Happy 8th Birthday, Abigail

Dear Abigail,

The other night as we were pulling into the garage, you unbuckled your seatbelt and tiptoed up to my seat and said, “Mom? Can I tell you a secret?” I cheerily replied “Sure!” and then you dropped your truth with a giggle:

“It’s really scary to tell your crush you like them.”

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I mean, these days such┬áconspiratorial asides from you are about poop or LOL Surprise dolls. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for being momentarily taken aback by this. I tried to contain my excitement at being trusted with such a confidence but I suspect I failed miserably. Little is more ego-deflating than the tiny, everyday moments reinforcing for parents that you really are, no joke, for real, your own person with your own agency. I am still gobsmacked that for you exists a world that has nothing to do with me. I’m your MOM. How is that possible?

But oh. OH. That you are you and I am me and we are us, but really just each other has never been clearer than it has been this year. And so when you offer me a peek at a tender part of your heart it feels like Christmas. I was once in your shoes. I know those offerings are likely going to be fewer and farther between as the years go on and it’s everything I can do to not buy Papa and Nana a month-long vacation in Ireland for all of the horrible bullshit I put them through while I was busy being a not-yet-fully-formed human living under their roof.

This secret you shared felt so fragile and tender I was afraid I might break it. We parents do the dumbest of things when presented with such unexpected treasure – we cajole, we press for more, we misunderstand. We mishandle and misinterpret; greed just takes over. You know how you can go about your afternoon, not thinking about eating, and then all of a sudden you smell pizza and it would take a platoon to keep you from diving snout-first into the pie? This is how parents behave when we get a whiff of what you’re percolating inside.

We’re scared, that’s all. We think if we can know, we can help. We can predict. We think if we can get just a little closer we won’t lose you.

“Is there anyone you have a crush on,” I asked, predictably.

“Mom! I’m not an adult! I’m a kid! I don’t have a crush!”

Whew. Still here.

*****

This year has been hard. H-A-R-D.

School is harder. Kids are meaner. Your parents are making you do more stuff on your own. When I told you to throw away the apple core you’d casually left to rot on the table, your measured response was “YOU’RE TRYING TO KILL ME!”

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You slam doors. You tell me I don’t understand your life. You want to play Roblox and we won’t let you without your dad watching. You hate brushing your hair. The way you react to having to take a shower suggests Karen Silkwood had it easy. You interrogate and challenge everything from your bedtime to whether your shoe is actually on the wrong foot or not. Living with such a pint-sized contrarian turned up to 11 at all times makes me very sleepy. It also seems to make me impulse shop. Remind me to explain that one time we got an Amazon shipment that contained a milk frother, new blade for the blender, a pair of Adidas and a trampoline.

I’ve never felt more impotent as your mom than I do right now. If the rumors are true, I suspect this feeling will intensify with each passing year. You are POWERFUL kid. You are not — and let’s be honest never have been — easy. And I don’t mean that you make our life difficult, but as your Papa said from the day you were born: you have your own agenda. There is nothing that will deter you once you’ve made up your mind on something. Nothing. You’d sooner cut off your nose to spite your face than acquiesce to anything.

The other day I told you to get into the bathroom and brush your teeth. We’ve started automatically yanking privileges like screen time for purposely stalling or disregarding our rules. You moseyed on up outside the bathroom and said to me, “Are you going to count to three, and if I don’t come by three will you THEN take away screens?” I rolled my eyes at the test and immediately began to count. “1,2…” and you ran. Then I paused, thinking you’d just make your way into the bathroom. But, the minute I paused you stopped dead at the threshold of the bathroom door, waiting for that three before you’d even consider getting near your toothbrush. You stared me dead in the face, daring me.

It was the most blatant display of hutzpah you’ve shown to date. You knew exactly what you were doing. I grounded you from a day of screens for that hot nonsense. Lord.

*****

For as much as you are testing every last bit of patience we have, when you’ve finally fallen asleep and the house is still and quiet, your dad and I stand amazed. Well, we are more likely splayed out in exhaustion but amazement wiggles its way in there, too. You are tough. You are determined. You have a strict sense of right and wrong guiding you. This defiance may challenge us as parents but it will serve you so well as time marches on. I navigate this all best I can; in the moments you work every last nerve I have, I remind myself that it’s my job to teach you to wield this confidence and assuredness, not break you of it because it would be easier for me in the moment. When you scream at me that you hate me and I’m ruining everything – as you did last night after I made you pick up your toys and put them away with no help – my intention is to pay you no mind and walk away, rather than scare you into submission. But let’s be frank: I’ve gotten pretty close.

This year I’ve lost my temper on you so strongly, so swiftly, so severely that I knew they were experiences for the long-term memory banks. That I yelled so loudly and that it was impactful was reinforced several times after, in unrelated instances, when you panicked about making me angry, making me mad. The sorry’s – some you did not owe, others perhaps you did – sputtered fast and furious from your tiny mouth and in those moments I was forced to change. My temper – accidental or not – forced on you a heavy boulder to carry. I could see you struggle under the weight of it all.

I’ve said before that I’m so sorry you got stuck with such a human being for a mom, when it’s quite obvious you deserve someone bigger and better and more infallible. Alas, this whole business doesn’t work any other way. You’ll learn as you get older that in addition to growing taller, getting to drive a car and maybe even move out of our house, you gain experiences. For good or for bad, every last one shapes you. After awhile, and especially if they’re not cared for, those experiences pile up and for some us? For me? You end up broken in ways you don’t realize for a long while. I’m not saying that losing your temper means you’re broken, but the evidence around me grew tall enough that I couldn’t ignore that *maybe* losing my temper at every errant crumb or messy room wasn’t healthy. Your Papa (I’m quoting Papa a lot in this one, I know) reminded me the other day that the job of parents is to put obstacles in our kids’ ways so they learn how to cope and succeed in spite of it all. And for the most part, I’d say your Papa, Nana and Grandma Cathy did a fine job of that. But some of those obstacles were too big for even them and they couldn’t help me.

So I asked for help, I got help. I don’t want for you a life where you’re scared I might get angry so you shrink yourself smaller and smaller every day. You’re just too grand for that. If there is a legacy I hope to leave you, it’s that you’ve no business making someone else’s trauma your own. And if you ever find yourself in a place where all seems very lost, you should ask for help, too.

*****

The biggest obstacle we’ve put in your way to date was to evolve our relationship with Jessica. After having taken care of you full time since you were 10 months old, losing her from our daily routine was cataclysmic. I’ve often said that you would not be who you are were it not for her. My aforementioned temperament notwithstanding, I’m not really a super angry person but I’m not what anyone would ever describe as relaxed and measured. Jessica has been the calm and peace and joy in our lives. She provided not only a soft place for you to land, but a beautiful example of grace, character and kindness. Your dad and I are fine and all, but we are somewhat big personalities. There’s a lot of ego and importance that takes up space in our little bungalow and Jessica reminded us all what really mattered in the end was you. Was us.

Seeing her regularly – sometimes even twice a month – has been a balm to you and a blessing to us. But it’s also given you the confidence to branch out on your own. To process struggles a little bit more on your own. In after care, you spend more unfettered, unstructured time with other kids, which is something an only child really doesn’t get much access to. We miss Jessica every single day, but I knew you were ready to take this next step, even if it still hurts, even if it’s hard.

Jessica helped make sure you were ready. It really was all her.

*****

This has been a heavy year but it’s not been all gray skies and sadness.

  • You were the only child at the “RBG” documentary premiere. You asked to dress up as your hero and it was the most amazing thing to walk with you down Clark Street as all passers-by gawked and smiled and cheered on the pint-sized Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
  • You mastered diving and swimming into the deep part of the pool. You don’t use a vest or a floaty anymore. You are by far the strongest swimmer in our family and if I can convince you that you don’t need to be perfect at it from the get-go, I think you’d really like competitive swimming. We’ll check back in a year and see how I did.
  • You still love anything yellow; black beans and quinoa; peppermints; orange sherbet; Pooh Bear (always); art; being with your friends.
  • This year you discovered LOL Surprise Dolls and it’s truly the first toy that has really STUCK. It’s your Cabbage Patch Doll. Your Barbie. I’ll tell you when you’re older how much I hate them – the parts are tiny, they’re overpriced, they make a mess, each and every one of them looks like an insipid Instagram/YouTube influencer and their catch phrases gut at the very heart of my feminist being. But it’s not a hill I’ll die on. Your friends love them, you love them and this too shall pass. Besides, see RBG above. You should be able to like what you like and have fun.
  • Speaking of which, you’ve also discovered video games. I won’t buy any new consoles, and we won’t let you play online, but we’ve set you loose on the ol’ Wii and you are officially REALLY good. Eventually I’ll give in, but only after you find an equal love in reading. And not until then.
  • You have so many good girlfriends it’s a wonder to see. The girls in your life are true and kind and good and they love YOU. Oh I hope you’re all as supportive and loving with each other in a few years as you are now.
  • You now want me to ask you for your permission to post pictures of you online. I was happy to oblige. You get to make that call.
  • You do really well in school, despite your hatred for homework or remembering to do your homework or remembering to bring it home in the first place. Despite some pretty tough social bumps you’ve had to navigate, your grades are great and you love learning and all of your teachers. Your principal calls you an “old soul.” That really does seem to be who you are.

*****

You are infinitely cooler and more interesting than I have ever been. I’m biased, it’s true, but as I tell you every day: I’m so glad you’re my kid, that I get to be YOUR mom. You have the most tender of hearts and you concern yourself to a sometimes maddening degree with everyone else’s well-being. The other day, after a particularly rough week at school, you just melted down in the morning and could not be consoled. You wanted your dad to stay home and to shut the world out but that just wasn’t an option that day. I literally had to pry you off of your dad. As he made his way out the door, you saw that he’d dropped his gloves. In the midst of all of your tears, despite how much fear and anxiety was understandably pulsing through your little body, you wailed, “WAIT! DADDY! MAMA! HE NEEDS HIS GLOVES! HIS HANDS WILL GET COLD!”

And I suppose if anything scares me the most, it’s this: the world and all its problems will break you. And the vulnerability that is commonplace in your soul will give way to doubt and fear. Selfishly I rely on you as my touchpoint to a facet of life that exists in light and has little time for the shadow. You are the summer solstice, my love, and I know that’s too big a burden for any person to bear. And so that’s the trick: how do I fortify you for this world without robbing you of the spark we all so sorely need so we’ll want to get up and do it over and over again? I’m still learning what that means for you. So far you really like cuddling up with me under my weighted blanket and that seems to be enough for now.

Happy birthday, sweet Abigail Grace. I’m here for all of the secrets.

 

Love, Mama