My husband and I separated the year my daughter turned 13. She was deliciously wise and fun, but I knew I couldn't slip into "us girls." She needed a mother.

Published May 5, 2005 4:33PM (EDT)

The Americans sit at a table in Lesn, Spain, when the evening at last takes the bite off the heat, watching the couples, arm in arm, strolling in a steady procession past the cafis and cathedral. The wife envies how they walk in step, speak quietly to one another, couples who may have known each other for twenty, forty, sixty years. She marvels at how they still walk close to one another, muster a conversation, when she and her husband have nothing left to say across the gap of a very small table.

Their daughter sprawls in the third chair. Thirteen years old, and for years she has watched the rocky ride of their problematic marriage. The older she gets, the more obvious it becomes that her mother and her father have nothing left between them. And they have grown less able to conceal it. Or perhaps feel less need to do so -- their girl is older, understands more. Perhaps they are tired of pretending.

It is almost four weeks that they have traveled together, without a break, and they are separating further with each passing day, while the daughter, on the brink of adolescence, is separating from them both. The wife watches her child's new detachment with mingled regret and fascination. Just a few weeks ago this was a slouchy, baggy pantsand-T-shirted American girl. Suddenly her grungy offspring is watching herself in the shop windows of Seville and Cordoba and Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian and Segovia. And men, for the first time, are noticing her. Thirteen, but with a graceful body, her rippling dark hair twisted and clipped up, rather than tightly braided, as it is at home. Thirteen, but in Spain, she is wearing her clothes differently; she stands erect, walks with a new self-possession. This physical change is mirrored in the cafi by how she divorces herself from her parents as they sit, fuming in their isolation, their rage and despair. They are a couple of old people with their own problems.

On their return to America, the husband and the wife separate. The girl is not surprised. After what she has seen, she would have been surprised had they stayed together. The husband moves to a beachside town. The wife exhales. The yelling is over, the criticism, the second-guessing of every decision. She and the daughter sit across from each other at the dinner table. They are free now -- to make decisions, to make mistakes, to collude, to negotiate, with respect. Free to grow into something neither of them can yet imagine.

She had been ready for her husband to leave for years. What she had not considered was how it would feel seeing her daughter pack her suitcase, her toothbrush, her teddy, and leave with him for the first time. She did not do one thing until her daughter returned on Sunday night. There were things to accomplish, a book to write, friends she could have called, relatives, errands, and chores, and yet, she did none of them. The shock -- that she would lose not only her husband but also her daughter, at least part of the time -- was something that had never entered her consciousness.

The separation, which had begun in Spain and which was naturally a part of her daughter's movement into adolescence, would not stop now.

She thinks, half the world has gone through this, but now it was her turn to discover what it meant to be a single mother, to construct a new life with her thirteen-year-old daughter. Thirteen. That is an important fact. Keep it in mind.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It occurs to her that she doesn't know how to do this -- head a household, make a family when it is just the two of them. The husband provided most of the structure in their family life. Vacations, mealtimes, chores, homework. Now that it's just the two of them, how very fluid their world becomes. They don't know when to eat, what to eat, how casual it should be, when Thirteen should go to bed, do her homework. How clean to keep the house, how often a child of thirteen should be left alone in the evening.

She feels how lovely it is, absolutely liberating, this freedom to construct a life tailor-made for them alone. It will give them a chance to be absolutely themselves.

On the other hand, she has to admit that, as the weeks go on, the responsibility is a creeping anxiety. What does it mean if she goes out again, the third time this week? What does it mean to reheat last night's dinner, or to microwave something from Trader Joe's? How far can a family break down and still be a family? Is two a family?

But the months go by, and they find their rhythms. Spain is a lasting influence -- they find they like to eat late, sometimes nine o'clock, even on school nights. But it's a real meal, cooked fresh and eaten together in the dining room. The woman discovers that just picking up whatever and eating on the run feels wrong. She knows that people do it all the time -- it's the modern condition -- but the lingering sense of dropping the ball infuses her with a subtle depression, which, somehow, is relieved when she cooks a decent meal and sits down to eat it with Thirteen, even if it is nine o'clock on a school night. It makes her feel like a mother taking care of a daughter, not two coyotes scrounging in an alley. Like they're still a family.

Thirteen goes to bed late now, too, as late as she needs to. She knows when she's tired. This is new too -- the woman trusts her daughter to know how she feels. In Spain, both of them took siestas and easily adjusted to the late nights, dinner at midnight, flamenco at two A.M., and now, it seems, Spain is still teaching them what is possible.

Thirteen is frighteningly able, tremendously generous, matter-of-fact in her adaptation to their new life. The woman is grateful, but also worries about relying on this too much. Thirteen can cook for herself if necessary; she can put herself to bed. She does her homework on her own. She uses her spare time to write her monthly 'zine, play the guitar, cut up and refashion her clothing, make collages, or draw her cartoon strip.

But how much time alone is too much time? The woman begins dating. She worries that she is taking advantage of Thirteen's competence, her ability to use her time alone, her lack of concern when her mother goes out. The woman keeps her cell phone on, tries to stay in the neighborhood; she can be home in five minutes. She asks Thirteen, "Is this too much? Would you like me to stay home tonight?" "It's fine, Mom," Thirteen says, with that thirteen-year-old exasperated sigh. But how much faith to put in that?

Both the benefit and the trouble with their new life is that it's all experimental. No one can tell her if this is all right. Neither of them knows how the experiment will turn out. They can do what they want, what works for them both, custom-made and newly minted just for them. On the other hand, the woman worries that what might seem all right now might not be good in the long run. And how can she ever know?

She thinks about her marriage, whether they should have separated earlier. But she knows, deep in her being, that she wouldn't have left him any earlier. She has to admit to herself, she is a coward and a shirker. She knows many women who are raising young children on their own, and doing a fabulous job of it. She considered it -- when Thirteen was two, when she was nine. But if she is honest, she knows she couldn't have done it -- worked full time, kept a roof over their heads, dealt with the discipline and heavy interaction of early childhood, and continued to write serious fiction. Suicide would have looked like an attractive option.

But at thirteen, her daughter has turned a corner. Her bat mitzvah, where she proclaimed, "Today I am an adult," was no big deal to Thirteen.

The woman, however, took it surprisingly to heart. In some fundamental way, she began to see her daughter as having come of age and capacity, more entitled to make decisions for herself, no longer a child. It doesn't seem odd to her in retrospect that this would be the year her husband and she would divorce.

Now that it's just her and Thirteen, it's so comfortable, so casual; she can see how easy it would be to move from a parent/child relationship into a sororal one. Best buddies. They could go shopping together, see movies, hang out, have their hair done, exchange clothing even. Like girlfriends.

But she has seen that kind of mother/daughter interaction at close range, and there seems something brutalizing in it, the mother using a child as a girlfriend instead of truly being a mother. "We do everything together," one such mother says with a giggle. The daughter is a horror -- so angry she cannot follow a request or even eat the food she is served, the terror of birthday parties and school days -- and the mother blames everyone but the child and herself. Now, however, the woman can understand how it happens, how seductive it is -- especially when Thirteen is so deliciously wise and fun. She makes an easy co-conspirator, she can be indoctrinated into the mother's point of view, she's companionable, yet the mother still calls the shots. Such an easy buffer against adult loneliness.

The woman knows she must resist this temptation, the monstrous ease of sliding into "just us girls." Thirteen has friends. She needs a mother. What is appropriate is the separation the woman first saw in Spain. Her job is to support that and encourage it, and remain the parental figure, a fixture with a dignity and weight and a center of gravity from whom Thirteen can push off into the world. The girl needs the woman to stay back and let her emerge into her own space and her own style. But at the same time, she still needs the woman to set boundaries, to know that she is still being held, even when they're making it up as they go along.

This is what the woman senses in the importance of the formality of dinnertime. Even if they could just as easily order a pizza and eat it in front of the TV. It would feed her daughter's body, but would it nourish her spirit, make her feel held? No, it would not.

The woman can't escape the irony and humor in dating again just as her daughter is beginning to look up and notice boys in the world. She feels under a tremendous obligation to do it right, to set a good example. She hates leaving her daughter alone at night to go out with a man, but at the same time she feels she's showing Thirteen that you can have a bad experience and move on and find joy and pleasure in life again; these things don't have to leave you bitter.

On the other hand, she doesn't want Thirteen to get to know her steady date too well, because she wants the freedom to end it if it becomes necessary. At the same time, she doesn't want her personal life to be mysterious either, leaving her daughter to worry and wonder what Mom is doing and who she's doing it with. So every time the man comes to pick her up, she asks Thirteen, "Do you want to meet him?"

For a month or so, the answer is no. The woman talks about him, casually, hoping to get Thirteen used to the idea that there is someone special, but someone not very different from her other friends. Finally, one evening, when the man comes to pick her up, and she asks Thirteen, "Do you want to meet him?" the girl shrugs. "I guess I can say hi."

The man comes in, shakes her daughter's hand, and gives her a CD he's made -- The Clash and Joe Strummer's last; he has a Thirteen, too. And that is that. How simple it is, and yet big. Her mother is not her father's wife anymore. And she's not going out with Axl Rose or Pee Wee Herman.

At her age, the woman discovers, the men who date have kids, too. She meets the man's daughter -- it's surprisingly easy, natural. His daughter is accustomed to this, meeting her father's dates. But she resists the idea of getting their kids together. She is reluctant to make mistakes. It seems a big step, too much. Her husband has a girlfriend now, and she learns he is planning for Thirteen to get together with the girlfriend's family on an upcoming ski trip. Thirteen admits she is dreading it. The woman suggests she tell her father; Thirteen doesn't have to do anything she finds uncomfortable. But she also makes a note to herself: Don't rush the family thing.

The woman and her steady have their first major conflict. She comes home dragging ass, and tells her daughter she thinks they are breaking up. Thirteen is wonderful and funny about the whole thing -- talks to her as if she is one of her friends breaking up with another eighth-grader: "It's all right, Becky. You'll get over it, you'll see," she says in her perfect Keanu Reeves/Ted of San Dimas imitation. "You're a great girl. Look how much you've got to offer." It makes her laugh, but the woman has to pull herself together, pull herself back. This is my child, not my girlfriend. It isn't up to Thirteen to console her, even as Ted of San Dimas. Such a fine line, though -- she lives with Thirteen, the girl sees her ups and downs, she can't turn herself into an Easter Island statue. When the woman is bummed, Thirteen cares, she's sensitive, she wants to make it better. And yet the woman cannot lean on her. She recites it over and over as a mantra: It's not a child's job to make a parent feel better, to make them take care of you. It's a child's God-given right NOT to care about your personal life.

Thirteen is applying to high school. Of course, the school she likes best is an hour's commute from their house. Before, during her marriage, it would have been out of the question to move, to uproot the family so that one member could go to the school of her dreams. In fact, had the woman and her husband stayed together, Thirteen probably would not have been allowed to apply to this school. The family had a center of gravity then; it wasn't a traveling show.

But now it is just her and Thirteen. They could just pick up and move.

And there it is, the frightening rub of this new life.

She lives in a particularly congenial neighborhood, interlaced with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and many of them are, like her, work-at-home writers and artists; theirs are relationships she has nurtured for fifteen years. They drop in, have coffee, see one another at Trader Joe's, meet at parties, at the clubs. Where she lives has been part of her identity; it knits her life together, like the layer of fungus that holds together the forest floor. The idea of moving an hour away fills her with unnameable panic.

But she looks at Thirteen, back in her braids and baggy T-shirts -- Spain's sartorial influence has faded somewhat -- and is reminded how time-sensitive kids are, that they're a product with a short shelf-life. She feels the weight of her responsibility to this particular item. She has exactly four more years with Thirteen, to have some kind of impact, to help make her life most closely approximate what this growing person would like for herself, to help her unfold into the young woman it is possible for her to become.

So here it is again -- the benefit and the difficulty of this kind of freedom. Whose needs get met, who takes priority? Thirteen has already been accepted into a school nearby, a good school, but perhaps not as sensational as the one across town. Anyone who has ever visited Los Angeles and attempted to drive between Silverlake and Santa Monica during morning rush hour understands that this is not something a sane person would even attempt four times a day.

Oh, she reasons with herself, she could make it work. Find someone who goes to UCLA or Santa Monica City College and pay him or her to drive. She could carpool, do the heinous thing three times a week. But having Thirteen over an hour away, staying away until seven or later each night, busy with school projects, developing a whole new set of friends whom she will never see -- the whole idea makes her fretful and sleepless. She remembers her own adolescence, and how little her parents knew. For herself, she would not want Thirteen that far away, physically or emotionally.

So whose needs? Which need? Her need to be a good parent, or her pleasure at being part of a deeply satisfying community?

She prays that Thirteen is not accepted to the school of the distant commute, or ultimately decides on something closer in. But she finds it interesting to consider the possibility of the move, the way it is interesting to torment a decaying tooth. She has the opportunity to be the mother that her mother was not, did not know enough to be.

She thinks back on all the times she has been bewildered upon learning that one of her neighbors was moving to some suburb of the "better school." It had always upset her to hear of one more woman scuttling her own satisfaction to provide for someone else's. First, as a daughter, to be a good girl, to please the parent; then, as a mother, shortchanging herself for the children's sake. And when is it going to be your turn? she always wanted to ask.

Now she thinks of her own mother, a woman who has in later life emerged as the grandmother from heaven, but who, back in the day, considered a child's place secondary to the needs of the adults in the family. The urgency of livelihood. It never occurred to parents of that day to ask, "What is it you need from me?" "How can I help you?" Pressed for time and energy, they kept their heads down in the battle zone and soldiered on. If someone had suggested that a mother could do more to support her daughter's unfolding self, that mother would have stared in blank incomprehension.

The woman once wrote a book about a mother and a daughter, and in the process considered long and hard the question What is it that makes a good mother? As far as she could ascertain, it seemed to boil down to a fairly simple set of issues. A lousy mother was someone who looked at her kid and said, "Here's who I want you to be" and "Here's what I'm going to give you." A good mother was the one who looked at her kid, really looked at her, and asked, "Who are you?" and "What do you need from me?"

How many children are ever really seen? How many, on the other hand, are given what their parents want to give them -- things they need like an Inuit needs an icebox? Things that leave a child frustrated and furious, like getting the Christmas present that's just what the giver wanted. Violin lessons when a child is an artist. Restriction when she needs encouragement. Stoicism when she needs a soft shoulder. And how many future neuroses can be traced back to those misfires?

So why is it so bloody hard for mothers to turn to their own children and look them in the eye and say, "What do you need from me?"

Now the woman knows why: Because then you know, and have to respond. It might not be convenient. It might not be what you wanted to give.

She remembered something that happened when Thirteen was younger. She'd saved a box of books from her own childhood -- the best-loved, treasured, and carefully preserved -- for the time she would have her own daughter. She had just got to the best of them all -- King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry -- a book in which she had lived for several crucial years of her unhappy but imaginative childhood. She worshiped that book, she became that book.

But when she finally opened that cherished volume and began to read it aloud to her child, her daughter groaned and said, "Oh God, not another sad horse story."

What fury, what frustration -- at having saved those books for some idealized child who would appreciate just how wonderful they were, and then, instead, having this real little kid who didn't like sad horse stories. That ungrateful brat, trampling the mother's cherished fantasies of sharing these books with an appreciative daughter, connecting the then with the now.

Fortunately, just as her temper began to erupt, she had one of those blessed moments -- perhaps there are angels or ancestors who do come to our aid -- when you step outside yourself and see the reality of that little person. She had a daughter who did not care for sad horse stories. She didn't need what her mother wanted to give her. She needed something else.

Thank God for King of the Wind. It had been worth saving after all.

What does Thirteen really need from her? Not a good book, not even a soft shoulder to cry on, not kiddie art classes or even the benefit of her often shaky wisdom. She needs her to ante up. She needs a mother willing to cross a city for her, a mother watching, listening. Willing to know.

There are only four more years that she will have Thirteen. The girl won't need her hair brushed, won't want to play stuffed animals. She won't even necessarily be aware of what it is she needs. But the clock is running. The woman knows, has known since Spain, that there is not much time left. There will be time to live exactly the way she would like, many years for that.

But as an artist, she knows as she has always known, that the pleasure of creation takes precedence over any of the more passive pleasures. With her own child, she is creating a work of passion, all the more exciting and terrifying because it is utterly improvised. That day, at the table in Lesn, she had seen what she wanted: relationships that continued and replenished themselves, like the couples walking in the evening arm-in-arm. And when the separation that had begun with Thirteen in Spain is complete, this is perhaps the best that she can hope for -- that the mistakes and the negotiations and the trials and the errors of these freelance years have resulted in a mutual respect that will only deepen with time. And that they will always be able to muster a conversation over their coffee cups in a small foreign town.

Excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," edited by Kate Moses and Camille Peri, former editors of Salon's Mothers Who Think. Copyright (c) 2005 by HarperCollins. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

By Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch is the author of "White Oleander."

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