Sunday, March 11, 2012

My Definitive Daughter

I wrote this many years ago but I reread it to remind me of how much we can learn from the mouths of babes.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Many years ago, when my daughter was just in kindergarten, I asked a school counselor to assess how she was adjusting to life in a big school without the security of her twin brother in the same class. The only thing I really remember her saying in her thick Austrian accent is this: “CHEW-lee is a girl who likes to set her own agenda. As the parent, you will have to decide when to allow her to set the ahCHEN-da and when to draw the line.” At the time, the advice startled me. It seemed so amazing that my little girl was already showing such power and strength. From that point on, I saw her differently.

Long before her conception, somewhere in my personal dreamland, I envisioned any daughter of mine a little version of myself  dark and impish  but she (already defining herself as different) started life light and angelic.  Her coloring and build are very unlike mine, and for that I am both grateful and frustrated.  I continue to be surprised that she looks nothing like me. 

Also unlike me, she was not an adventurous child.  She stayed close to us, seemed a bit shy around strangers, and wasn’t exploratory about much, even food.  She ate it if and only if it was white: bread, rice, pasta, potatoes.  Unlike her brother  who would try every cuisine, condiment, and sauce  she was pleased with plain.

At the age of six she asked, “Mommy, why don’t you like my Barbies?”  I was taken aback because I hadn’t outright said anything about her dolls, but it was true; I didn’t like them.  I worried about the silent message they were sending and even at this young age, she already had acquired twelve.  “Well,” I answered carefully, “it’s not that I don’t like your Barbie dolls, it’s just that no one really looks like Barbie — in fact, no one can look like her because they’d have to have legs seven feet long.  I just worry that if you grow up thinking that that’s what ‘pretty’ looks like, then you’ll always be disappointed.” 

“I don’t think that,” she informed me. “You don’t look anything like my Barbies and I think you’re pretty.”  Aaahhhh, thank you honey.

Still, early in her life she began to draw these incredibly voluptuous girls, complete with clothing of her own design.  These figures always had an “I-Dream-of-Jeannie” look  bare midriff and ponytail on top of the head  and yet I don’t know that she ever saw the show!  Her preoccupation with these drawings of femme fatales and their clothes continued as she got older, though she had little regard for her own dress and appearance.  Day after day, I’d complain in frustration about her dirty jeans, stained top, and mismatched socks; she’d state in an equally exasperated way, “What’s the big deal, Mom?  No one looks at your feet!”

Lately, she’s been annoyed at her girlfriends and their newfound interest in boys.  She doesn’t think she’ll be interested in the opposite sex anytime soon. I pray that lasts, though the outside pressures are enormous on kids to act grown-up.  After a sleepover during elementary school, she asked, “Mom? What does ‘My boyfriend made me do it’ mean?”  She was only eight or nine! We’d worked hard to protect her from the sexually charged overtones in media everywhere, so where did this come from?  I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that some of her friends had teenage siblings. In their families, music, movies, and magazines were shared, regardless of the content.  Though ill-prepared at that moment to completely explain, whatever brief explanation I choked up seemed to satisfy her. 

“Well, that’s stupid,” she reasoned. “ I’m not going to let anyone force me to do anything I don’t want to.”  Good for her! I cheered.

My life with my daughter is an ever-changing terrain. It took me years to figure out that while she wanted my opinion, it didn’t mean she was going to adopt it; and though she didn’t necessarily agree with what I thought, what I thought was important to her.  Try as I might, I no longer know what mood she’ll be in and can rarely predict her needs.  She can go from a sweet, smiling, loving child to a crying, screaming “I-hate-you!” horror  all within a moment.  I try to defuse my husband’s anger at such behavior.  “Honey, she’s just being emotional.  We should be glad that she has the strength of self to show her feelings — neither of us would have dared vent our anger at our parents.  It won’t last   think of it as a sign that she’s healthy and strong and stands up for herself.”  At least that’s what I hope.

As the parent, I’d always imagined that I’d be the teacher and she’d be the student. But even that was never always the case.  I will never forget the night at the dinner table when I was yet again complaining about one thing or another being wrong with the meal I’d cooked. 

Apologies: my photos don't do her or her artwork, justice.
“Mommy?  Do you want my dinner?” she offered in her sweet seven-year-old voice. 

“Why would I want your dinner?”  I snapped, “I’m eating the same thing you are.” 

“Well, mine always comes out right and yours never does,” she said with a simple clarity that stopped my heart.

My child, my pre-adolescent daughter  with her well-defined agenda  will continue to educate me as I struggle with the ever-challenging role of being her mother.



  1. I love it. Your daughter sounds like a lovely reflection of you.

    We grow with our children, don't we? Being a mother is the most wonderful thing I could ever have become. I have two sons and two daughters. The girls are my fraternal twins. I think one of my twins met your son and played tennis a couple of times when we first moved to the neighborhood.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Great essay. We're all perennial students of life, I've come to realize, and raising kids is yet another piece of the education.

  3. Your daughter sounds like you, strong, confident and an independent thinker.
    well grounded.