Dropping the kids off for camp each year is a big event requiring weeks of preparation on my part to get everything labeled and tagged and in the right suitcases. My oldest has started packing herself and I have total faith that everything she needs to survive for two weeks is in there, or if it isn’t, she can’t blame me. In addition to packing, she spends several days getting herself ready. This year, she cashed in hard-earned baby- and dog-sitting money to get her nails done, she Koolaid-dyed her hair cherry red, her signature color, and carefully picked out her favorite outfits. As a beautiful 13-year-old, making a good impression is important to Ana.
We strolled into camp with a surge of other parents and campers for drop-off, her eyes searching the crowd, looking for friends and counselors. We stepped up to the registration desk and the camp photographer whipped out his camera to document the moment, but it wasn’t to capture her. As his lens zeroed in, it panned down, lowering to her baby sister, eight years old and adorable from head to toe. The registration staff gushed over Evie, assuming their sweetest widdle voices, “Are you soooo excited for camp this yearrrr?” they gushed at my little peanut, who ate up their attention. She assumed her most babyish voice, batted her eyes, dipped her head shyly, and answered, “Yes! Dis is my second yearrrr,” holding up two fingers as if she’d just learned how to count and didn’t in fact already know her entire multiplication tables.
She’s tiny and cute and you can’t compete with that. We walked into the camp and counselors lined the sidewalk, waving and welcoming the campers. They cheered my youngest daughter, “We’re so glad you’re heeeere!” “Welcome to camp, Evie!” And my oldest walked beside her, manicured teal nails, bright red hair, but somehow invisible.
In a very Avatar-like moment, I leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I see you.” She looked at me quizzically. “Do you ever feel like your baby sister gets all the attention?” I asked. She opened up, “Yes! Everyone acts like she’s a little baby but she’s eight years old!” “I know,” I answered. “I just want you to know that I see you. You’re beautiful and strong and I see how hard you’re working and how you’re handling this with grace and poise. I see how you’re quietly letting your sister get all this attention. You’re not invisible to me. You’re incredible, and I‘m so proud of you.” She stared back at me, a tiny smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She stood up a little straighter and I saw a weight slide off her shoulders a little. I hugged her, this young woman who’s almost as tall as I am, and we headed to find her cabin assignment.
I absolutely love my youngest, and she deserves every bit of gushing, effusive attention she receives. She’s gifted and remarkable in every way. But I don’t want to let my oldest slip through the cracks. I don’t want any of my kids in or on any kind of crack. Raising two daughters five years apart is challenging. The oldest feels like the youngest gets all the attention. The youngest feels like the oldest gets all the privileges. (Meanwhile, my son in the middle just wants peace, quiet, and a break from his sisters telling him what to do. After we got the girls situated in their bunks, he slunk over to boys’ camp silently and pretended like girls don’t exist, including his mother, who tried to side hug him to no avail.)
I’m learning that a lot of parenting a teenage daughter is noticing what she’s going through. Kids get quieter as they get older, which is a huge relief to those of us begging our little ones to develop an inner monologue. But as my teenager spends more time up in her head and less time chattering to me every thought, I have to pay attention, ask the right questions, and let her know often that I see her, I’m proud of her, and I’m safe. I’m looking at her, even when everyone else is looking away.
Photo by Ashlee Gadd.