Eleven years ago.
Eleven years of days, hours, minutes; some blinking fast like a firefly I can’t catch, some crawling with a glacier’s pace. Eleven years ago, I was given a gift, the greatest, hardest gift. Eleven years now of guidance, growing, learning, changing, crying, praising, heartbreak and happiness. Eleven years ago, a piece of my heart was taken from within me, and placed in the outside world.
I named her Sophie. And though she had that piece of me within her, she became herself, an individual who is independent and fierce. And though she has always been exactly who she is (to me), as she approaches eleven, she struggles to find her place in this big, amazing world. And, as part of my heart, it is my job to help her navigate that path, although I fail regularly and spectacularly. Some days I barely make it to the end, wondering how anyone ever saw fit to place me in charge of another human being. But we’ve made it this far, these eleven years, all the while learning about life, love, heartbreak, and happiness together.
Have you ever laid in the dark of night with your child curled into the crook of your arm? You’re wide awake with a racing mind as she twitches and settles, falling asleep in the safest place she can imagine. Soon, over her even breathing, you are left to watch the terrifying thoughts of night race by, wondering how you will ever be able to lead your tiny human safely from childhood to adulthood, protecting her from the harms of this world, teaching her right from wrong, helping her navigate learning, and friends, and technology, and kindness and decency, and individuality, when you are unsure in any given moment whether you yourself fully understand those things.
Eleven years now, I have thought, and searched for answers, and prayed and cried, and laughed, and felt my heart expand in ways I never could have imagined. It seems impossible that much time has passed since the day I first held my daughter, feeling terrified and elated, refusing to put her in the bassinet and instead letting her fall asleep on my chest, until finally the nurse gently convinced me to let her take Sophie for a few hours so I could sleep.
Year One took us from the uncertainty of how to care for a newborn without breaking her, hurting her, or coddling her, through Sophie standing on her own, on her first birthday, ready to step away already and do things her own way.
Eleven years is a gift many don’t get.
I often tell Sophie, in the moments when we are alone, just her and I, don’t forget someday when a memory pops up of us seeing a hawk standing on the ground; or us screaming, upside down, on the biggest, fastest roller coaster we could find; or seeing a rainbow that ends right above our house, that we are the only two people alive that share this memory. It’s an amazing and terrifying thought.
Year Three, and Sophie seems to remember many things, yet I don’t even know how she could. She remembers begging her Daddy not to leave, crying, and feeling like it must be her fault because he left anyway. She remembers watching Hachi with me on the couch, and how we had to pause the movie for ten minutes because we were crying so hard we couldn’t watch it. Crying for the dog who mourned his master, and crying for us because our lives had so drastically changed. She remembers the Orange Juice Incident, as she calls it, which was just Sophie throwing a huge tantrum at bedtime, and me doing the best I could to deal with it.
Eleven years and I have laid awake more nights than I can count, racked with worry and tears, wondering, Am I doing this right? Am I making the right decisions? Will she be okay?
Year Seven, and everything changes again. I meet someone new, someone who has the potential to be that male influence she so desperately seeks out, because despite my efforts, I can never be both Mom and Dad to her no matter how hard I tried. But with new comes change, and this year revealed more to me about how broken we both had been. For much of this year things felt bleak and hopeless, that I had failed and I was submerged, barely above water, dealing with as much change for myself as she was with new routines, personalities, new family members, and opportunities.
Eleven years is a long time to figure things out, but that is a fallacy because you can’t figure it all out when things keep changing. You just hang on and hope for the best and keep getting up every day to face it all again. Some days I am so proud I can’t even speak it. Other days I am so disappointed and crushed I wonder if I will be able to carry on. This child, my child, has been given to me for these eleven years, but she is not mine. She is herself and I have to let her fail even when it slowly kills me inside. I have to stand behind her with my arms outstretched when the very people she trusted and depended on let her fall.
I will catch my Sophie, even when I won’t buy her excuses. I will back her, even if her words cut into me. I will defend her when nobody else will, and I will stand up in the ways I feel are right, even when nobody else agrees with me. I will love her unconditionally when she trips, when she hurts, when she’s lost, and when she’s angry.
I was told, recently, by a person who used to matter greatly to me, that I will never be the parent this person was. It was meant to be an insult, but I took it as a compliment. I will never be the kind of person who abandons my child, disappoints her, changes on her, or leaves her to cry herself to sleep at night wondering why she’s not good enough for me. I will never insult her, put her down, make her feel less than. I will expect her to act right, show respect, take responsibility for her words and actions. I will refuse to put up with any bullshit from her, and will teach her to not take any bullshit from the people around her, even the ones who are supposed to care. I will never make her feel like she has to change herself for me to accept her.
Year eleven, and I tell her, my baby, my big girl, “Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you have to hide who you are.” So many times, she’s been asked to act a certain way, be a certain way, say this, don’t say this. Now my job, once again, is shifting so I can help her navigate this rocky path, as I have learned the hard lessons hard way and am better equipped to help her.
“What if I don’t know how to be who I am, Mom?” she asks. “If I make this choice, or that choice, the choices that make me different, will it change how you see me?”
When you were two, when you’re eleven, when you’re twenty, never, Sophie, will you change in my eyes. Because to me, you’ll always and forever be my perfectly imperfect child, the piece of my heart that is fiercer than me, more independent than me, smart, beautiful, talented, funny, frustrating, walking around in this world, blazing the path I was too afraid to blaze. No matter what age, what birthday, I will be able to look at your face and see the brilliant individual person you are and the tiny fierce baby you were and know that they are the very same person, and I will love your faults, and your fears, and your accomplishments and your failures equally.
For eleven years, my heart has had a body and a name, and it’s taken form in the world and I’ve been allowed to watch, and to teach, and to love this piece of my heart named Sophie, and even though it’s supposed to be her birthday, it’s the best gift I’ve ever been given.