It didn’t take long after the birth of my first child for me to realize I had no idea what I was doing. I assumed my ability to parent would be instinctual, unleashed the very moment I gave birth, but instead, I was lost without a compass. The one thing I did have was immediate, complete, passionate unconditional love for my daughter, and I desperately wanted to be a good and present mother to her. To me, the logical way to do that was to make everything better for my kid than it had ever been for me — to spirit away disappointment from my child's life. Controlling every aspect of her day seemed the only way to do it. So I attachment parented. I wore my baby religiously. I co-slept. I eschewed cry it out. I nursed around the clock. I read the collected works of Dr. Sears. I bought Montessori toys and threw out the loud, blinking, bouncy, irresistible gifts from my in-laws. I did everything for my baby myself, and when I couldn’t do it myself, I gave those around me explicit written instructions to be carried out to the letter. I told my spouse, my parents, and my in-laws exactly how I wanted them to care for her. I insisted. I helicoptered. I lectured. I judged. I was truly insufferable.
This kind of behavior wasn’t only exhausting, it was impossible to sustain. I went back to work full-time when my daughter was six months old, and my husband became a stay-at-home parent. When we’d reached that decision, I’d just assumed I’d teach him how I wanted things done. And I tried to. I tried so hard. And I judged and corrected and pointed out and reminded and he hated it. We fought constantly but I held my ground because I knew I was right. Gradually, I found myself never wanting to let my baby out of my sight because I didn’t trust anyone else. They might put her in front of screens! They’d give her plastic toys! They would feed her junk food when I wasn’t looking! Keep her up past nap time! Ruin her brain, her schedule, her appetite, her entire life.
The real work isn’t in holding her close. It’s in letting her go.
Then I talked to a friend whose child was much older. She listened, nodding her head as I complained. Then she very gently said, you know, you’re working so hard. You’re exhausted. But this is not the real work of parenting. It’s not the hours of playing with her, not reading her the same book over and over, not making your own organic baby food in the Vitamix, using cloth diapers, or nursing until your boobs sag and you can’t stand the sight of them. All those things are wonderful, yes. But the real work isn’t in holding her close. It’s in letting her go. Your child grows inside of you, she told me, and for a short time you are one. Then separation begins with childbirth and the cutting of the cord. And the separation widens and widens, and it doesn’t end until your baby is an adult. And that is the way it’s supposed to be. Your job isn’t to cater to your child, to hover, to keep her in a bubble. You can’t prevent conflict and pain. Your job is to prepare her for frustration because life is frustrating, and you can never change that for her no matter how hard you try. Her life will be hard at times no matter what you do. And what a gift it would be for your child to have a mother who loves her and who teaches her that when things change, she can be flexible? What a gift it would be to teach her that she already has the tools she needs to move through life’s hardest times and get through to the other side.
My friend’s words shaped how I parent. What a tremendous relief it was to acknowledge that I can’t do everything for my children, and that it’s better for them that I don’t even try. I can let myself off the hook for being imperfect because there’s no other way I can possibly be. I can’t be everywhere with them. And I can’t fix everything for them. I can love them, support them, hurt with them and celebrate with them. And because life is always changing, I get to practice this constantly.
My daughter cried on her first day of preschool, and instead of staying there for hours with her like some of the moms were doing or deciding she wasn’t ready yet and bringing her back home like others did, I practiced this. I held her and looked into her eyes. I said, “I will come back. Mamas always come back. There is an invisible string that ties our hearts together so no matter where I am and where you are, we are always connected, and you will always feel my love if you try. Didn’t you know that? You get to play here with all these new friends and soon, I will come back to get you. The invisible string will always be there even if you can’t see it or feel it. It’s always there, so mamas always come back.”
I said this every single day for months. I said it until she started to say it herself, and soon I was able to leave her at school, at a playdate, with a babysitter, with relatives, anywhere, with a kiss and a hug and a wave.
I practiced this when we weaned her. I didn’t want to wean, and she didn’t want me to, but I had to because I was pregnant with my second child and was finding nursing too painful to continue. “Soon you are not going to need mama’s milk anymore. Soon you will be big enough and strong enough to drink from a cup just like you eat from a plate. I will love you and hug you and hold you whenever you want, and you will not need milk anymore.”
I said this for weeks every time she nursed. “Soon, you will not need mama’s milk anymore. Look how big you are getting! Should we pick out a new special cup for you?” When the time came, I did not falter. “Mee-owk!” she howled. “Mee-owk!” I reminded her she was big enough, and strong enough. I reminded her that I loved her and would always hold her and hug her. She raged and she begged and she cried and she barely slept for three nights, but I held her the whole time and on the fourth night, she didn’t ask. She curled up in my arms and fell asleep, totally weaned but not abandoned.
The following year, she refused to potty train, so I practiced it again. “Soon you will be big enough to use the toilet just like mama and daddy. Not today, but soon you won’t even want to go in your diaper anymore. It won’t feel comfortable anymore. Soon you will want to wear underwear and pee and poop in the toilet. You will be ready to try it, I just know it.”
I said that every time I changed her diaper for weeks and weeks, desperate for it to work. Miraculously, one day she asked shyly if she could try peeing in the shower. I told her she could if she really wanted to, but that the toilet was so close and much cleaner. She considered that, and slowly nodded. She never wore a diaper again.
We practiced this to prepare her for the birth of her sister, for our move to another state, for starting a new school in a new town with all new friends. When our second daughter was diagnosed with a grave neurological disorder and it became clear that our older girl’s role as big sister would come with tremendous responsibility that would not feel even or fair or age appropriate, we practiced then, too. That one we must practice every day.
They still look to their mama for soothing because this mama always comes back.
As the girls get older, the boo boos don’t always go away when I kiss them. I am away a lot, traveling for work. Their lives are busy with after-school activities and playdates. Daddy is more hands-on than ever, and I have learned to accept that it is not only a reality that we parent very differently, but that this is yet another gift. How lucky they are that they get to spend so much time with their daddy! He is the fun parent; the one who drops the f-bomb in front of them, packs potato chips in their lunches, teaches them to play video games, blasts rock music and dances like crazy with them around the house, collapsing into a big, giggly, snuggly heap, while I am the rigid, uptight parent who turns the music down, insists they eat their broccoli, and reminds them that if they don’t brush their hair themselves every day, I will cut it off. But the invisible string is very real, and they still look to their mama for soothing because this mama always comes back. We snuggle, we whisper, we walk, we hold hands, and they talk to me. They trust me.
This past spring, my older daughter had a falling out with her first real bestie. We were both bewildered by the collapse of the friendship and she did not know how to handle it. I wanted to march over to that kid’s house and read her the riot act for hurting my girl. Instead, I held my daughter while she cried. We went for long bikes rides and talked about how hard friendships can be sometimes. I planted a few books about friends and trust and self-esteem in her room, which she read through and then asked to read again with me. I told her about fights I’d had with friends when I was growing up and she told me more about this friend and what she believed it meant to be a friend. When she finally decided she just needed some space from this girl, I was able to help her navigate that because really, she’d already navigated it herself.
This morning, when my second daughter, whose disability makes her life extremely challenging in a variety of ways, cried and screamed because she can’t rollerblade the way her sister can, I cried with her, but not for her. She screamed at me. “I want to rollerblade too and I can’t! Why can’t I rollerblade like she can? I can’t do it! My legs don’t work and it’s not fair!” My heart broke into a million pieces. I wanted to scream back at her to buck up, to accept it, to just be happy with what she has, but I knew that would not be helpful. Instead I put my hands softly on her shoulders and asked her to look at me. I felt her sag into me as she met my gaze. I told her I knew she was so sad and angry, and that I was sad and angry too. I told her it’s not fair that rollerblading is ten times harder for her than it is for everyone else, but that if she can remember that it’s going to be really, really hard work and take lots and lots of practice and it might not ever look like how everyone else does it, it could be tons of fun, too.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Do you want to practice even if it takes a lot of hard work to get there?” I waited. She rubbed her eyes and nodded slowly, so I strapped her sister’s old rollerblades over her leg braces and buckled her helmet strap under her chin. Ready to try? I asked. "Let’s go, Mama!" she said. "I want to practice. And please let go of me because I want to try it by myself!"