Friday, June 24, 2011

Busy Becoming a Woman

I woke up this morning at 5 a.m. with a homicide hangover.

The custom ranch house and huge grassy yard where my mom and her five siblings grew up, was also the site of enumerable family gatherings for the 12 cousins in my generation. There last night, at my grandfather's 96th birthday party, my daughter Sophia (fourth generation) was inducted into a family tradition that my brothers and their male cousins started: whacking June bugs with badminton rackets.

First step in the process is drawing the prey by turning on a lamp mounted to the exterior eves of the kitchen. Step two: Wait in the shadows with a racket. Step three: swat the June bugs to kingdom come. Sophs was pretty excited to participate, because she thinks her uncles are awesome. I decided to join them, feeling happy and reckless the way a nerdy kid (which I was) who is let into the group of cool kids (which my brothers are) usually does, even when she's acting against her conscience.

I jumped into the air and swung at a bug, hitting it on the first try with a satisfying "THWANG!" Standing under the light, armed with my badminton racket, I realized that I had very clear memories of my brothers doing this testosterone-laced ritual, but had never participated. Instead, I had seen it from the kitchen sink, where I was likely doing dishes with my aunts. "I should have had more fun with you when we were kids, J," I said to my brother. "Why wasn't I out here with you back then?"

"You were busy becoming a woman," he said, with the kind of wit, sensitivity and piercing clarity that is so characteristic of my younger brother.

Truer words were never spoken. I was indeed busy by the age of eight: cooking, table setting, dish washing, drink pouring -- which is what women did (or I should say do) in my family. But not only that, I was also busy struggling between which impulse I wanted to follow: go tell my brothers to come in out of the garage and help, or go join them.

I'm 33 years old, and though in other circles I can be a sort of a goofy rebel without a cause or the class clown that derails serious proceedings, in my family of origin I'm still struggling against these two contrary impulses. Grow up and make everyone else grow up, or be a carefree kid. I think it's the struggle of the first born child, though it may not be quite so universal.

I was separated from my brothers by this first impulse. At best it was a desire to keep order, honor my parents (sometimes maybe even protect them), and see that righteousness was served in our family. I always had my antenae up, trying to read people's emotional needs, and then try to meet them. At worst, it was a need to control and a belief that I knew what everyone else should be doing and had a right to make them do it.

Now, feeling that my role as order keeper is no longer needed, I find I don't fit in so well at the kids' table. As hard as it is for me to step out of the "first born" big sister thing, it may be equally hard for my brothers to see that I want to. Perhaps we all perceive that I don't wear carefree abandon well, especially when it costs something to others, even if it only means sitting outside with my siblings while my mom and the aunts make dinner, set the table, do the dishes. And frankly, I feel kind of sick now about smacking all those poor bugs.

I see these dynamics taking place in my own family now, with my daughters. Sophia sometimes bosses Livie just for the heck of it, but other times a more adult impulse kicks in, and I see her sacrafice her own desires for what she perceives is the good of our family. She gives in to Livie's tantrums if she thinks I'm having a bad day, for example, so that I won't have to hear Liv scream anymore. Her little antenae are up, and she wants to please us, to do what is right.

I observe her with a mixture of pride and sorrow. Even at seven, she's busy becoming a woman, trying to figure out how to be both righteous and kind, both fun-loving and responsible, working out where her responsibilities start and stop. I believe my sacred duty in raising her is to help her find the balance in these things, to exercise her leadership in our family -- and later in the world where she will undoubtedly find places to lead -- with grace and humility. I want her to grow up, but not too fast. And I hope that even when she is a woman, she'll still find herself comfortable sitting at the kids' table now and then.

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