Adventures With a Teen in Training
Little, Brown: 270 pp., $23.95
Must raising an adolescent girl necessarily be heartbreaking? This question is at the center of "My Girl," a stirring narrative by journalist Karen Stabiner focusing on her experiences as her daughter Sarah moved into early adolescence. The author had read a lot about "bad girls" -- young women with eating disorders or drug problems, who engage in frequent sex or are swamped by depression, suffer from low self-esteem or can't muster a civil word for their mothers. She was concerned about how her daughter, age 10 at the book's outset, would weather the storms of puberty. Compounding her anxiety were the many warnings from other parents that as Sarah moved nearer the teen years, their close relationship would come to an end. "They predicted that I would be miserable in direct proportion to my current state; if only we'd had less fun, those first ten years, I might have an easier go of it."
Wanting to believe that it's possible to navigate female adolescence without such turmoil, Stabiner sets out to find that "secret world behind the headlines and the outbursts, a satisfying place where mothers and their adolescent daughters lived most of the time." "My Girl" details the answers she finds.
Raising a strong, competent, well-educated daughter is clearly Stabiner's priority. In her previous book, "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters," she wrote extensively about all-girls schools, examining students at the elite Los Angeles prep school Marlborough and the Young Women's Leadership School, a public school in East Harlem. Besides providing readers with insight into single-sex education, the research led the Los Angeles-based writer to choose Marlborough for Sarah.
In "My Girl," Stabiner uses her experiences as the foreground against which to consider larger problems facing young women (and their mothers) today. First she considers subjects such as her daughter's friends and peer relationships, her clothes and school choices, sports activities, and whether she should let Sarah go on annual out-of-town class trips. She then explores what experts say about such things, creating a dance between her personal narrative and the insight of those knowledgeable about nationwide trends. Overall, she asserts, the problems of teen girls are exaggerated. Most, she writes, are quite happy and can stay afloat amid the swirling waters of puberty just fine.
Still, readers can't help but notice that the book chronicles most closely the ages of 10 to 13, with just a short segment on Sarah's 14th year. The years that follow, when teen-hood fully blossoms, can be quite trying even for the most well-adjusted child, but the narrative doesn't track Sarah's experiences through those crucial times. And Stabiner, an occasional contributor to The Times, focuses on her daughter so completely that those of us who show less attention to our children may end up feeling like failures. Making a cake for Sarah's birthday, for instance, becomes a major ordeal: "I bought a cake cookbook as big as a dictionary and preheated the oven a half hour too early. I watched the butter soften, I cradled the eggs in my hands to hasten their arrival at room temperature, and then I waited for the cup of milk to catch up. I placed my watch on the counter so that twenty seconds of beating would not become twenty-five."
The fact that she enrolls her child in elite private schools, shops for a sixth-grade graduation dress in New York City, plans a mother-daughter month together in Italy and buys a horse for Sarah's chosen sporting activity -- the school's equestrian team -- may be distancing to readers whose daily lives look quite different. (The monthly fee to lease a horse, we learn, was almost as much as the family's mortgage payment, thus, the need to buy Sarah a horse of her own.)
Putting those differences aside, the tale of paying attention to the passing stages of adolescence is an important one. Stabiner offers no advice on plotting a course through puberty, on how to ensure a trouble-free adolescence, nor how to keep your daughter talking to you. By example, though, she tells of walking through the phases of pre- and early teen parenting with nary a scratch and offers hope that the "bad girl" headlines need not apply. By paying attention to the abiding moments of grace in a daughter's development, she shows us, we need not fear.
At least, not yet.
Bernadette Murphy is a regular contributor to Book Review and the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a work of narrative nonfiction.