I am the seventh of eight children. As a child, I often felt left out and couldn’t wait to be to be included, to be seen as a real sibling, not just a little one who had to be watched. One of my earliest memories is of scrambling, scratching, and clawing my way out of my older sister’s clutches to duck down on the ground and hunch my shoulders protectively over the matches I had stolen and was desperate to strike. My siblings’ laughter and my mother’s yelling lent a chaotic, frenzied air to the scene, and I remember being convinced that if they’d all just let me try, I could do it without getting hurt, that I could show them I was somebody to be respected and counted. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to get that far, and the feeling I was left with was of petulant powerlessness.
Maybe it’s because Free is an only child, but she’s not in a hurry to grow up in the same way. While she’s always been independent, she enjoys being a kid and is in no rush to move past the stage she’s in. I like that about her. Even though she is eight and will be nine this summer, she seems content to let me do things for her that I probably shouldn’t do. Mostly such coddling shows up in the mornings, when the guilt I feel for having to wake her for our long commute sometimes leads me to carry her to the bathroom, help her dress and put her boots on for her when she’s eating, and carry all her stuff for her while she snuggles up with her sheepskin in the car.
Although the wisdom of my own mother’s advice (“don’t do anything for them that they can do for themselves”) is clear, I think Free and I have a tacit agreement that sometimes, it’s nice for both of us to keep the fantasy of her as a little child alive for just a little longer.
I know that my part in this emerges from my (only recent) acceptance of the fact that I will not have another child. When Kristen R. had her second baby, it threw me into a major tizzy. It took me a while to acknowledge to myself that I felt like she was going to leave me behind somehow. The feelings were exacerbated by the fact that while she was having a second child, I was going through a divorce. This morning, I felt a resurgence of those feelings as one of my newer close friends is being induced to deliver her second child. Both Kristen R. and my friend Brenda have two daughters, and I’m even more jealous that they can give their firstborns a sister when I won’t be able to give that to Free.
At the same time, I’ve come to terms with my own desires, needs, and choices, and I know that each choice I make, big or small, leaves me with consequences that are both good and bad. I can’t have it all, so I must make peace with where I am.
I’ve come to the awareness that coddling my child once in a while is a subtle form of self-soothing, like the nighttime thumb-sucking that Free refuses to give up despite my dangling of a Disney World trip as a carrot for quitting. I see how fast she is growing up, and it’s sometimes painful to realize that every first I have with her as a parent is also a last.
Free is an astute reader of others’ emotions, and I believe she recognizes that something I’m ostensibly doing for her is really for me. An example is last summer when I dropped her off to a new summer day-camp. I was fussing over her, going over instructions and kissing her a million times, all while she just waited patiently with an understanding smile. Finally, she gently reached out to pat my face and said, “It’s ok, mom, you can leave now.” I think she and I have an unspoken agreement that it’s ok to sometimes pretend that she is still a little one, and I am still the only one who can take care of everything. Of course, it’s not true; for one thing, Free has an entirely separate reality with her dad that I know nothing about.
As parents, we know all about lying to our children, but we would be remiss not to acknowledge the ways they are complicit in the lies we tell ourselves.
Free still believes the lies I tell her about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but the days of pure belief are gone. Back then, when she noticed the half-bitten carrot, she could casually intone, “Great. Now we’re gonna have deer poop in our house.” This past year, she still embraced the Elf on the Shelf as magic, but she also started a correspondence with the Tooth Fairy addressing specific questions (“What is your name? Where do you come from?”) that I’ve become very good at evading (“All fairies come from love”). No parent wants to lie to their child–unless it protects them and helps them preserve the joy and innocence of being a child. This is exactly how I will explain it to Free should she ever become upset about me keeping the truth from her.
I have a feeling, though, that she will understand and that, like me when I was a child, she will know the truth before I know she knows the truth, and she will become a co-conspirator in the dance parents and children do everywhere as they try to hold onto innocence for just a little bit longer.
This past Christmas Eve, after the “little ones” finally went to bed, my niece Mandy, who was then almost a teenager, stayed up extra late to finally admit to me and my sister that she’d known the truth about Santa for years. We all sat on the couch, sipping hot chocolate and covered with blankets, sharing memories of how we’d each found out and snippets about the other kids’ excitement as they’d wound their way to bed. As we geared up for the task of becoming Santa again, we were able to enjoy our new, eager apprentice, who agreed that yes, it was nice to have Santa around, even if you knew he didn’t wear a red suit.
Free is in an in-between place right now. While she is happy to rough-house with her younger cousins, she also swears a love of One Direction and Claire’s boutiques so that she can feel included in her cousin Mandy’s seemingly more grown-up life. For her part, Mandy is also in-between, negotiating her time at family get-togethers between the adult world and the team of children who adoringly follow her around.
Free and Mandy want it all, and I want them to have it. They are giving each-other a sisterhood that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and I am blessed to witness it and be reminded of the many in-between places I have been, and continue to be, in my own life.
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