To My Daughter, Who Teaches Me Without Words
We didn’t know it as we ran and laughed wildly under the mango tree, looking out over the mountains etched out against the backdrop of the seas of Hawaii. But we know it now. That was you. That was you who made us run and shout up to the sky. That was you who made us forge on through the mud and rushing waters, up to the epic waterfall. And it was you who led us home on the uneven terrain as the sun was rapidly setting.
Some days, I find myself wondering what I could have done differently or wondering if it is all my fault: “Did I do something wrong during my pregnancy?” “Did I eat the wrong foods?” “Did I worry too much?” “Should I have asked for a c-section when the birth process was going on for too long?” Whenever I’m inundated with these thoughts, as long as I think back to those first moments under the mango tree, the voices are silenced. It is arrogant of me to think I have any control over something so much bigger than me.
There was no stopping or altering the perfection of the world that made you.
You are 3 now, having just turned so this week. And you are so loved. You are adored wherever you go. You seek it out. You connect with strangers and those closest to you. You make people feel seen. You do this with your smile, with your arms flapping wildly, with your mischievous eyes. You do this without words. Right now you say “bye” a lot! You sing the alphabet song all with the letter “e” and count to 10 without all the numbers — pretty impressive. You don’t always like to give away kisses and hugs, but when you do it’s like being wrapped in sunshine.
All children change the world of those around them. But Isla, you really changed ours. When I was pregnant with you, I promised myself I wasn’t going to be “one of those parents” — the ones who stop spending time with their friends, or who, when they are with their friends, can’t focus for more than 30 seconds at a time. I wasn’t going to stop caring about the things that were important to me. I was going to keep traveling. To be honest, I was really caught up with focusing on who I wasn’t going to be. I didn’t know. I was learning. I didn’t know I had nothing to prove to anyone but you and me. I didn’t know there was a balance I would find eventually. I didn’t know that whatever our life wound up looking like, I would find myself in it, just as those parents I was afraid of becoming were finding themselves as well.
While I was busy defining myself and proving it to the world, you were very busy with the work of being you. There isn’t a doctor or therapist who has met you who hasn’t described you as a mystery. A friend said to me, “You must know. You must have some sort of mother’s instinct about Isla and what is going on with her and what will happen.” But I don’t, Isla. Some days I think you understand everything as clear as day, and some days you feel really far away. Your dad and I have been riding up and down on these waves of joy and doubt, fear and glee, celebration and apprehension, for quite some time now.
People share stories with us of friends whose children didn’t talk until they were 4 or 5, and who now are in college or run their own business. I must admit, I find comfort in these stories, but it is fleeting. They are someone else’s story. They are not yours. They are not ours. And I have a sneaking suspicion that is not what your father and I are supposed to find, anyway.
I think what we are supposed to find — the real gift in all of these unknowns — is peace in any or all of the possibilities. The ability to be with it, love it, love you just as you are, knowing that any one of the possible outcomes is its own form of perfection. That is the real act of love. That is the release into the madness and beauty of life.
This does not mean your dad and I won’t cry or feel sadness as we do sometimes in the privacy of each other. We worry people will be unkind to you. We can barely express the fears out loud to each other without breaking down and crying. We worry all the love we have surrounding us now will disappear over time. We worry we won’t be able to share things together in the way we envisioned. These feelings are very real to us, and they are painful at times.
But, Isla, without talking you have already started teaching us the simple truths of acceptance, forgiveness and love.
As we watched your friends grow in leaps and bounds around us, we cheer them on and gush, but at times, behind closed doors, we have cried, asking, “Why does it have to be so hard for you?” But again, we are learning with you. We are learning to love the journey of others, just as we do yours. Each soul has its own lessons. We know it is wasted energy to compare the twists and turns, the depths and heights. So we choose to genuinely cheer on their accomplishments because we are all in this together. And we are so lucky, Isla, because we are surrounded by people who love you and us just as we are. This is as it should be with friends.
As we dealt with yet more and more tests, we were faced with meetings in which people were going to determine what was next for you as you transition into the next phase of your life — school. As the words echoed around the room of what was best for you, from people who had only met you on paper, a new thought came to me: “To what end?” I couldn’t stop thinking it, over and over again. To what end am I going to sit in one meeting after the next, listening to how you don’t meet the benchmarks, how you are not doing the things you “should be” doing, how you don’t fit in this little box or that little box? To what end do we put so much pressure on our babies and our children and ourselves? To what end do we make school or work a place of stress and constraint, instead of exploration and creativity? So our children can go to college, get a job, work around the clock simply to be able to pay bills? To what end?
Lately, I have started the practice of thinking of myself as an old woman, and as I move through my life and make decisions, I try to think about what I would like my life to have been as I look back on it. The most liberating truth I’ve found is that we are all just making it up as we go along. We don’t have to take a given path just because someone said so. We don’t have to take another one just because someone else before us did. There are a million roads to happiness. Our path may look different — and that is all right. It is more than all right; it is just as it should be because we write our own story, Isla Kai.
In liberating you from the restrictive box you were being put into, I liberated myself, too. Sometimes, out of fear, I walked down the path in front of me because the trail was worn deep and clear and I could follow it, even though in my heart I knew I wanted to run through the field toward the wide open oceans, where the winds and waves would be unpredictable and magnificent. But now I want to run and cheer under the mango trees with you, and laugh because neither you nor I can believe how much beauty is in the world.
I have always been a worrier and a perfectionist, which has often excluded me from being truly present in my life. I never understood the beauty of mistakes or messiness. I was always holding on too tight. In being with you and loving you, I am learning. I am learning to not spend too much time worrying about what might happen to you at school in five years. I am learning to let go of what I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done differently. I am learning to just be with you. To watch you and your dad fly back and forth on the swing and see the sun hit your face just perfectly on a spring afternoon.
So listen here, Isla Kai: you may not be talking to me with your words, but you are talking to me and changing me and freeing me. And for that, I will always love you.
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