While my heart ached for the loss of that carefree nature it also softened with the comfort of knowing I had lived that part of my life fully, perhaps longer than most.
I am lying on the floor of my daughter’s room holding her little hand through the bars of the crib while she attempts to fall back to sleep. The shag carpet is imprinting swirly lines on my cheek and I have lost all sensation in my arm except the tingles set in motion by the gentle drum of her dreaming fingers against my palm.
Here in the darkness with the distant sound of traffic under the hum of the sound machine, I traverse the landscape of my memory in search of how I got here. There is nothing bad about this moment, nothing devastating or disarming; it is simply a moment of motherhood. But that very concept is still baffling to me.
When I was 14 I had my first kiss. It was 1994. My school uniform included ripped jeans, one of my dad’s flannels, and black low top Converse with my own doodles on the white rubber toes. I didn’t know not to brush my curly hair so it was massive. I was trying, but I knew I wasn’t cool and I couldn’t understand why this guy was into me. He was a senior, short and kind, with soft sad brown eyes and slightly crooked teeth. He was perhaps the only Jewish boy in L.A. who had not had braces. He drove a Chevy 4×4 in red with black trim and his parents were divorced, too. He made me a mix tape with Nirvana, Tool, Alice in Chains, Faith No More, and Mudhoney—the epitome of grunge.
In truth, I didn’t like him that way. I had a crush on his friend, the one with the green eyes who flirted with me in Chorus, the one who came out in college. But when he leaned in at my doorstep I couldn’t resist the urge to meet his parting lips with mine, the thrill of the moment overwhelmed my lack of attraction. I could feel the tickle of his goatee as my entire insides buzzed with the fact that my first kiss was actually happening.
Years later he died of a drug overdose and I felt a twinge of guilt for having never loved him that way. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral even though I had moved back to L.A.—in a pre-Facebook world, no one from that group knew how to find me. When a friend of a friend finally called, I had missed the funeral by two days. I spent the afternoon in my car driving over Laurel Canyon listening to KROQ and crying.
As I drove, it became clear that there was something monumental about that year. It wasn’t just my first kiss. It was everything: those moments of raw experience as a newly-minted teenager straddling life between childhood and adulthood. I was still enchanted by the world on a daily basis; the wonder, the thrill, had not been replaced by apathy or bitterness. I was no longer a little girl but not yet a disenchanted adolescent or a wistful adult. I was certainly looking forward but with an anticipation that was wide open.
I realized a piece of that 14 year-old girl had embedded herself in me, burrowed under my skin to light me up from the inside. She made me who I was and I loved her for it. She was what kept my imagination unbridled as an actor. She was the reason why when I taught theatre my students related to me so closely, why they could barely fathom my age when I revealed it to them. Being 14 resonated with me so deeply that while I became a woman, finally filling out my bras and allowing my curls to spring free, I retained the spirit of that girl.
This part of my identity had been with me for so long that I barely acknowledged it, but the shift into motherhood has changed me. The girl is gone. I’m not sure exactly when she ran off—she must have slipped out the back door when the baby woke again wailing into the darkness at 3am. Perhaps she was frightened to death by my primal moans during birth or died of embarrassment when my milk came in bursting onto the bathroom floor. She didn’t even leave a note. There are echoes of her in my bones but her essence is gone. I am in awe of my delightful daughter, but I am in mourning over the loss of the girl I once was.
I have yet to understand how to embody this new self, but I no longer feel 14. I feel exactly as I am—35—perhaps a young 35, but definitely 35. I see and feel the life I have lived thus far in a way that I never could before having a baby: the ephemeral nature of all things, the conundrum of passing time both infinitely slow and faster than imaginable, feeling both outside my body and ensnared by it.
Without any solid identity, I feel groundless. As a Buddhist, I recognize that this is the very nature of existence and the means for true transformation, but it is nonetheless terrifying. I never knew how attached I was to myself as a girl until that part of me dissolved, leaving behind what felt like the shell of a person. In truth, I play the role of mother rather well: The days are filled with attention, affection, patience, laughter, imagination, and connection, with the smattering of frustration and irritation common to life with a toddler. So it is not “mother” that feels so alien, but “adult.” While I have always been petite in stature and sprightly in spirit, many a palm reader has alighted on my old soul; my girlishness was not naïve, but offset by a certain worldly knowing. But “adult” was a term I avoided, prided myself on never being associated with.
My husband and I have always looked young and while we had jobs and paid bills we never felt like “adults.” Just after we got married, we threw a holiday party in our very first apartment together in Cambridge inviting a wide array of characters: colleagues from his PhD program, my fellow actors, friends from the yoga studio, friends from the meditation center up north. We had mulled wine and spiked eggnog, but somehow imagined the night would end with debauchery like in college. Everyone had a wonderful time, the last guests trickling out after midnight. Once the door closed we turned to each other and shook our heads: That was not a party.There was no groping in the bathroom or smoking a joint on the front stoop or dancing on the coffee table—everything was tame, above board, civilized. We resolved never to have a party again lest we be reminded that everyone but us had morphed into an adult.
But in this moment we are grown-ups. And while we have acquired white hairs—he plucks the ones hiding in the folds of my dark waves with the fervor of a mother chimp—and our foreheads are creased, the age is deeper. We are not young anymore. Even though we have aged together, even though it has undoubtedly been a process, it feels sudden. We still laugh at inappropriate things and eat pizza out of the box and ice cream out of the carton, but there is a distance that comes with the loss of my girlhood. That is not to say he doesn’t love me, but I can see him looking for me, seeking a hint of the girl he fell in love with. Sometimes it seems we cannot recognize each other. We are homesick for each other. Sometimes it feels like we are the only two people in the world who truly love each other. We find solace in the fact that we knew each other when. In having a child we realized that we are no longer children; we are still awed by that confrontation with mortality.
I am sitting on the big girl swings with my daughter in my lap watching a group of 14 year-old girls attempt flips on the monkey bars. I know they are 14 because I asked them shortly after my brazen girl slid off my lap and toddled over to them saying, “Hi, girls!” We were both amazed, not by their actions, but by their very existence. When they laughed we laughed, my daughter with abandon and myself with a hint of nostalgia. One of the girls had highlighted her blonde hair with bubblegum pink streaks, reminiscent of my own teenage love affair with Manic Panic. I felt both yearning and relief: While my heart ached for the loss of that carefree nature it also softened with the comfort of knowing I had lived that part of my life fully, perhaps longer than most.
They disappeared, as girls often do, while we were climbing the stairs of the big kid slide. Regardless of their absence, my sweet daughter gazed at the monkey bars and waved, “Bye, girls.” I am trying to emulate her grace in letting go.
Eve Kagan is a writer, actress, and international theatre teaching artist. She has written for The Huffington Post, Teaching Artist Journal, HerStories Project, and recently had a short story published in the Dark City Lights anthology. She holds an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from Harvard and has worked with youth around the world engaging theatre as a medium for social justice. Eve currently lives in Virginia with her husband and daughter.