When my oldest daughter was little, turning three, I had this great idea that I was going to write a letter to her and her sister every year on their birthdays. By the time they turned eighteen, I would give them this beautiful box filled with birthday letters. Doesn’t this sound amazing? They would open up the box and we would all be weeping at my touching words on their eighteenth birthdays. I sat down during nap time at the computer and started. Dear Emma…
Except that by the time Emma was three, it wasn’t as much nap time as it was “quiet time.” Which consisted of getting her six-month-old sister down for an actual nap and then walking Emma into her room, reading a story, putting her to bed, giving her a stack of books, kicking myself for gifting her pacifiers to our friend’s new baby in an effort to break the habit and celebrate big-girlness, and praying that she would stay in her room for longer than twenty minutes. We had already been through months of all the things possible to get this kid to keep her nap, but nothing had worked and so she would read quietly (out loud) and sit in her bed (play in every corner of her room) until she was bored and then would quietly tip toe to the middle of the stairs to creepily watch me and scare the ever-loving crap out of me. Every. Day.
So the most I ever wrote of that letter was “Dear Emma.” That was the most I wrote of any letter. My brilliant idea (which, let’s be honest, was probably someone else’s anyway) of writing to my daughters every year on their birthdays would go the way of their baby books, vacation photo albums and organizing my favorite recipes— unfinished.
My youngest turned thirteen a couple of weeks ago. And I have been thinking about those letters. All the ones I didn’t write. And that, as much as anything, has marked the passing of time… this giant span of years, gone. A stack of letters, unwritten. And the realization that starting them now would be kind of lame. I just think the magic would be gone…
Me: Here is a very special gift— letters that I have been writing to you on your birthday for… well, for a while.
Eighteen-Year-Old: Wow! For my whole, entire life?
Me: Um… no, just since it has been a bit more convenient for me.
Eighteen-Year-Old: Looks stricken and sad. Oh. Okay.
Me: In my defense, I spent a lot of time driving you around and you were always asking for meals and snacks and then that no napping thing really set me back. So it’s kind of your fault.
It just feels kind of too late and half-assed. So I will watch my daughters make the steady march toward adulthood with no box of letters and I will continue to tell myself that I really could have written them if I’d wanted to. And I’ll think about those articles and biographies I’ve read about moms who had full-time jobs and also wrote entire books in their spare time and how I couldn’t manage two letters per year and I will feel all the guilt and also I will kind of want to throat punch all of those other, better, birthday-letter-writing moms.
And then I thought… wait a minute. I have a blog now. I can do that thing where I list what I Want My Thirteen Year Old To Know. I can compile a precious list of all of my wisdom, wrapped up in a lovely 13-point list (because, you know, 13 things on her 13th birthday). But it has kind of been really overdone. And precious isn’t really my jam. I’m pretty sure that every blogger with a child has made a version of this list. And you should totally go read them because they are really good and very poignant. Here is my favorite. It isn’t precious.
But I did hear a thing recently that has lingered in my soul long enough to grow some roots and I know when that happens, it is going to stay for a while. The weekend before last, I hopped on a plane back to Cincinnati (our previous home from which we moved nearly two years ago) and had a mini-girls-weekend. The main reason for my visit was because we had tickets to see Glennon Doyle. (I realize that I’ve written exactly two blog posts and mentioned her in both. I will try not to do this every time.) She is a favorite author of ours and was coming to Cincinnati with a group of speakers and performers. She told a story that I just can’t stop thinking about:
Her son had some friends over and they were all watching a movie in the living room. She walked in and asked, “Is anyone hungry?” The boys didn’t take their eyes off of the screen– they just all said, “Yeah.” But the girls did something different. No one spoke at first, they all looked at each other. Somehow, Glennon said, they silently agreed upon a spokes-girl for the group and she said, answering for the group, “No, thank you.” The realization that she had while watching this was this: the boys looked into themselves and asked their own bodies if they wanted something to eat (Hey, am I hungry? Yes, in fact I am and so, Yeah). The girls looked to each other and asked each other if they were hungry (Are we hungry? We aren’t? Oh okay… so then I guess, No thank you.) The boys looked for the answers inside themselves. The girls looked to their friends.
Somewhere along the way, girls learn that they get answers about their own selves through validation, consensus or approval— outside of their own selves.
So The Thing I Want My Daughters To Know is that other people do not have your answers. All of the answers that you will ever need are already inside of you. It’s like the thing Glinda the Good Witch said about the ruby slippers, “You’ve always had the power, my dear.” I want you to know that if you look inside instead of out, if you listen to your own voice instead of all the others, if you seek for the truth from your own heart, everything that I’ve ever wanted you to know will follow. All the things about believing in yourself, saying No, the importance of kindness, being happy, knowing that you can do anything you set your mind to, inner strength, being true to the things that matter deeply, finding your people, knowing when to walk away and really truly loving yourself… they all start with looking inside. They start with finding, listening and being true to your voice.
It gets tricky because the other voices are so loud— friends, You Tube, social media, TV. And the voice that I’m talking about is soft and quiet. Truth doesn’t need to be loud or distracting or flashy— because it just needs to be true. During one of those “quite times” that three-year-old said to me, “How does Jesus get so little that he fits into your heart?” She was going to a Catholic Montessori preschool at the time and they had been talking about keeping Jesus in your heart. It’s one of those hilarious and tender things a toddler says that you hope you never forget, but it’s also exactly the thing that I am thinking about now that they are both teenagers. Whether it’s a polly-pocket sized Jesus or a pair of ruby slippers, it is the hope that they find and listen to that voice.
My youngest daughter is thirteen. I can distinctly remember being a kid and imagining being thirty. It felt so incredibly old that in order to get to that actual age, I’d have to navigate some sort of space-time continuum. Of course thirty feels like a lifetime ago and so now I’m way past what I thought was super-old and I have two teenagers that are my actual children. And that six-month-old who napped while I was not writing birthday letters and was talking about mini-Jesuses, is this bright, funny, headstrong young woman. One of the things no one ever told me about being a mom is how your kids will grow up and they will turn into their own human people. And that it will be the heartbreak and the joy of your entire parenting life. And how you will go from wanting to take care of them and hold them and keep them close to wanting them to find the strength, wisdom and courage to do it for themselves. And how desperately you will want them to find and listen to that voice.
And if my daughters can hear it now, when they are teenagers, and they can listen to it, well that’s what I want my daughters to know.