As I stepped gently up the stairs to tell my rambunctious, challenging five year old she could come down while her baby sister continued to nap, I wondered to myself why she was so quiet. I prepared myself for battle: the daily argument over picking up her room, and the barrage of requests that would accompany her back down to the living room. And then I was greeted by this. I sat down on the edge of her empty mattress and stared at her.
She had fallen asleep on her floor, decorating a tinsel Christmas tree with hair barrettes during her “rest time.” Her ever-faithful “Light-Up Turtle” companion by her head and her soulmate “Cuddle Monkey” tucked under an arm, she snored beneath a pile of blankets. And in an instant, the stern-mommy-of-a-preschooler in me melted into the mom I remember being to her.
You see, though I love her fiercely, she and I are like oil and water – if oil and water were practically identical, that is. Everything is an exercise in diplomacy with her, and most days I can no longer see the baby she used to be – I see the child she is and the young lady she is becoming: headstrong, opinionated, analytical, difficult. And though I know the armor I unwittingly don puts space between us, I struggle with letting my guard down, burned by so many other bad moments, bad days, bad weeks. The softness that I gave to her as a baby and toddler, the same softness that comes so easily with her younger sister, is buried under my frustrations and my anxieties and my fears.
I miss the toddler she used to be. At times it’s as if this new, older daughter has replaced her, calling muffins by their correct name instead of “mondays,” and asking for privacy with a roll of her eyes instead of revolving her entire world around me. Even her body has lost its toddlerness, the chub and rolls stretching out into a lean childhood figure. She seems so big now, especially since her sister joined us two years ago, and I know I look at her and forget how big the world must seem to her, how many things she still has yet to understand, and how much wonder surrounds her. I forget she is that same little baby that made me a mother. How can you miss someone who is standing right in front of you?
It’s bittersweet, this process of letting go that we call motherhood… falling in love with a tiny being only to have them leave you day after day, metamorphosing into a new version of themselves. I know the practical answer is to enjoy her for who she is at each stage of her childhood – to soak in this five-year-old Emily so that I may miss her when she too has gone, but I struggle with my sadness at what has been lost and with finding a balance between being better for her and allowing myself grace.
The words of Kahlil Gibran* have never rung so true:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
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 to-morrow, 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.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
And so, I let her sleep, conscious of the fact that I will have to eventually wake her and break the spell, holding this moment in my heart, determined not to forget its warmth and softness once it has passed.
*Poem excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, 1923