She blew into my life one very cold, very snowy February day. She was tiny and perfect and pink. She was…a girl.
Now, I’d been told she was female. One quite grainy, grey, hazy ultrasound had determined it, but I had my doubts because girls just didn’t happen in this family. Boys did. Loud, smelly, Lego-tower-smashing, sword-wielding, energy-crazed boys certainly did. Brothers and cousins and nephews galore. But girls? They were sprinkled randomly here and there like fairy unicorn dust.
The moment I met her, the planning began: we would have tea parties and doll babies and play dress-up and shop together. I’d do her hair. (Never mind that I had never successfully navigated a French-braidy-twisty thing on any human, myself included). It would all be magical and girly and sweet.
Until it wasn’t. Turns out, she liked snakes and crickets and toads and caterpillars BEFORE they became butterflies. She would cuddle a poor lizard for days but a baby doll? Nope. Never. Not a chance.
I bought her the doll that ate and drank and pooped, for goodness sake. She looked at it, her big blue eyes blinking, considered it, and promptly ignored it, taking her little lunch plate out onto the sun-warmed sidewalk to sit and watch the caterpillars, just in case it was The Big Day when one became a butterfly. You just couldn’t miss a day like that.
Except I almost did. I kept trying. I had this beautiful, purple and pink and sparkly idea of what a daughter would be. And it wasn’t that way. And I was pretty sure ONE of us was doing this Girl Thing all wrong.
Until one day, I realized I was the one. She came to me in tears and sobs and anguish over the fate of a poor critter and I knew…I knew her heart for the world and the creatures in it was a gorgeous gift. I knew it wasn’t for baby dolls and strollers and makeup and cute shoes. It was for protecting and nurturing and sheltering and loving. I felt foolish. I felt proud. I felt humbled to be her mother.
A few days ago, I was asked for some parenting advice. I cringed inside and broke out in a rash instantaneously because I have always felt that, if my kids are decent, upstanding, contributing, interesting humans, it will be in spite of me, not because of me. But then I thought, no…I’ve been on this rollercoaster of parenting for 18 years and counting, and if there isn’t anything worth sharing after this ride, I must have kept my eyes squeezed shut the whole time. I came up with a few parent-y things to share with my friend, but I realized that at the top of my list was this: Lay down all of your expectations from Day One. Period.
Parenting will surprise you like nothing else. It will crack your heart in lovely and terrifying ways. It will teach you what joy actually means like nothing else. And it will rock you like nothing else. Your kids will be more and less and greater and worse and smarter and crazier and braver and sillier than you could ever picture when you dreamed them up. So stop trying to dream them up once they’re here. Don’t try to make them into Mini-You, or Mini-Your-Parents or Mini-What-Society-Says-They-Should-Be-Clones. Love them. Find their gifts–yes, even if their gifts include snakes and slimy, creepy bugs and weirdo computer/sci-fi terms that you don’t understand–and nurture those natural tendencies like a crazy person. Because if a person is lucky enough to find something he or she is passionate and thrilled and curious about? That is rare. That is honorable. That is worth celebrating and following and cheering on.
My not-so-girly-girl is about to turn 16. A few weeks ago, she asked me to take her shopping for some things she had never asked for before, things I would have classified as more Me than Her. I did, and we had a perfectly sweet day together, and I enjoyed the delight of it but knew to take it for what it was: just a day. And then she went back to her books about dogs and ducks and dinosaurs and all the planets realigned. But tonight, when she tiptoed into my room, her big blue eyes blinking back tears over what she’d just read about a poor abused dog who’d been loved and rescued and healed? There was nothing but a sweet moment shared and a hug and gratitude in my heart for who she is. I’m so thankful she isn’t who I wanted her to be. She’s a million gazillion times more. She’s better. And she makes me better for it.
I don’t know all of the ways my kids or yours will not be who or what we think they should be. Some ways will be better. Some will be worse. Some ways will be painful. Some will be unfathomable. But we are their strongest, surest loves. We loved them first and we will love them til our last. If they have that, they have so much more than most. We can let go of our expectations. We can even…be still my silly heart…let go of those kiddos someday, knowing they will be ok, no matter whether we agree with their choices or not.
I know these are not simple, easy words to put into practice. But I also know that the greatest gift my parents have ever given me is the solid, knowing, reassuring presence of their unconditional love, a love that they express out loud. I know the power of a parent saying to a grown son or daughter, “I am so proud of you.” Let’s not wait until they are grown for them to know that. Let’s tell them now and tell them later and tell them often.
Meanwhile, I have a stack of facts about ducks my daughter wants me to read. I may love her and be proud of her, but ducks? This is going to test me.
Jessica Otto lives in the country with her family, a flock of ducks, and a dog. She’s a former missionary, a teacher of children (hers and other people’s), a pianist, and someone who would have a really hard time choosing between coffee, books, or a day in Paris. You can find her musings at www.jessicaottowrites.com