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  • Jenny

5. Cousin Love: Navigating Puberty in New Jersey

Growing up the eldest of all my siblings and cousins at home was tough at times. The age gap between me and my younger sister was 5 years, and all other children were born after her.

Always too old to fit in with the other kids, but not quite old enough to be with the adults, I found it much easier to retreat to my room to be myself; I fit in there.

So whenever we would visit (or be visited by) two of my older girl cousins from out-of-state, I was ecstatic. I absolutely adored them. They would treat me just like another sister, and doted on me. One trip in particular stood out when we visited them in New Jersey. I was a tween, but without much guidance. I didn’t know what questions to ask my mom, otherwise I know she would have told me about all the different things I needed to know growing up. My cousins took that role on, and helped me to mature in many ways.

It sounds silly, but they taught me the most basic girly things that profoundly changed my life. Things I just didn’t know how to do on my own and was ashamed to ask anyone about. I learned all about washing my hair and not being afraid of the water coming down on my head. They also taught me the right way to shave so I wouldn’t cut myself. A little unconventional learning all of this from my cousins, but it did the trick, and I certainly felt like a “big girl.” Afterwards, they made me feel like a princess as they played dress up with my hair, teaching me how to style it in different ways.

I remember learning how to do a French braid, and they graciously allowed me to practice on them. (They were really good sports in between “ows”.) They also showed me how to put on makeup, and

even though at the time I was not allowed yet to wear it to school, knowing the basics was helpful for when I finally was old enough.

We would then dress up and pretend we were rockstars, and I really felt comfortable with my own imagination around them.

They put on the radio and we would belt out the most popular songs, signing Debbie Gibson into our hairbrush microphones, and making up dances.

They never made me feel judged, and they opened me up to having fun. There were bunkbeds there, so we had a big ole girly sleepover party and I got to sleep on the top bunk and tell stories and giggle all night. I was so used to keeping all of this creative, playful energy locked up inside—even with my friends back home, I didn’t feel a level of security where I can just let myself be the crazy me that I was inside. Here, with my cousins, I was safe.

They also taught me courage on this particular trip. I had been unsuccessful in learning how to ride a bike without training wheels, and had given up on myself. I felt like my dad did, too. I just wasn’t athletic or very coordinated, and my fears about failing (him and myself) stopped me from asking to try again. And it was never pushed on me, so I wasn’t forced to face my fear. I thought I would never learn and tried to pretend it didn’t bother me, or that I “hated bike-riding” and just didn’t want to do it, but watching my friends back home riding bikes made me really sad. Why couldn’t I just get it like everyone else?

So when my cousins asked me to go for a bike ride, I shamefully told them I didn’t know how. Instead of just saying okay, we will do something else, my oldest cousin turned around and said, “Well, today is the day you are going to learn.” So she took me out and gave me some serious tough love. I fell, and was told to get over it and get back on it. There was no mercy—she even copped to making fun of me for being such a cry-baby until I found the strength within to try again and again until I got it right. And guess what—I did. I finally learned to ride a bike, and I did it on a rocky, hilly, uphill dirt road.

I was pretty damn proud of myself.

As a reward for learning how to ride a bike, my uncle said he wanted to take me on a “real” bike. With my mom’s heart in her throat (and my father’s encouraging “let her be”), I hopped onto a motorcycle with my uncle and drove through the local streets. I’ve never been on a motorcycle since, but I remember the exhilaration of the wind in my hair, the freedom of driving so fast and the sense of accomplishment from overcoming my fears of failure. It was the perfect reward.

What a lesson in growing up that trip had been for me. It was so incredibly nice to have someone closer to my age to hang out with who understood me—and who I could ask for advice, and talk about those things I was still naïve about but curious to learn. I felt a sense of freedom and acceptance for who I was, and enjoyed exploring all of the things a young girl should explore. My cousins helped ease me into pre-adulthood with kindness, wisdom and non-judgment. And I am so grateful for their profound role in

helping me to navigate these very scary, uncharted waters of womanhood.

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