward acquiescence and acceptance.

Two insights, especially, brought me here. The first is that desire didnʼt abandon me; it aims for different goals. I still want. Itʼs what I want that has changed. Iʼm happy still to smile at men but no longer listen up to the buzz of their attention. Twenty years ago, I made my choice among them, and now, even when listless from the drought of middle age, Iʼm loved well enough. My body needs less of men and none of the pleasures of infants nuzzling. Rather, it is my mind that yearns.

Among the first decisions I made after the mirror revelation was to return to school and take up the graduate work that I had declined in my early twenties. Instead of pursuing my former passion, English literature, I enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to study midrash (rabbinic literature), learned to read Hebrew, earned an M.A., rolled right into the Ph.D. program and began teaching Bible and Midrash at The New School. Though Iʼve cast this accomplishment to fit within a single sentence, my years and years of work testify to persistent desire and willfulness that l lacked entirely when I was young and distracted.

The second insight I owe to the existence of my daughter: She is what I was, not what I am now. If I remain a girl, what chance has she to be a girl? If I hold fast to girlhood past its prime and smarten it with all Iʼve learned since, Iʼd beat her at every turn, and how would she ever grow out of girlhood, become herself, and leave me? I must let two girls go: myself and my daughter.

The benefit is to me as well as to her. She owns the realm of infinite possibility, a condition of the physics of youth, and Iʼve made most of my lifeʼs big decisions. If I would not assume my own maturity and account for all those decisions—good/bad, heartening/lamentable—then her youth would drive me wild with regret. Hereʼs the maddening secret of mothering a daughter: She is all the infinite possibilities that I used well and those I squandered; she is dazzled by the future, and I pray daily that my memory holds up and sustains my self through the years I have left. Without my womanhood, Iʼd have no depth to my years and I would be at her mercy, a girl of less than two decades. OMG, where did the girls go? Each toward and through her own life As Anne Sexton wrote to her daughter Linda in “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman”:

stand still at your door,
sure of yourself, a white stone, a good stone –
as exceptional as laughter
you will strike fire,
that new thing!

That new life.

Fran Snyder is completing her PhD studies in Midrash and Scriptural Interpretation at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and teaches Bible and Midrash at Eugene Lang College, The New School University and The New School University for General Studies.  She is the mother of two teenagers.

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