The Seventy-Fourth Letter: The Me I Want You to Be

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Dear Daughters,

Last week, the five-year-old announced that you wanted to be just like me when you grow up. You were watching me hand-letter a sign, as you are prone to do, standing there mesmerized, and so I knew what you meant: that you wanted to be an artist like me, that you want to learn to hand-letter, that you want to be a painter who makes beautiful things. Some day.

But, I’ll be real, when you said you wanted to be just like me, my first thought was about all the ways I hope you are not like me. I thought about how often I lose my temper, for example, how I can be unreasonable with my expectations. How I worry too much, get anxious and listless and unsettled inside. How I need to self-talk myself down off the ledge. How I’m selfish and prideful and really want to flee some days. Maybe even every day at some point, if I’m honest with myself.

Sure, I would love for you to be an artist or a writer, or an academic like your dad, but more than that, I want you to be many other important things. I want you to be brave and vulnerable, courageous and compassionate, calm and trustworthy and loving, truth-seeking and honest, full of conviction and kind, articulate and dissatisfied with the status quo.

I am some of those things, but I am not all of those things.

I’m not saying I’m a failure when I get worried, when I snap at you and scold you and am unreasonable. I’m a good mom, and I know I am. But I wonder sometimes how to teach you to be brave when I myself do not feel brave, to teach you not to worry when I myself am worried, to teach you to love strangers when I myself want to be by myself.

And the truth is, I can only take it one day at a time, one moment at a time. And in some of those moments I will fail.

Right now I am sitting outside at the picnic table and the two of you are playing explorers in the yard. (I want you to love being outside, even though it’s not my favorite thing.) You’re picking green beans and putting them into your sandbucket. And you’re eating them. (I gave you permission. I want you to love the garden and fresh food and crunchy beans.) You’re hot and sweaty already. (I want you to know it’s okay to not always be comfortable.) You’re crawling up the slide backwards. (I want you to know it’s okay to be creative in interpreting the rules.) You’ve got bug spray on your legs and sneakers on your feet. (I want you to know how to care for yourself.)

Yesterday you were barefoot and sliced your foot open on a broken walnut shell. I was working on a poem up on the porch but you began screaming and sobbing about blood, and that was the end of poetry for the day. I was annoyed, even as I cared for you, but I want you to I know that I will always choose you over any project in front of me, even if I do it begrudgingly some days. I am still becoming my best self; there is still work to be done. Your foot is still hurting today.

In recent weeks, I’ve had some opportunities to show you in small ways what brave and courageous looks like, even when I have not wanted to. I flew with the two of you to visit your grandma at her beautiful island home. The trip requires two flights to get there, and two flights with two children and one adult is not exactly my favorite traveling situation. (Also, less importantly, I played with you in the ocean despite my ridiculous and unaccountable fear of sharks.) And then last week, I drove the two of you to Pennsylvania so you could see your new cousin, two sets of grandparents, a great-grandma, and your great-great-grandma. Girls, this kind of trip, no matter how many times I do it and no matter how many times it turns out okay, is tough for me. On Wednesday night before we left, I lay awake in bed for hours and tried to think of all the reasons I could to back out of our trip. For hours.

But we went and we got to see some loved ones. We got to meet your brand-new cousin and get baby snuggles, finally got to meet my college friend’s husband. We went to Perkins with Great-Great-Grandma and she gave you each four quarters. We ate candy and peanut-butter-banana sandwiches with Great-Grandma and her dogs made you cry. I got to see a childhood best friend and her girls, and we took a picture with our matching Subarus.

In other news, I also turned the wrong way on the turnpike and had to go thirty miles out of my way. I went west instead of east on interstate loop in bumper-to-bumper traffic and made an already-too-long trip even more interminable. I kept my cool both those times. I really did. Outwardly.

But this is life: I did lose my temper a few times in the car, by the end, especially on the way home when interstate construction extended our drive by four hours. I yelled and even cried more than once. Literally cried. I was not at my best, but I’m a work in progress.

I feel like I’m still recovering, two days later. Maybe it’s because there had been so much weight following me around while I was trying to be brave for you and pretend I was not as overwhelmed as I was. I don’t single-parent well.

Yesterday, I didn’t unpack and do laundry. (For the record, the basement flooded twice while we were gone, so laundry would have been impossible given the furniture piled up in the laundry room. Your dad is the real superhero who vacuumed up dozens of gallons of water twice, moved furniture, propped up carpets, made myriad Lowe’s runs, and now has fans blowing on everything.)

By the end of the day yesterday, the sink was full of dirty dishes and I did not wash them. I did not even look at the to-do list from before the trip that I knew was mostly incomplete. I did not pay the stack of bills, even though I knew that the end of the month was approaching. I saw the pile of crafts and artwork that had accumulated at the end of the school year and planned to take photos of all of them so I could finally, finally toss them out. But I didn’t. I left the table and the buffet covered in art and mail and craft supplies.

But you know what I did do? Your dad and I said morning prayers together. I took a shower. I took you to gymnastics class and then to the playground to play just for the fun of it. While on the playground I surprised myself by showing you how I can still hang from my knees on the monkey bars. When we got home, I cut a jar full of day lilies, a few branches of rose of sharon, and flowering thyme to put on our dining room table. I did not clear off the table first. Not a bit. I chose to add beauty instead of organizing the chaos. Then I went back outside and cut three jars of fresh oregano and basil to keep them from flowering, and I brought them inside to the windowsill above the sink. Then I went back outside and cut some fresh mint to brew sun tea on the back porch. During quiet time, I hand-lettered some postcards. You followed me around and commented on everything I did.

And I did not mention to you how I was feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. I did not tell you about the things I was not accomplishing.

Instead, I helped you see that life is in the one-moment-at-a-time experiences of cutting flowers and pinching basil and picking green beans and making beauty.

Because I really believe that if I show you that often enough—what bravery feels like, what beauty feels like, what love and compassion feels like—even if I’m floundering inside, well, I really believe that I will someday become those things myself.

And then you can be just like me when you grow up.

I’ll be okay with that.

Love,

Your Momma

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