My sixteen-year-old daughter was reading through my blog last week and afterwards she said, “You wrote a post about Johnny. Now you have to write one about ME.”
Which, of course, paralyzed me for a while. Nothing summons writer’s block as quickly as a command performance. But I’m an obedient kind of mother, so here goes.
What can I say about a girl who is radiant and beautiful and loving and kind and absolutely maddening?
I thought that I would always be at odds with my only daughter once she became a teenager, because she and I would be so alike that we would butt heads about everything. But my teenage daughter and I are nothing alike. She’s the un-me, skilled at everything I suck at (charming people, exploring new situations, putting on mascara) and completely uninterested in everything that obsessed me at her age (getting good grades, reading famous works of literature, convincing people I was a budding genius).
We’re ridiculously dissimilar: I still hold grudges from when I was eight; she won’t go to bed angry at anyone. I love food and think about it all the time; she only eats when she’s hungry and then she wolfs something down and is instantly bored with the whole idea of eating. She’s tall; I’m short. She’s outgoing; I’m withdrawn. She loves making plans; I love being home. She’s confident in her (admittedly perfect) body; I’ve gone through life self-conscious and self-loathing. Her favorite TV show is Law and Order: SVU; you couldn’t pay me to watch a show about sexual assault victims. And so on. We both like scary roller coaster rides and think family is the most important thing in the world, but that’s pretty much it for overlap.
Maybe it’s because we’re so different that I find myself so often uncertain how to lead or guide her. I thought, for instance, that I’d be sharing my favorite books with her from very early on, starting with Laura Ingalls Wilder and Alcott and eventually steering her through Bronte, Austen, Dickens, Colette, Thackeray . . . But she isn’t interested in reading anything I give her. She tried Alcott and found her books boring. She won’t even look at the others. When she reads for fun, it’s something that’s been published in the last ten years, and if she likes it, she gives it to me and tells me to read it. The sharing is going in the other direction. Which isn’t a bad thing.
And maybe that’s what I have to learn from this wondrous and strange creature I gave birth to over sixteen years ago: that parents shouldn’t hold onto expectations of what a child will be or should be, but instead enjoy the gift of the child they actually got. I’ve learned that lesson from all of my kids, of course. At some point with pretty much all four of them, I’ve had to discard the vision of who I expected them to be and open myself up to who they are, and sometimes it’s been harder than I expected, but always, once I let go of my fantasy, I fell in love with the reality.
My friend Kim said to me once, “Kids lead you in directions you never expected to go,” and the truth of those simple words hits me over and over again, whether I’m sitting by myself writing about autism or going to a gay-straight alliance potluck at school or steeling myself for an interminable debate tournament or coming home to find a group of teenagers having a water fight in our backyard.
A decade and a half ago, when I was due to give birth to my third child, my doctor sent me to the hospital, where a nurse broke my water. Soon after, I had a few terrifying violent contractions and my husband raced out of the room to find someone–anyone–to help. A few minutes later, the on-call doctor sat himself down between my legs and said, “Let’s deliver this baby.”
“You mean the one over there?” my husband asked, pointing to our infant daughter, who was already being washed by the labor nurse over by the sink.
Even then, my daughter had her own plan for how things should go, and all the rest of us could do was follow along in her wake.
And that’s what I intend to keep doing: following where she leads, letting her strike out into territory that’s unfamiliar to me, showing me things I might not have seen on my own. And I know that with her setting our course, I’m going to end up somewhere unexpected, interesting, and wonderful.