On this day 18 years ago, I was feeling pretty cocky. You were born and I sincerely thought I was equipped. I really did. Even though you were my first, I knew my way around babies and I wasn’t afraid of them, and I was even pretty sure that I had fantastic baby tending skills. Moreover, this parenting thing seemed to me like it was going to be pretty straightforward.
I mean, I knew it would have its challenging moments, but overall, I thought I was going to be really good at it, and that it would be something I excelled at. I was pretty sure that with all of the books I had read and how much research I had done that I would have a great grip on it. I thought that those parents who were losing it all over the place were just not working hard enough at it. I was going to be a relaxed mother.
I think, darling girl, that we can both agree that I have been the exact opposite of relaxed in every way that there is to be not relaxed, and I now I really don’t know whether to apologize or demand thanks for that. I don’t know what went wrong with my plan, my plan for how easy it was all going to be, but when you screamed your way through your first night on this earth, despite everything the midwife and I could do to comfort you, I started to wonder if I hadn’t received a standard issue baby.
This was confirmed when you screamed your way through the first 4 months of your life (thanks for entirely skipping sleep too. That wasn’t at all challenging) and then spent the next several years trying to kill yourself in a new way every thirty five seconds. At nine months you walked. At ten months you climbed to the top of the fridge and sat up there eating bananas.
At 11 months I thought about tying you to the family bed so you didn’t do all of it in the night while I was sleeping. At 18 months you had a full vocabulary with which to add insult to injury (your favourite words were “No” and “Not Mum” and “Me do it”) and had developed a proclivity for biting other children and taking off all of your clothes in public. (Really, no-one could help but be impressed with your stripping skills. 15 seconds with my back turned on you in the grocery store and you would be bare bummed by the apricots, chatting with some stranger. I can’t stress how glad I am that you outgrew that.) By two you had the temper tantrum down to an art form that helplessly defeated even your “I’ve had four children – just try me” Grandmother, and you had discovered that your powers had their most devastating effect when you alternated incredible happiness with tornados of poor mood so that I never knew what would hit me.
At three we had to move from our apartment to a house, since you had developed an intense determination to leap from the balcony. (You felt that only stupid children were injured in falls. Smart girls landed on the grass and were just fine. Since you were sure you were a smart girl….we moved.) At four you could read and frequently defeated adults with your keen intellect, and at five my life with you was sort of like Survivor, since there was almost nobody, adult or child who could outwit, outlast or outplay you.
By six you had discovered the full force of your endearing charm, and by seven we were in the teachers office at school while she explained that you were the loveliest, most darling child she had ever met….but that we were really going to have to help them bring you on board with the system. (What an idea. Why didn’t I think of that. Bring you on board with the system. Huh.)
By ten you were off and running in a broad social circle, largely immune to maternal remonstration, and no matter what happened or caught fire or blew up or broke, you kept saying the same thing to me that you always have. “Mum. Relax. I can handle it.”
By your teens I spent a lot of my mothering time wondering why you had to reinvent the wheel all the time. (I should perhaps have looked up the definition of adolescence and saved myself a little stinking time.) I had already learned everything you were experimenting with. Why wouldn’t you just do what I told you?
I knew that boys aren’t always sincere and that if a girl is gossiping to you about everybody else, that you can bet she’s gossiping about you to them. I knew that other girl was a liar (and her shirt was totally skanky), I knew what that boy wanted. (Joe knew too.) I knew that if you procrastinated on an essay you would regret it and I knew that if you really invested in school your life would be so much easier later on. I knew you would get caught if you skipped science. Your teen years turned into me following you around trying to tell you all the things I had learned the hard way, desperately trying to save you any kind of pain at all… and you staring at me like I was an idiot who didn’t know anything and proceeding to learn them all the hard painful way anyway.
I have spent the last 18 years being awestruck by the wonder that is you, someone I made in my spare time, and trying desperately to deal best with your epic personality and qualities. Tenacity. Intelligence. Constructive discontent. Persistence. Sensitivity. A fantastic sense of humour. Independence. Mercy. Fearlessness. Kindness. Equity.
Now, these qualities are terrible qualities in a child. North America wants children (especially little girls) to be polite. Obedient. Pliable. Kids who fight back and say no and think for themselves are hard to raise and not thought well of at all. We all talk about how “good” an obedient child is, and It struck me at some point while I was raising you, that I couldn’t have a child who did as they were told really well, and then suddenly expect you to turn into an adult who was assertive, independent and free thinking. I realized you couldn’t tell a kid “do what I tell you” and then turn around when they became a grown-up and suddenly say “think for yourself”. (Well. You can, but I don’t think it makes the best adults.)
In short, I realized that people are adults for a lot longer than they are kids, and that it makes more sense to cultivate wonderful adult skills than those traits that make kids easy to take care of. (Mostly I realized this, my child, because you wouldn’t do otherwise.)
Over the last 18 years, in which I believe that you and I have tested each others patience at least once a day, often to the point of tears, I have often gotten through by telling myself “these are great qualities in an adult. She’s going to be an adult longer than she is going to be 3 (or 6, or 9 or 13 or 15). Do not kill her now.” (I don’t know what strategy you used to keep from killing me.)
And now it’s here. You’re an adult. A beautiful legal adult who (at least on paper) doesn’t need her mother. You can vote. You can move across the country. You can start a business or join the peace corps or ….You can do whatever wonderful thing you want, and you can do it all without my permission.
I am scared to death.
Motherhood is the only occupation I can think of where your eventual goal is to put yourself out of business, and I have swung back and forth these last few years, hoping one moment that you will leave (I admit, we both probably know what days those were) and wishing the next moment that you will never leave and I will be allowed to try and keep you safe and with me forever. While I am not sure that I am entirely ok with this growing up thing…I know now that I have to at least start letting you go a little bit. I need to worry less about you and send you more out there, and I will. (Not all at once though. The world is freakin’ huge.) Please try to be patient with me, it’s hard for me to let go of my job. Try to remember that up until now if something happened to you they could put me in prison, and in my defence, you are my eldest and the kid I had to practice on.
I hope, dear Amanda, that all of this leaping without looking and enthusiastic going forward has taught you to at least scan the ground a little as you fly, and I’m going to try and trust that you know how to pick yourself up if you land hard….after all, all of the things that have made it a challenging, crazy ride to be your mother….
These are terrific qualities in an adult.
I’m proud of you, and I love you. Happy 18th.