“Your body’s about to start changing,” she told my girl.
“No, it’s not,” I want to say, but before I can interrupt, the doctor turns to me and says that some time between ages 9 and 14, but usually closer to 9, the body begins to go through puberty. I nod, not sure what to say, feeling disconcerted and disarmed in equal proportions.
“I have a friend,” my daughter says, “who is, you know, has some puberty hair under her arms and down . . .” and she points vaguely to an area somewhere between her shins and her navel. “And she has a training bra, you know, ’cause, they’re growing.”
I can’t believe what’s coming out of my little girl’s mouth. To describe her friends. Ten-year-olds don’t have breasts, right? Maybe I should be paying more attention. But that sentence all by itself, without the context, sounds twisted and inappropriate. No, I shouldn’t be paying more attention. Ten-year-olds don’t have breasts. Done. And certainly not my 10-year-old. Nor can I believe we’re talking about this so openly. Clearly, it’s not a topic she’s ready for.
I ask her on the way to the parking lot if she and her mom have talked about any of this. I ask if they have discussed, you know, the changes. “Not really,” she says, and then she repeats the bit about pubic hair and training bras, followed by a short, slightly uncomfortable laugh that means she knows we’re talking about important stuff, but she’s not sure quite why it’s so important.
And therein lies the conundrum. Her body’s on this cusp — one that may not arrive for two to three more years, but could be here by Friday — that many of her friends, allegedly, have already gone through. She has no language for it. It’s a thing happening outside her comprehension. It’s vague, weird, esoteric knowledge.
As her father, I’m in equally foreign territory, not having gone through it — or talked about it — with anybody. And I had assumed it wouldn’t happen to her until she was closer to her 14th birthday than her 10th. Three minutes of searching the Internet enlightens me: As of 2011, the average age for the onset of puberty for Asian girls living in the United State was 9.7 years. It’s the same for white girls, 11 months later than African American girls and four months later than Hispanic girls. That is an across-the-board average age of 9.375 years, three to four months younger than girls in a similar study from 1997, and much younger than the age of 12 suggested by similar study from the 1960s.
Clearly, my head is stuck firmly in that era a half-century ago, and this news is hard to process. We’re only beginning to talk about sleep-away camp. She went to her first movie less than a couple of years ago — not because we’re against such things, but because she couldn’t handle the sensory overload. It was too much coming from too many angles. Puberty’s going to be like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in 3-D while hanging upside down on some horror ride at Six Flags. She’s not ready for her body to start spitting itself back at her. She still gets a kick out of watching “Leave it to Beaver” reruns and “Lab Rats.” (I think. Maybe she’s faking.)
It’s the same reflex that caused me to celebrate the fact that she watched “Caillou” until she was 7 (even though it’s more appropriate for 4-year-olds). “Isn’t this too young for her,” my wife would say, while I was flapping at her from across the room, secretly thrilled that I have a daughter maturing on the slow side, keeping at bay all those other moments that come with maturity. Moments when she won’t want to hold my hand, won’t even consider letting me take her to the doctor, or pick her up from school unless I park around the corner and wait in the car. That moment when there are no questions of any kind that constitute a conversation.
That begins a space of years spent in some kind of fatherhood wilderness, praying for the barest acknowledgment, waiting for her to have that Mark Twain realization about fathers and the exponential acquisition of wisdom as their child crosses the bridge between 14 and 21. That’s my fear about her going through puberty — it’s about having to watch it from across the room, if I’m lucky. More likely, I’ll be looking on from across the street, and that’s not something I’m ready for. Not now — at 10.3.
I won’t be ready when she’s 14, either, but at least by then, it would have been something I was prepared for and appropriately resigned to. When she is 14, I can imagine puberty arriving like a brick wall without a gate, a seven-year sleep-away camp 10 feet down the hall.
Giles Scott is a freelance writer and high school English teacher in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @faultytales.
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