“Mama! Everybody in the world is so nice and everybody loves me!”
My daughter told me this over pizza, on her third birthday. I affirmed her proclamations and kept eating. I can’t tell her the truth. Not today.
Her hair is too bouncy and her eyes are too sweet. Her kitty cat shirt is too precious and her light-up shoes are too bright.
I tucked her in that night and studied her form. She was rolled over on her left side, clutching a teddy she calls Benjamin Bear after the pint-sized sweetheart who gave him to her. I watched as she fell asleep, as her breathing became steady and those blasted two fingers finally fell from her mouth. I thought about how her entire world is contained in this bedroom, in this home.
If I stay awake late enough at night when everyone else is asleep, I can drive myself crazy worrying about it all. I think about how I’ll never be able to keep her from the hard stuff. I look out at our back field with the moonlight shining on the clothesline and I see her running.
I remember her laughing and hiding behind the bed sheets blowing in the breeze.
And I lie there, my head on the pillow, and think how hard it is to be a mother. To shield and protect, but push and encourage, all at once. To want them to grow and get bigger and explore new things, but also stay in the crook of your arm and bury their heads into your chest as long as you’ll let them.
She sleeps in the room above ours, and every morning, she wakes up the same way. She opens her door and shouts into the darkness, “Mama! It’s a beautiful day!” And it shakes me from sleep. And my legs creak like my mom’s used to, and I go upstairs. Usually, she’s already opened the shutter beside the bed and she’s pointing at the yard.
That sweet, sweet heart.
The same one that pulls me by the arm at four in the evening and takes me to my bedroom. “Mama. Look. Just look at how that sunshine hits your bed!” she’ll exclaim, her hands over her mouth like she just saw the crown jewels in person.
You know when someone gives you a really big present, like more than you could ever give them? And you’re so appreciative down into your bones but you’re also really overwhelmed? And a little unsure how to respond? That’s me, every day of parenthood.
I’m grateful beyond comprehension. I’m also really scared.
I’ve held a job since I was 15 and sitting on a lifeguard stand, free slushy in hand and a whistle around my neck. I’ve worked as a stationary stuffer, a travel writer, and a newspaper copy editor. I’ve cleaned furniture showrooms and wiped down the trashcans of corporate women on their lunch breaks.
But nothing prepared me for this.
No one told me the numbers 105.2 on a thermometer would instill in me such terror—and cost me so much money. Nothing prepared me for the all-nighters, the hard questions, the soul-filling joy. I never thought I’d have a girl, much less one that looks just like her papa and says things like “You are perfect for me” and asks me to spin her around and dance before suppertime.
Are we all just winging it? Are we all hoping the answers are around the next bend, and that if we keep going, one day we’ll stop stressing over every little lost barrette?
She’s three and a half now, and still thinks everyone is good.
Still thinks the tiny white Christmas tree in the dining room is the best thing ever. Still hates bananas and devours pumpkin Cheerios. Still picks flowers by the bud and hides them in her coat pockets to give to her teachers.
How do I handle that? How do you hold sunlight in your hand and keep it from spilling through your fingers? I clench. I tighten my grip. It still spills. I don’t know how to contain it, and I don’t think I’m supposed to.
So I stand back a little more on the playground. I don’t flinch as much when she takes a little tumble on her bike. I let her run into her classroom and resist the urge to call her back for one more kiss. But I don’t tell her everything. I zip up her puffy coat and pull on her hat and we walk out the door together.
She holds my hand right now. One day, she’ll take off running.
…But not today.