I know my age, and I act like it

Olivia Rodrigo performing onstage.

Olivia Rodrigo Makes Me Miss Being A Teenage Girl — And Worry About Raising One

Tapping into my deep and ever-present teenage emotions has always felt like enveloping myself in a warm, familiar blanket.

by Alison Syrett

I can’t remember why I started listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s new album Guts — only that after I did, I couldn’t stop. I bobbed my head along to each song while cutting cantaloupe into fiddly little cubes for my daughters, and swayed to the downbeats as I picked up the stuffed rabbits and unicorns scattered around our apartment. I mouthed my favorite lyrics while gathering up plastic recycling; when I took the bag downstairs for collection, I jumped up and down in our courtyard and gyrated my body to the riot grrl riff in “All American B*tch.” It occurred to me at one point that it was likely that one of my building’s many septuagenarian residents would see me there through their windows, thrashing like an angry 16-year-old in her bedroom, but I made my peace with the risk.

How strange, maybe a touch embarrassing, to so deeply relate to lyrics written by a girl nearly half my own age.

This musical obsession came at the tail end of this past summer, and smack in the middle of a series of momentous life changes. My husband and I had just completed our first home purchase; closing and coordinating our family’s move into the space has been, at 36 years old, one of the most solidly adult experiences I’ve ever had. “Solidly adult,” in general, seems to be a new and surprising theme for me. Within the last two years, I’ve given birth to my second child, landed my first job in a managerial position, and navigated the tumultuous New York City real estate market to buy an apartment.

When I talk about these things, I start to feel like I’m cosplaying as a real grown-up. Perhaps Rodrigo’s angsty release came at a time when I needed to put on moody tunes and glower at people from under my hair as I wandered around our neighborhood. Tapping into my deep and ever-present teenage emotions has always felt like enveloping myself in a warm, familiar blanket.

I consider all the heartbreaks, betrayals, and confusion I can never protect my daughters from.

Meanwhile, at 4.5 years old, my oldest daughter is growing up fast, shredding the last vestiges of her babyishness at a startling pace. She asks me thoughtful and pointed questions about her place in the world, and how it relates to others — and absorbs how people perceive her in a way she never has before. Her legs seem to get longer by the day and her once frizzy halo of hair has become a gorgeous mop of thick, glossy curls. Strangers on the street are suddenly stopping to tell me what a “pretty” and “beautiful” girl I have. She looks at me wide-eyed and proud after each compliment and says, “Did you hear what they said?” I smile and nod, but internally these declarations terrify me. A fixation on appearance comes for all of female-kind eventually, but I would rather it doesn’t overtake my kid before kindergarten.

I began receiving unsolicited attention for my looks much closer to 18, around the same age Rodrigo was when she began working on Guts, her second album. And almost two decades later, I recognize the preemptive sadness the singer feels at her teenage and young adult years coming to an end. Our society may not take young women very seriously, but they are still objects of constant fascination. I felt it the second I relocated to New York City for college, when the same body that seemed so embarrassing and out of control throughout most of high school suddenly became my most dangerously powerful asset — and one I could wield without the watchful gaze of my parents nearby. There has been no period of my existence when I felt so simultaneously formidable and helpless: I had no money, no connections, and no idea what I was doing and wanted in the world, but strangers wanted to talk to me and give me things for free.

Every week I was slipping in and out of a new identity via eyeliner, impossibly high shoes, and tight denim. When I returned to my parents’ home, I could see my mother’s struggle to recognize her mercurial, rapidly changing daughter. I often delude myself that I’m raising future teens who will tell me everything and not hide who they are becoming or show their new selves only to friends at parties and in conversations I’ll never be privy to. I also know that’s impossible.

So is this the start? I think it when my daughters twist out of my arms to run to someone else, and turn away from me without looking back when I drop them off at day care. I wonder what the defining moment will be when they go from being one of my organs, miraculously living and breathing out in the world (but still fully mine), to floating away into selfhood. I consider all the heartbreaks, betrayals, and confusion I can never protect them from.

Rodrigo was just 17 when she released her first single, “Driver’s License.”Getty

Listening to Rodrigo’s ballad “Logical,” I feel angry and defiant thinking about some impenetrable jerk who made me feel like a stupid, try-hard naif. Then I’ll look up to see my oldest happily coloring away at our dining room table. She’s far closer to the age of the audience that song is meant to serve than I am, yet she is still so sweet and innocent that she thinks the fish we eat and that swim in the ocean are two totally separate entities. Something they never tell you when you get pregnant, between all the dietary restrictions and stroller recommendations, is that at some point — if you’re very lucky — you’re going to have this perfect untouched human on your hands who has never been hurt by the world. They have to discover and navigate how painful being alive can be on their own, and you will know what’s in store for them and not be able to stop it. Maybe she’ll let me curate a playlist for her?

Most days I am far too busy wrestling cookie crumbs out of my toddler’s diaper and trying to explain to her big sister why, no, she can’t wear a ballet flat on one foot and a winter boot on the other, to worry about parenting teenage and 20-something girls. Bedtime is a nightly catastrophe: Both my kids want to fall asleep touching me, so sometimes I’ll find myself flatly stretched out on their bedroom floor — one hand tucked between the bars of a crib, the other draped on the edge of a twin bed.

But once they do finally drift off, an Elmo bedtime meditation murmuring from a nearby iPad, I’ll get up to stroke their soft little cheeks, and stare intently at their peaceful faces. I reckon with the idea that maybe one day they’ll have someone else laying next to them. I find it impossible to believe that anyone could ever love and understand either of my daughters the way I do, and then I shake the thought from my head as fast as it came. Instead I get up, slide in my earbuds, and type “Guts” into Spotify.

Alison Syrett is the Deputy Fashion Editor at Romper’s sister brand, TZR, where she oversees all style- and industry-related features for the site. She has previously written for Romper about how fashion designers balance work and motherhood.