sisters reading on rocking chair together

Babies and Butterflies: An Study Of Adolescent Development

I have this vivid childhood memory…though I am not sure if it really happened or if I dreamt it.  I had to have been around four-and-a-half, not much more, because my mother was pregnant with my younger sister.

In this memory, my mother and I are curled up in my bed, leaning against the big-girl pillows, my woven blue blanket tucked tight around our bare toes. We are reading a picture book, and I point to a green stubby worm in the center of the left-most picture.

“Look, Mommy! It’s a baby!”

She reaches over me and places her finger underneath the picture, below the word ‘caterpillar’ and makes each sound, ‘caaa – trrr – pill – rrr.’

“Sound it out with me,” she says. We say it slowly together: “Ca-ter-pill-ar.”

“What is a caterpillar?” she asks.

“A baby butterfly.”

“That’s right! And where do caterpillars live?”

My mother looks at my bedroom wall and smiles, giving me a not-so-sneaky hint. My room is decorated with a flower-print wall, a blue wall, and two white walls with a fancy blue fence. The fence is painted along the room’s bottom edges, almost as if it grew from the floor. My mother stenciled the posts herself.  They look real, except for the blue color. But the blue matches my blue pillows. And my blue blanket. And this fence transforms the room into a garden.

“Garden!” I squeal. “Caterpillars live in gardens!”

“Yes,” she says, “Good job, sweetie.”

I nestle in the crook of my mother’s arm, the little bun at the top of my head fitting right under her armpit. She turns the page of the book. There is a momma lion and her cub. I place my little hand on my mother’s stomach. It is large and swollen.

“The caterpillar is a baby,” I say, “A baby, like this one.”

 

I have always been fascinated by human development—the way we shift from tiny seeds in our mother’s stomachs to people that jump double-dutch, drink root beer floats, develop whooping cough, fall in love.

I am still not sure whether that memory with my mother actually happened, but as a four-and-a-half-year-old, I do remember touching my mother’s swollen stomach, feeling the tiny movements of feet and life beneath my fingertips. I remember my new sister’s nursery and its lavender and light green colors. I remember the obnoxious pink stork in the center of our lawn. And I remember the quiet bundle my father carried like a glass figurine in his arms. The whole process was fascinating.

In my senior year of high school, an exhibit called Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life came to the Chicago Science and Industry Museum. I went for a fieldtrip with my anatomy class and stood in the back, walking a hundred or so feet behind everyone, taking it all in. One of the first sections of the exhibit featured actual preserved embryos and babies at different weeks. There was a zygote from one week after conception, then a seven-week-old embryo, no bigger than a blueberry. One of the most powerful glass cases held the body of a twenty-eight week old fetus, fragile and small enough to hold in my hands, unborn, each finger and toe defined.

I remember standing in front of that glass case, blinking back tears as I admired the soft folds of plaster skin that formed the eyelids, the waxy arms and legs. A sign underneath the case said something about third trimester abortions, how this twenty-eight week old baby would classify as a third trimester fetus.

The baby looked so real, so alive. I could almost see the thin arms moving in the amniotic sac; I could imagine the strong kicks against the mother’s belly.

I have always been in awe of the complexity of human life, our changes and growths, how a fetus can develop different senses in the womb, responding to stimuli before birth, or acquiring sensitivities to different tastes in the amniotic sac: sweet, bitter, salty, sour.[1] It has always amazed me that even a sense of hearing is developed prenatally; I remember talking to my baby sister, leaning against my mother’s stomach, hoping in a kindergartner sort of way that I would hear something back. My mother talked to the baby too. She believed, like most mothers, that her unborn child would recognize the tone and inflections of her voice. When I held my sister just hours after birth, and she smiled at me when I spoke, I felt that smile was a recognition. She had remembered me.

Standing in front of that glass case at the Body Worlds exhibit brought me back to my four-and-a-half-year-old hand on my mother’s stomach, feeling each kick. It brought me to hours after my sister’s birth, holding her like a sleeping puppy in my arms. It brought me to months later, watching as she underwent rapid changes—learning to hold her head upright, move her arms and legs, scoot herself across the floor, babble and coo. I watched this growth intently. It was her arms and legs first, extremities sprouting to lengths disproportionate to the rest of her body. Then it was crying and laughing melting into words, and floor-shuffling becoming crawling, then walking—and everything happening simultaneously—a structured sort of chaos.

 

There was a small period in my elementary school life when I wanted to be a doctor, one that took care of mothers and small babies. I think this was a result of the spinach spoon-feeding I assisted my mother with, and at age five, being too young to change diapers and thus not experiencing the true horror of it all. Though profound, the career path was short-lived, as I realized I was terrified of needles and all too sensitive to be able to hold back tears when seeing someone in pain.

My sister grew to be a lot tougher than me. When she was six or seven, I held her tiny hand in mine as the doctor inserted a numbing agent into her ripped-open chin; she had slipped on the edge of an indoor swimming pool. While she sat stone-faced in the doctor’s chair, I, eleven or twelve years old, cried enough tears for the both of us.

My sister is both beautiful and tough. She has always reminded me of a butterfly, delicate-winged but resilient. As a baby, she was the perfect caterpillar. Each scuttling movement across the kitchen floor was worm-like; she would inch forward with determination, every day one scoot closer to crawling. And like the newly-hatched caterpillar larva with its disproportionately large head and few bristles of hair, she looked like most babies, half-bald and big-headed.[2]

A caterpillar develops a unique set of color patterns, hair, spine, and fleshy filaments, becoming unique and differing from its appearance at birth. This was my sister with her tiny upturned nose, oval brown eyes, and little high-pitched giggle. Where I had inherited my mother’s curly, dark brown mess of hair, my sister’s was straight and golden. Where I had been given my father’s strong, short legs, my sister’s were feminine and long.

As humans grow, we undergo rapid changes, physically, mentally, linguistically, and emotionally. We become different and unique. We develop tiny toe nails and crescent-moon smiles. At eight weeks we are the size of a raspberry. At week twenty-eight, like the Body Worlds baby, we are the size of an eggplant—very much alive.[3]

A human develops immensely, yet even in this, we are so dependent on the world. Like caterpillars, we rely on our surroundings. We need security, stability as if to counterbalance to the turbulent growth inside of us. But this inner chaos is both beautiful and makes us into beautiful beings.

 

Sometimes I want to ask my mother about this memory of us reading. If I close my eyes, I can feel the stiff linen of the pillow, the warmth of my mother’s body next to mine. I remember reading about caterpillars, how they grow from the thick shell of an egg, like my sister inside my mother, only a faint idea to me at the time.

I want to ask my mother if she remembers this book, if I really did point to the caterpillar and then at my future sister, as if to give her wings to grow into. As if to command her into existence. As if to predict who she would become—beautiful, resilient.

 

 

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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sisters laying down on the floor together

Pupa and Puberty: Understanding the Chrysalis Stage

Growing up sucks. There’s really no lighter way to put it. Take a typical girl for instance: as she moves into young adulthood, or the ‘pre-teen/teenage’ years, she not only deals with the development of breasts and hips, but also a suddenly-increased sexual drive (aka. noticing hot guys for the first time), a rush of emotions (bawling her eyes out over an 8/10 on a homework assignment), height and weight fluctuations (suddenly gaining excessive amounts of weight and not fitting into favorite jeans and/or sprouting ten-foot-long legs), pimples (don’t get me started with those)… and the list continues.

What’s fascinating about this stage of development, however, is that even with all the internal and external chaos, this girl will somehow become beautiful (or beautifully awkward in my case). She’ll be like a butterfly, for example. In the pupa stage, the insect is housed by a protected chrysalis that from the outside appears unmoving, but inside, is crazy with changes. There are shifts and growths that make the once-caterpillar into a completely different creature. And this isn’t an easy process by any means. But when the insect finally emerges, it’s fascinating. This is how us humans are—drastic hormonal, biological, physical, sexual, and emotional changes under the protected, yet vulnerable stage of adolescence that eventually leads to us becoming fascinating, individual adults.

The word ‘puberty,’ for me, is one of those turn-off words. When I read it on a page, it makes me squeamish. But that’s just because I know it has to do with the horrible time in my life—middle school and early high school. Yes, from sixth grade until ninth grade, I was a whopping 4’11”, one of the shortest girls in my class. I was at least a head or two underneath everyone else, and if that wasn’t bad enough, my height-challenged awkwardness, accompanied with my newly-budding curves and breasts, made me into a stout, lumpy, square-shaped box. In not-so-nice-words: fat. It wasn’t until my freshman year that I actually grew (or at least saw the positive results of a growth spurt). I gained a few inches to get to my adult height of an impressive 5’5” and my body sort of molded itself into something a little less rectangular. This was my puberty experience—obviously loads of fun.

The first thing to understand about human development is that there’s a difference between puberty and adolescence. Puberty is the age of sexual maturity, whereas adolescence defines the time period—often years long—between puberty and adulthood.[1] The stage of adolescence is often referred to as the ‘chaotic stage’ of human development just because there’s so much going on in the body at once. Puberty, then, is the first phase of the chaos. It deals with the sexual development of the teenager—organs, hormones, and other rapid changes.

One of the first changes for females is the menarche, or a girl’s first period. Then there are physical changes, like the growing and widening of the forehead, mouth, hips, and lips. There is also the influx of hormones and opening of sweat glands on a girl’s face—thus causing the dreaded acne. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the lengthening and expansion of the stomach…which explains why teenagers eat so much and tend to put on some extra pounds. It also explains my chubby waistline—a totally unfair addition of hormones to an already short thirteen-year-old.

There are also changes in energy, heart rate, and glands. Energy increases, sweat glands get excessive (explaining nerves and sweaty movie-theater-date hands), and the heart grows rapidly, to the point where it is bigger than the blood vessels that pump blood in and out.[2] The increase in energy and the enlarged heart supposedly work to counterbalance the increase in puberal fat and the enlarged appetite—too bad that didn’t work in my favor. But all in all, one of the craziest and most noticeable changes of puberty, (and for me, the change that took forever) is the growth spurt. A teenager gains height through bones growing and hardening—a process called ossification. During ossification, or mineralization as it is also called, “mineral salts…are deposited in the cartilage” which causes the bones to harden and increase in size and shape, forming into mature, adult bones.2  It’s ossification that allows a teenager to grow out of weaker childhood bones and have an increase in mobility and strength; its ossification in my early high school years that finally allowed me to be a decent athlete.

Though this growth spurt occurs over a longer period of time and doesn’t appear to be as ‘chaotic,’ it is the most altering change, and strangely, happens almost invisibly. It isn’t apparent to the human eye; it is noticed only after, not during. In this way, the adolescent stage of development is similar to the butterfly pupa, or chrysalis stage of a butterfly in how the changes occur within the protected cocoon—unable to be directly observed.

During the chrysalis stage, a butterfly pupa appears to be unmoving. The insect will enter into what seems to be a safe area and will fasten itself to the branch, leaf, etc. for support. Then, once attached to a branch, wrapped up all mummy-like to restrict physical movement, it begins its internal growth process, which starts with the larval skin. A new larval skin replaces the old, along with an entirely new arrangement of cells.  The larval structures will also break down and disappear, creating new adult-like organs in their place.  Butterfly sex organs will grow, thoracic tissue buds form into wings, and in place of leaf-nibbling jaws, adult mouthparts form.3 The pupa will also develop unique characteristics. Some pupae are plain or dull-colored while others “have elaborately sculptured shapes or long spiny or knobby projections.”[3]  This is much like a human in adolescence—a human develops sexual organs, hormones, unique facial features, limbs of an adult, etc.  And, just like a human, despite the fact that the insect doesn’t appear to be growing to the naked eye, internally, it is drastically changing.

The word ‘pupa’ is a Latin word that means ‘doll’, which, when I think of the word ‘doll,’ I think of vulnerability. 3 In the chrysalis stage, a butterfly is protected by its cocoon, yet it is still subject to the weather, the environment, and predators. In this same way, an adolescent is vulnerable. Because of the influx of hormones, physical changes, social changes, and emotional changes, the teenager is more susceptible to peer conflict, self-image issues, peer influence, and risky behavior, just to name a few. However, in the way that a butterfly is protected by the chrysalis, a teenager is protected by parents, school systems, or justice systems.

Pupa and puberty. It is easy to see how they are interrelated. The pupa is the sheltered state of the butterfly in which rapid internal growth occurs. Puberty is the beginning of adolescence, a protected stage of human development that involves many drastic hormonal, physical, biological, sexual, and emotional changes. In these developmental stages, both the insect and the human are obtaining the organs for reproduction and appendages for mobility and survival as adults—limbs and wings. The butterfly gains beautifully colored patterns; the human gets birthmarks, curly hair, curves. I might have been more of a late-bloomer, but I survived. I went through my adolescence, my chrysalis stage. I was protected. I was vulnerable. But I grew into the mold of an adult, ready for the end of adolescence, where I could finally (don’t mind the cliché) shed my preteen skin for new wings.

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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sisters hugging in black and white

This Too Shall Pass: On The Chaos Of Young Adulthood

At age sixteen, I wasn’t what you’d call the ‘good child,’ you know, the model daughter, the one my parents worked so hard to raise. Yeah, not so much. Despite their best efforts—the sticker chore-charts and ‘I Can Be Good’ books as a kid, the weekly church attendance throughout high school, and the fancy dinners honoring good grades and behavior—at sixteen I just reached the point where I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to make mistakes. I knew I was going to make mistakes. And that was okay by me. My parents would tell me one thing and I’d do the complete opposite, just to prove them wrong. Just to say I could do it on my own—bad or good. I convinced myself that making my own mistakes was the only way to learn… though it would’ve been a lot easier to just listen to what they told me instead of repeating similar choices and getting the same consequences. It wasn’t that I wanted to spite my parents or anything like that. At least that’s what I tell myself now. As a teenager, I just felt that I learned all I could from them and I wanted to experience the world on my own. Or as ‘on my own’ as a sixteen-year-old who is still completely dependent on her parents financially, lives in their house, eats their food, and has them do her laundry can be.

When I think ‘teenager,’ I think of my high school years, the period between childhood and adulthood—that awkward phase of not being a little kid anymore, but still being too reliant on everyone else to get through anything solo. It’s those crazy, chaotic years of development. But not just the growth spurts and the ugly pimples; much of the teen years is about biological and emotional changes—the surge of hormones and how they shift beliefs, decisions, and ways of thinking.

In my freshman year of college, I took a psychology class titled Human Growth and Development, which focused on people’s life changes. It was an interesting class because for the first time I realized that

  1. An adolescent’s mind is biologically altered during the teenage years and
  2. My parents probably weren’t as bad as I imagined

Of the wealth of psychologists and information we studied that semester, three names have stayed with me: G. Stanley Hall, Anna Freud, and Erik Erikson. Hall is the psychologist that coined the term ‘sturm and drang’ or ‘storm and stress’ which basically explains what being a teen is all about.[1] ‘Storm and stress’ is the surge of emotions: when you’re lovey-dovey and holding hands with a high-school sweetheart one minute, and the next minute screaming at him, demanding to read every single text message sent in the last month… not that I ever did that or anything.

Hall believed that teenagers were on a continual emotional rollercoaster. In his words, “giddy one moment and depressed the next, apathetic today and impassioned tomorrow,” thus completely validating my teenage freak outs1. He was one of the first psychologists that actually began to, and wanted to, understand what being an adolescent was all about. His studies laid a foundation for other psychologists, particularly Anna Freud, who piggy-backed off of Hall’s ideas, then developed her own theory of adolescence that, following in her father’s footsteps, was largely sexual.

Anna Freud characterized adolescence as “a period of internal conflict, psychic disequilibrium, and erratic behavior”. 1 With this definition, she focused on the idea that adolescent ‘chaos’ was due to the increase of sexual hormones in puberty. She also believed that adolescent relationships, sexual development, and the awareness of the opposite sex led to turmoil as well as selfishness. Which, I mean, I can understand. Looking back, at least half of my time was spent obsessing over my appearance, and the other half was spent obsessing over boys. I was largely selfish, or ‘egocentric,’ as Freud would say. I thought I was the center of the universe. If there was a party to attend, it just made sense for my mother to abandon the half-prepared chicken dinner and drive me to a friend’s house. If I wanted to go to the mall, it was just logical that I would skip the family luncheon—duh, I could eat mall food—and my dad could just leave the golf outing with his work buddies early to pick me up. No problem. Freud said it was because of this hormonally-altered egocentrism that teenagers are often over-emotional and rash in their responses, decisions, and relationships. 1 Which does make sense. Though I’m not sure claiming Freud’s theory as an excuse for my sixteen-year-old behavior would have worked on my parents. Or work even now.

The third psychologist I remember from my college class was Erik Erikson, one whose name I’ve known since I was fifteen. Back in my junior year of high school, I was encouraged by a counselor to explore my interests and potential future careers. I took a survey based on studies by Erikson, studies that focused on independence and identity—what Erikson felt were the two most important components of adolescence. I remember sitting in front of that fuzzy computer screen in the counselor’s office, answering questions like ‘Would you enjoy going on a walk outside?’ (well, of course) and ‘Do issues of the environment concern you?’ (obligated to say yes no matter what). The questions were yes or no, and focused largely on interests and how they relate to jobs. Though I’m still not sure how relevant these questions were in determining my personal career path… especially considering the fact that I answered most of them ‘yes’ because I didn’t want my counselor to judge me. Nevertheless, the study is still widely known for its success and Erikson is still hugely popular for his contribution to adolescent research.

One of the major things that Erikson focused on was psychosocial moratorium, or the search for social identity. Adolescence is the experimental period—trying different roles and finding one’s place. Even if those roles aren’t so good…like being a bad ass and sneaking out past curfew…and then getting caught a week later when your parents read about it in your diary. Positive or negative, Erikson was an advocator of finding one’s self (even through the rough parts). He believed that an adolescent who failed to find an identity would experience both ‘self-doubt and role confusion’ which in turn would lead to stress.1  And I guess, in some ways, I see this in myself. In high school having a ‘place’ really did matter. It wasn’t so much the stereotypical Mean Girls popularity contest, but it was definitely of utmost importance to find a group of friends that thought I was cool, find clothes that didn’t make me look fat, and, of course, find the love of my life. Because finding the love of your life is something that’s destined to happen in high school. And you could say I got stressed too. Stressed when my friend group shunned me for making out with a girl’s Homecoming date a week before the dance—not one of my better moments. And stressed when my first boyfriend of two weeks broke up with me. That was devastating.

Research backing Erikson’s theory explains that a typical teenager has many biological changes during adolescence: an increase in the secretion of thyroid and adrenal hormones; the growth of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortexes and lobes; and the modification of the limbic system, the brain’s emotional control center.1  Stress-causing chaos. Basically what all that means is that biologically, a teenager is going through a lot. Changes in the limbic system explain rash judgment-making, quick-temperedness, and rebellion. Hormone increases that shift pleasure-seeking areas of the brain explain changes in motivation.[2] And on top of all of this, parts of the brain are actually working to make the teenager smarter—spatial reasoning is increased through the parietal lobe, the frontal lobe develops higher-order thinking and reasoning, and the temporal lobe works with language and nonverbal skills. [3] It’s a lot going on, and stressful too, but the changes are vital for adulthood.

As a newly-twenty-one-year-old, I can finally say (with a certainty I definitely didn’t have at sixteen) that I am independent…well…maybe not fully independent… but definitely my own person. Looking back, I truly believed that I knew everything. I mean, I knew how to write a three-prong thesis statement and how to long-divide without a calculator (a skill that has slowly but surely deteriorated in the last four years). And at sixteen, I even knew how to fold laundry and fill a car with gas, so obviously I knew everything.

As a high school sophomore, I wanted nothing more than to be my own person: to do things by myself, to learn all I could, to push the boundaries even. I was emotional, yes. I still am. Though that’s hard to admit looking back and even harder to admit now. At sixteen, I could be watching a love movie and smiling at all the wonderful, ‘Cinderella-story’ scenes. Then, in a matter of minutes, I’d be bawling, throwing dirty tissues at the screen. I could want nothing more than to be around all my friends, and then seconds later I’d want to curl up in a ball in my room. I don’t think I’m that bad anymore… though my boyfriend might disagree. Most of all though, I wanted to rebel. I wanted to make my own mistakes, take reckless chances, go past the limits. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the best plan. And sure, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to learn from those older than me. But then it wasn’t truly my experience.

It wasn’t until that Human Growth and Development class that I realized being a teenager is kind of crazy, but we all go through it. It was an eye-opener to those terrible nights of wondering why my parents hated me; it was an eye-opener realizing my parents probably never hated me at all. Well, maybe not as much as I thought they did. I hope.

At twenty-one, I still don’t have everything figured out. I can now bake a mean enchilada casserole, color-code my laundry, and pay a credit card bill, but ask me where to find each of the fifty states…and I’ll have to use a map. There’s still a lot left to learn.

Now that I’m a year from college graduation, I can look back on my high school years and laugh. And hopefully my parents can too…after they get over the initial wanting to wring my neck. Sometimes that’s all you can do—look back and laugh. And, of course, burn that diary that got you grounded your junior year. Rule number one: always delete the evidence.

When I think about the person I’ve become, I’m proud. Sure, not everything has been admirable. But I learned from those moments: the good, and more importantly, the bad. One of the interesting parts of growing up is realizing that like all things in life, the bad will pass. It’s just hard going through it. But the teen years, with all their biological and hormonal growths and changes, are just a phase. A temporary period. Thank goodness for that.

 

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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