On the way home from preschool, my middle daughter usually keeps up a steady stream of inane chatter. She talks about the art projects she did that morning and conversations we had yesterday. I give myself permission to listen with only one ear, rotating through several noncommittal exclamations. “Really? Hm. That sounds interesting.”
But this afternoon, as she gazes out the window toward the scruffy, green pines lining the far side of the highway, she is quiet. I appreciate the relative silence of our drive, the ample room it provides for my wandering mind, until she suddenly announces, “I never want to be a mom.”
I’m glad she can’t see my face directly as I process this statement. Never? I struggle briefly with feeling judged, hurt that my life as a stay-at-home mom already feels like an inadequate aspiration to her. What does she see in me that makes her want the opposite?
“Why not?” I ask, searching for her face in the rearview mirror. I keep my voice light and even, in the small, (probably) vain hope that she will forget all about this if I don’t make it a big deal. Like all preschoolers, she has a fickle way of disregarding things I’d like her to remember, but grabbing the horns of ideas I wish would run away.
“Because I want to be a ballerina. And a real artist!” she exclaims. In the edge of the mirror, I can see her wide, earnest eyes as she turns toward me.
“Oh,” I say lamely. After a pause, “You know, mommies can do all kinds of things! You could be a dancer and a mommy if you want to.”
“I know!” she replies gamely, tilting her head forward and raising her palms for emphasis. She pastes on her biggest squinty-eyed smile. “But…” she trails off for a moment. Then her voice takes on a squeaky cheerfulness, rising in pitch as if she is opening door number 3 to reveal my prize. “I just don’t want to be a mom.”
I want to tell her that I found myself after becoming a mother. Not in that cheesy, motherhood-made-me-whole kind of way. No. Being a mother pushed me to the absolute end of myself. When I was hanging on by a thread, that’s when I finally started wondering what I wanted from my life. That’s when I finally remembered my childhood dream of being a writer.
Ta-daaa! I want to shout. I’m doing it! I’m doing now what I didn’t have the courage to fail at before motherhood.
I want to tell Caitlin about this recently rediscovered joy. I want to tell her that being a mom won’t stop her from doing the things she loves. Moms can be artists and coaches and entrepreneurs and engineers. If you want to make something amazing happen, just ask a mom.
But I button my lips. I know that trying to force this issue, trying to convince Caitlin that God may call her into motherhood, or that motherhood is worthwhile, will only make her dig in her heels.
I always hoped that having a daughter would feel a bit like looking in a mirror. This hope was born of reading too many novels whose authors imagined too few original characters. Fictional daughters are so often the spitting image of their mothers, waving their hands in the same way, sharing similar habits and pet peeves, speaking in the same dulcet tones.
My life as an avid reader built me up to be shocked when I became the mother of girls.
My mirror turned out to be the one from Mary Poppins. While I calmly smooth my hair, thinking I see and hear echoes of myself, my daughter Caitlin is just preparing for her glorious solo. She sings and dances when she wants to, and her choices have little to do with me. I am left staring through the glass in astonishment as a completely separate, cheeky person lives her own life in her own way.
I should probably be grateful she makes her own music and follows it. I once googled “strong-willed children” and learned that someday, my daughter will be less likely to succumb to peer pressure. All her practice at saying no to me may grow her into a young woman who can lead others confidently.
This doesn’t help me right now.
At age 4, my “middlest daughter” takes pure joy in discovering the ways she is different from me. It started with bananas, which she would happily eat all day long while I gag from the smell. It grew to encompass pictures of bugs and so much more. Sometimes, learning that I like something will send her scuttling into the enemy camp, just for the fun of being contrary.
Yet, she desperately wants the fellowship of being seen and known. She likes to tell me what she’s thinking by assuming I already know. “You know I never want to go to Egypt, because they have scorpions,” or “You know applesauce is my favorite snack, Mommy.”
Yes. I do know. You told me this yesterday. And the day before that.
One day, I suppose, she may assume the opposite. She may assume I don’t know anything about her. That I couldn’t possibly understand. She just doesn’t realize that it’s already true. I catch glimpses that I recognize—her love of books, her silly laugh, her interest in singing and dance—but mostly, she is a mystery to me.
Why, for example, does she prefer to sleep on her floor instead of in her bed? Night after night, I tuck her in and say goodnight, only to find her scrunched on the floor an hour later, snoozing next to a line of books I swear we put away before bedtime.
Why does she reject adjectives? When she turned 3, Caitlin informed me that being called “little one” hurt her feelings. Within days, a parade of other adjectives met a stubborn end. Caitlin does not want to be called beautiful or brave or strong or creative or happy.
She isn’t any of those things, she tells me.
She is just Caitlin.
It turns out, the advice I want to give her in the car is the same advice I need to hear myself: Be open to how God may write the twists and turns in Caitlin’s story.
It’s certainly possible that one day, her (not little) heart-shaped face will resemble my oval one. She may turn out to share common interests with me. Maybe she will call herself a mother and homemaker.
Or maybe she will become a photographer for National Geographic and live the kind of itinerant life that would terrify me.
My job as her mom is not to walk her through the exact same joy I found. No matter what God calls her to, she will never become a mirror image of me—and I’m glad. I would much rather see her reflecting the image of Christ. My job is simply to point her face toward Jesus, and hold her hand until she is ready to walk in joy of her own.
Melissa Hogarty lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three very loud and silly children. She believes deeply in the power of reading and the love of Christ. She loves to bake, sing loudly, and make her own home décor. She blogs about food, faith, and family over at Savored Grace, and you can also find her on Instagram.