A letter to the baby of our family

We need to have a talk.

It’s about something important. It’s about who your parents are. You know how sometimes I treat you differently than your older siblings? There’s a reason for that, and it’s time we talked about it.

You have a different mom than the other kids.

The mom who raised your brothers and sister did look a little like me, but she was thinner, and had younger skin. She ran mostly on energy, enthusiasm, and expectations. She could read important things like thermometers and medicine bottles without glasses, and could hear her children plainly when they hollered for her from the “upstairs” phone. Everything from great grades and high achievements to missteps and failures was kind of a big deal. She knew her kids’ teachers well because she was quick to address any of the above; she dutifully did stints as the room mom and PTA president.

 She expected her kids – because she more or less expected herself – to be ever excellent and practically perfect. By the time the young mom was asking herself how this was sustainable, and how come it all felt so hard all the time, and was there another way, she was already falling apart a little.
As a result, you got a refurbished version of a mom, the kind you end up with after the first one breaks down but is still under warranty, and is returned to you with different insides, a new Motherboard. A menopausal mom who cannot hear you when you call from your room and who pees her pants a little while fake-nice-shouting for you to PLEASE COME DOWNSTAIRS TO HAVE A CONVERSATION, and also, Is anyone else hot?? One who knows that it is much too late in the school year to admit that she does not actually know what home room you are in, and keeps forgetting to log in to check your online report card. (She claims publicly that this is because she understands now that your grades are yours and not hers, and that even a failing grade is less damaging than a mom failing to keep perspective; while these things are true, it is worth mentioning that it could also be because she cannot remember her password.)

The mom you got has been a back-at-work mom, while your siblings’ was the mostly stay-at-home variety, and this has cut both ways. On the good days, when I have been on my game, I have been so proud to be providing a model of working motherhood: your mom as a whole different person in the world, bearing the excitement of a new project, the pride of professional accomplishment. But you and I both know there have been other days, too, the ones when despite my best efforts, I couldn’t quite keep all the plates spinning. and it’s been you who has been hit by the shards as they’ve crashed to the floor.

Your mom has so often been distracted by emails on her phone or laptop, half-listening as you chatter about the day’s events, the group project, the upcoming field trip. I am pretty sure I have missed more of your school events than I missed for all three of the others combined. Worse are the fall evenings that I have sped into the school parking lot, choking back tears because I am so late coming from work that it is getting dark, and the sight of my baby girl walking to the car in the fading light with what looks like resignation has made me seriously consider tendering my own.

Your self-reliance on all things from lunches to laundry to teacher emails fills me with pride for a modern-day mothering job well done – until I belatedly discover that you are in over your head on something a girl might rightfully ask for help with, if that girl was not trying so hard to be independent, not to bother her overextended mother. These are the times that when I miss the young mom. When I wonder if she really did the better job.

I can only hope that it will matter more that you have a mom who is old enough to have learned – and to teach you – important things the younger one did not yet know, truths which might come in handy for the girl you are and which are essential for the woman you will be.

That perfectionism is just a fancy way of covering up the fear that you are not enough.

That your worth is in who you are, not in what you do.

That being kind and a good friend is important, even and especially if the friend who needs care and kindness is yourself.

That everyone really is doing their best.

That it is not your job to manage other people’s feelings, or expectations, or to always pick up the slack.

That sometimes friendships fall away without it being anybody’s fault.

That courage is essential, and that you must practice it often, so that you can always show up for yourself, taking up your space in the world, freeing up the space to show up for others.

I hope that learning all this a lot earlier in life might help keep you, whether you are the young mom or the older one, from falling apart a little, too.

And no, I do not remember you telling me about the field trip. “Please,” I say, noting your familiar exasperation without comment, and putting my laptop to the side, “Tell me again.” And as you approach, prepared as you always are with the complete set of things we will need for this transaction – permission slip, checkbook, pen – I reflexively ask if you have seen my reading glasses? And, for God’s sake, is anyone else hot??

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