The terrors of girlhood

Last weekend I had to drop Mia off at a friend’s house so she could work on a project for school. She was making a coral reef out of disposable items around the house, as part of a diorama representing key scenes in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was in the living room puttering around while she was getting ready. When she came around the corner, she was wearing lipstick.

I could tell she was a little self-conscious, a little proud, a little unsure. She very studiously said nothing about it, and I didn’t either. She just started gathering her things, talking about the scene in the book they were focusing on that day. The lipstick was a little dark, and I think there was a little too much. I noticed she had applied a little glitter around her eyes, too.

It’s not like this was the first time I’d encountered this. She’s ten, she’s been curious about makeup and the various accoutrements of girlhood for quite some time. Sometimes she would disappear in the bathroom for twenty minutes or more and come out in garish colors. It’s fine, because it’s experimentation, and it’s at home. The rules are no makeup at school, and that has always worked out well.

But this felt different. I think it was just her shy demeanor, the eyes that wouldn’t meet mine, the pride and fear and hope that I could see flowing across her face. At some point it had stopped being about pretending to be a big girl. It had become about actually being one.

I’m a single dad; I guess you already know that. Common wisdom tells me I should be worried about the big things coming down the pike with a preadolescent daughter. Periods, hormones, the inevitable anxieties about sex and drinking and drugs. But you know, that stuff doesn’t worry me too much. That’s biology and that’s parenting. I can do that. I have no qualms about that stuff (he said, naively).

What worries me are these smaller details. Teaching her how to put on makeup. Dressing her properly. Doing her hair so it looks pretty. The small things of girlhood that I have no experience with. When she was smaller it mattered less; now it’s becoming important and I am very conscious of my limitations here.

She is not without women in her life. My best friend A lives across the hall and is always free with her time and her advice. Mia’s mother is a regular and influential presence. My own mother lives close by as well.

But still. When you come down to it —  on a practical, daily basis — it’s just me and her.

I need someone to give me lessons. To teach me the mysteries of blush and lip gloss and eyeliner, to teach me how to braid hair. To teach me the small details of girlhood, so that I can at least guide her or offer some helpful advice when she rounds a corner and stands shyly at the threshold of her new life, wearing too much lipstick and too much glitter around the eyes, hoping for my approval, while I just stand there, humbled into silence.