I am a planner. When I was pregnant with my girls, I read every book I could get my hands on about twin pregnancy and parenting so I could be ready for everything and anything. I tried to check all the boxes: what to do for a healthy pregnancy, no rhyming names so as not to compromise their identity, make your own food, try to set a schedule, no TV before age 3, etc. With all the reading and planning I did, I believed I was ready to bring two babies home and run the project like a pro. Nothing could have been further from the truth. People (babies, especially) are not projects or dissertations or triathlon training plans; they have their own agenda and timeline from day one.
You’d think I’d have mastered this lesson ten years into my parenting adventure, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I still try to get ahead of the next challenge in parenting by reading books and blogs and talking to parents of older kids. The subject of my girls’ growing independence is a good example. I know every kid arrives at the day when friends and the peer group become far more interesting (and influential) than the parents and he or she chooses to spend their time with someone other than mom or dad. Becoming increasingly independent from parents is a normal part of development and I want them to be social and form relationships of their own. I figured when the day my girls tell me they would rather spend their time with someone else comes, I will be ready. I figured I still had a bit of time to worry about that. And, as usual, I was caught unprepared.
Last December, my daughters went on a two-week vacation with their father. In mother time, two weeks without your children feels like a lifetime. While it is nice to have time off from parenting so I can recharge and be the best parent I can be, a few hours or one day is plenty for me. After my girls’ absence for most of the holiday season, I was desperately ready for them to come home so we could celebrate our Christmas together.
As I was preparing for their return by shopping for ingredients to make cookies, I got some disappointing news: their flight had been delayed and they wouldn’t be home until a day later at the earliest. I hadn’t seen them in 2 weeks, and now I wouldn’t see them for another day. Their delay also moved our holiday days together – two in total – over into the 25th of December, a day when the girls usually celebrate Christmas with their father. Although I was disappointed, I resolved to make the best of it and spent the day cooking in preparation for our celebration.
When the girls finally arrived, they were sick, jetlagged and exhausted – probably the worst possible situation to add an overly-excited parent ready to have an all-out Christmas celebration to. After we opened our presents and I started working on the fancy dinner I had planned, V approached me. “Mom,” she whispered, “I really want to go to Dad’s for Christmas. Can we go to Dad’s tomorrow?”
These were not the words I wanted to hear. We hadn’t seen eachother for two weeks and here she was, asking me if she could leave again. I was heartbroken. I tried gently reminding her that her father was waiting for them to celebrate Christmas, and she would miss nothing by staying with me one more day.
“But that is not our tradition, Mom,” she continued. “I want to be there with my sisters. I want to keep our tradition, Mom.” It took every bit of love I have for her to stay calm and not burst into tears. My child was choosing someone else over me. She had just returned and now was asking me to leave.
“What does your sister think?” I asked her. From the living room, J replied, “the date doesn’t matter – we are celebrating on the 26th anyway. We won’t miss anything,” she said as the continued a craft project.
“But it matters to me, Mom. Please,” V said.
I considered turning down her request, and thought of clever ways to convince her to stay. But none of that felt right. She was telling me this mattered to her, and it is impossible to argue against a statement like that. I talked it over with my husband and he agreed: letting her go was the right thing to do, even if it was not what we wanted to do.
I told her she could go back to her Father’s house and spend Christmas with her sisters. I contacted her father and coordinated her return.
She burst into tears and hugged me hard. “Thank you Mom, thank you. And I am sorry.”
We ate, we got in the car, and I dropped her and her sister off. Twenty-four hours had elapsed since their return and they were gone again.
Did I keep it together? No. There were plenty of tears after I dropped them off. I was hurt. With pain usually comes anger, and I was angry. I questioned whether giving so much up as a parent was worth it at all when in the end children choose their own paths and go on their own way. I wasn’t ready for my girls to choose someone else over me – a scenario that is sure to replay itself many times over as they grow older — but it had happened so soon I was simply not ready. I was numb for two days, telling myself I would focus on my career and my interests because focusing on my children would bring me nothing but hurt (that line of thinking didn’t last very long, thankfully).
In the days that followed, as I sat and meditated in their absence, the pain subsided and I was able to see what this experience had taught me. And then, my daughter’s choice went from bringing me sadness to bringing me intense joy and pride.
My daughter was becoming exactly the kind of woman I was raising her to be. She was nine years old, yet she had the courage to tell her mother – an adult in the position of authority – that she wanted to keep a tradition that mattered to her. She was able to explain what she wanted and why. She was able to understand that it hurt me terribly to let her go after not having seen her for a long while. She offered me love, but not the sacrificial kind of love (which would have involved ignoring her needs and staying with me) but a love full of honesty, courage and empathy (I am sorry, I love you, but this matters to me and I want to go). And she did all this at nine years of age. It took me 36 years to live my life with this kind of honesty and bravery.
My girls continue to teach me that no matter how much I read and prepare, they are on their own journey as they grow – an unpredictable, wonderous adventure I can’t really orchestrate. So often I am reminded that my daughters are human beings that happen to be little and somewhat dependent on me, but this does not mean they belong to me. I am entrusted with their raising, but I cannot get in the way of their life path. I cannot plan life for them, nor protect them from all harm. Most of all, I cannot under any circumstances expect them to live their lives for me, or to fulfill my expectations. They must fulfill their own destiny, following their own compass, and I must continue to support them bravely as they do, especially when their choices collide with mine. And maybe, just maybe, one day this Mama will learn that it’s not necessary to plan in order to have a wonderful adventure with those you love.