“You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.You may house their bodies but not their souls,For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
Khalil Gibran, “On Children” (from The Prophet)
I just finished reading another book by Sarah Addison Allen. She crafts beautiful stories set in the mountains of North Carolina and infuses them with just the right amount of whimsical magical realism. Her characters are endearing and flawed, often on a journey of self-discovery and realizing their true, unique nature. Her novels are a comfortable landing place for me. When I want to get swept up in a story, she always delivers a captivating escape. This latest book was no different. She revisited characters from a previous novel: the Waverly family brimming with thoughtfulness, quirkiness and originality. She writes of two sisters doing their best to raise daughters. “Motherhood is hard enough without judgment from others who don’t know the whole story.” Amen, sisters. I can relate.
It just so happens that this magical storyline came along at exactly the right time. In raising my daughter, I carry the tremendous weight of concern for her big spirit. Lately, I have worried about her loud personality and the fact that she does not have a tight-knit social group. Is she an outcast? Has she brought this on herself with her passionate, dramatic reactions to everything from food to games at recess? And what was I hoping? Do I want her to conform? Follow the crowd? Do I want her to blend in rather than stand out?
Allen shows this complexity when her two characters discuss the teenage daughter, Bay. The rational sister shuts down the mother’s paranoias.
“I think she is doing fine. Bay knows herself. She likes herself. She doesn’t care what other people think...You want her to be popular...She doesn’t want to be popular. She wants to be herself.”
I gasped upon reading these lines. It was as though the character was hurling meteors of parental advice directly at my face. I could sub in my daughter’s name, and the paragraph worked perfectly. Yes, she likes herself. How much time have I spent beating myself up and scraping by with insecurities and harsh personal criticism? My daughter, free as a bird, soars above those painful moments of self-loathing because she knows herself and, most importantly, likes what she knows.
My daughter as Mother Nature for her school's Fairy Tale Ball.
When my children were younger, they were prone to alarmingly high fevers whenever they got sick. A fever of 104-105 was not uncommon with a typical, run of the mill ear infection. The wise, simple advice from our pediatrician talked me down from numerous paranoid, new-mother meltdowns: “Don’t worry so much about the number. Pay attention to their behavior. If they act lethargic and unresponsive, that is more important than a number.” Basically, she told me to trust my gut and pay attention. Perhaps this advice is still relevant and important in other aspects of my kids’ lives.
I cannot get caught up in counting their friends to measure social success, but I can pay attention to their behavior. The number is one indicator, but I can tell far more by seeing the whole child. In my case, the child I see is living a big, full and happy life. I have moments of panic because I just can’t decipher what her true self will look like at 16, 18 or even 21. There is no formula or box she will fit into, but I wouldn’t want her to fit in any box. When I become hyper-sensitive or nervous watching her interact with her peers, I begin to see situations through my motherhood lens. I want to shield her from rejection or ridicule, guard her from situations where she will be the ultimate black sheep, but as my husband candidly reminded me, “Why would you want her to fit in with the crowd? YOU are a black sheep.” My daughter, at nine years old, has figured out that she is unique, and she is perfectly content. If she is too much for some people, she moves on to a new audience or adjusts accordingly. At times, there are natural consequences. She might have to offer up apologies or adjust her tone, occasionally shedding some tears, but ultimately, her identity is found in herself rather than the acceptance or approval of her peers. It has taken me too long to realize this is not a matter of concern but a cause for celebration.
A few weeks ago, my daughter accompanied me to a local health food store for our weekly shopping. There is a man who happens to be there almost every time I go. He wears a vibrant robe, sandals, carries a cross-body purse and flaunts his majestic, silvery striped afro. My daughter immediately spotted him and stopped me. “Mom, look at that man! He is wonderful! He doesn’t care what other people think!” I wanted to scoop her up and twirl her around. She teaches me so much. “Yes. Isn’t it beautiful to see someone so free and comfortable in his own skin?” I responded. Before I knew what was happening, she ran over to the man. “Hey, I LOVE your hair.” His warm smile seemed to say, “The light in me salutes the light in you, little girl.” They were kindred spirits and fast friends.
As a mother, it is crucial that I remember the definition of success and happiness is relative to each individual child, not based on our personal experience. Our children do not need to follow our prescribed paths; furthermore, it is unfair to project our insecurities and fears onto them. Towards the end of Allen’s novel, the teenager’s mother has a realization. “Maybe you don’t have to be led into the future. Maybe you can pick your own path.” Yes! A hundred times YES! I can lead by example, but my daughter will forge her own unique path that suits the person she knows and loves - herself.