Sixty yards offshore on New Year’s Day and I watch as she tosses her head back, laughing with delight. Her smile infectious, even with the braces that she’s scheduled to wear another five months. A couple of hundred feet off the back of the boat, a dolphin breaches the surface, shiny and gray. Beautiful in the grace and simplicity of its silent swim. As I watch it curve effortlessly, I think just how perfect the moment is; the potential of a new year in its infancy, the wide, full smile of my 13 year old daughter, and that lone dolphin seemingly joining in on the fun. But that’s typical of my daughter, McRae. She’s human glitter. No matter the occasion, her presence always ups the ante a little. She and her friends, Addi and Payton, step to the edge of the boat, clasp hands and fling themselves into space, laughing through their screams, as their brightly colored tutus hit the 58 degrees Fahrenheit ocean. Their first New Year’s Day Penguin Plunge together is complete.
There is not one thing we do on this earth more rewarding, or more challenging to our self-confidence, than parenting our children. Despite all of our grand expectations of who and what our children will be, they show up with a plan all their own. Sometimes our expectations and their personality merge; but more often they do not. One thing is consistent: Our underlying fear that we’re failing them in a myriad of ways. You could have six of them, and no two would need to be loved in the same way. It’s a dance of sorts where the longer you’ve been together, the more graceful you become in finding a rhythm that serves both of you. Like dance partners though, the interaction is more instinctive with some than with others.
My son, from day one, was in step with me. He didn’t sleep unless he was in my arms. The temptation of finger painting and snack time with friends wasn’t even close to enough to keep him from crying until he was officially a Mother’s Morning Out flunky. As he grew into a boy, the relationship between us was effortless. We share the same sense of humor, the same taste in music, and our mutual interest in sports means that we always have something to discuss that we’re both engaged in. At 16, he’s easily my favorite person to trade a sarcastic barb with or make reference to the satirical genius of South Park, resting comfortably in the knowledge that he gets it too. Every parent, if they’re honest, has one child they know would have been their best friend had the universe made them biology lab partners instead of parent and child.
Over the years though, I’ve seen McRae as she watches us. Seemingly a little distant, almost certainly feeling like the one that walked up on the joke about 30 seconds too late. I know in my heart that she thinks for a hundred different reasons that he’s my favorite; our relationship is less combative, he looks like me, we are quick-witted and sarcastic, we’re homebodies and introverted, we love sports, and Jake is the “easy” kid. When my patience is at its end because I’ve asked them to put their clothes away five times, to no avail, Jake diffuses my anger by cajoling me; teasing me about “watching my blood pressure” and my “advanced age”, and fulfilling my request. McRae fires back at me. Challenging my statement that I’ve asked her five times with, “No, you haven’t. It’s only been three times,” or trying to procrastinate just a little longer by needing to finish doing “this one thing”. I don’t have to tell you how well that goes over. And so, with Jake and I, it’s like two old friends sparing over a beer. With McRae, it’s like a matador and a bull. Each dancing around the other, challenging and withdrawing, but prepared to fight to the death.
I wonder if the fire that she sends in my direction is just the hormone fueled angst of being a teenaged girl, or something deeper. Maybe I’m the deserving target of an anger that’s a result of our struggle for control, and my clumsy attempts to do a better job of relating to her. It leaves me with a hollow ache to think that there are times she might feel left out in our little family of three.
As I watch her break the surface of the ocean, face toward the sky and mouth open, gasping at the shock of the cold water, I’m overwhelmed with love for her and all that I want her to know about this complicated union we have. I want to pull her into my lap and explain that while Jake and I may share a sense of humor and a love for sports and music, she is everything I ever wanted to be. I can almost see her future stretched out before me, and I’m both excited and a little frightened by who I know she’s destined to be. Whether she realizes it or not, there are parts of her that are distinctly me; her fierce independence and brave front are fruits plucked from my genetic tree. Because of this, I know that there’s no telling her anything at this age. She will be driven to decipher life on her own, and I love this about her. McRae is unique in a way that I always wished to be, and I’m fascinated by all that she is every single day.
I know and understand her struggle as she swims against the current of emotional and physical biology that’s taking her from child to woman. She’s still fighting to understand herself. I know that the wrong word or tone can slam the door to her heart shut, and the opportunity to connect with her will be gone. So, instead of telling her aloud all that I want to say; I arrange the words carefully in my mind and shelve them for the perfect moment when I sense that she might be receptive. Because there will be those times the door will crack open, and I will get to offer her my carefully constructed love in doses that she can accept. Nuggets of wisdom that will remind her how much she is loved, and give her a soft place to rest when life isn’t going so great.
So, when that time comes…..
I will tell her how I look at her full lips and long eyelashes and marvel at just how beautiful she is. She’s never gone through an “awkward stage”, while I spent a large part of my life in one. She doesn’t realize it now, but I refrain from complimenting her on her physical beauty and focus instead on her very brilliant mind, because I want her self-worth tied to something concrete instead of something fleeting. She will need something she’s sure of when other girls treat her poorly out of sheer jealousy. I wish I could pretend they won’t, but I know all too well they will.
I will tell her how I hold my breath every single time she takes the stage, dancing for the pure joy of performing, because I lacked the self-esteem to open myself up to the criticism of the world. I will tell her of my admiration for the way she faces every challenge with the underlying attitude of a winner; and how, on those occasions when she isn’t the victor, she possesses the confidence to lose with grace and a sense of humor. Only I know that, in that moment, she’s mentally formulating a plan to be better next time.
I will tell her how the enthusiasm she has for life is one of the things that makes her so extraordinarily beautiful. It’s as if she has some sixth sense and already realizes just how tenuous the thread of life is. It will someday draw the perfect partner to her, but I will warn her that it will draw a score of imperfect ones too. It will be up to her to develop a selection process that serves her well, and trust her instincts.
I will tell her to embrace her intelligence and exercise the muscle that is her brain. I will caution her that while men say they want a woman who is smart, there are many that can’t handle the competition. I will threaten her within an inch of her life if she ever dims her light to make one of those who can’t handle her at full bore, more comfortable. She has an obligation to seek knowledge and embrace new ideas. She must reach her full potential because her mother did not.
I will tell her to use all of her fire and conviction to foster her independence. I want her to know that, if she lets it, her courage and adventurous spirit will gain her incredible experiences that she will never forget. I will encourage her to travel with friends, live in a new city, chase her career dreams, and become exactly who she is meant to be; before she marries and starts to make sacrifices for another.
I will tell her that while you can have children and a career, despite what people tell you, it’s impossible to devote equal energy to both. From time to time, one area will suffer some and it should always be her career. Co-workers can give presentations, complete budgets, and follow up with customers; but it’s her face that her child should look up and see at awards day and her arms that should comfort her baby sick with fever.
And when the door is open far enough, I will push my way inside and I will hold court. I will tell her that over all of these years, the relationship between us has been more complicated, but no less soaked in love than the one I’ve shared with Jake. I want her to know that, that’s just how it is with mothers and their daughters. I will share how I look at her and see all the potential she has in a world ripe with possibility; not to fulfill my dreams, but with opportunity to fulfill hers. I will tell her how I see those possibilities for Jake as well, but with her the fear is greater because, as a woman, I know the very specific obstacles she will face. I will tell her how I worry that I will fail her by not delivering all of the knowledge I have in a way that she can accept it. I will tell her how, at my core, I know that she will be the one who leaves me to explore the world at its outermost edges; and how that thrills and terrifies me simultaneously. I will point out to her how unique she is in a world full of people willing to settle for the standard, and I will cheer her on and encourage her to be what most of us aren’t capable of being.
But until then, until she has allowed that door to swing open enough for me to slip inside, I will wait patiently. I will hold her hand when she lets me. I will kiss her cheek at bedtime. I will applaud her accomplishments. I will grit my teeth and struggle through the synthesized pop music, and bite my tongue when she shares the latest Kardashian tidbit.
And I will love her on her terms, until then.