Today is your first day of kindergarten. I honestly can’t believe it. Almost six years ago you knocked my planet into a new orbit, dented my universe, and changed me forever. You will always be the person who made me into a mother, and for that I can’t articulate my gratitude. In those dark days after you were born (I can wholeheartedly say that having a baby on the very day the clock go back is not ideal timing) I can’t remember who cried more, this new mother or her newborn, and I can’t really tell which of us had colic, but I do know that the plates inside of me were shifting in a very fundamental way. I have a lot of guilt and emotion about how those first weeks unfolded, but I’m not ultimately sure I would change them: we laid down some tracks that I’m glad we are on now, forged an alloy that has proven to be very strong. (I am reading a book about railroads and metal and it’s given me a host of new images and metaphors that I’m loving).
You emerged into the world screaming and you haven’t stopped making your opinions known. I adore your openness, your curiosity, your eagerness to understand the world around you. You are generally outgoing, friendly, and quick to warm up. You approach the world with an open mind and open arms, ready to throw yourself into any experience and to greet any person with enthusiasm. You are as fond of the nice man at Starbucks as you are of your teachers, though you have very definite favorites: your grandparents and your friend Clio are at the top of your list right now.
Your physical fearlessness trumps even your emotional openness. You approach a physical challenge with confidence and coordination. You are full of energy and love to push yourself – this summer’s accomplishment was riding your bike without training wheels. When you tried to ride the bike two-wheeled last summer you fell off and quickly asked for your training wheels back. This summer you asked to try again (I deliberately did not bring it up) and the minute you had the bike to yourself you took off down the street without looking back. As cliched as it is, that is a formative moment for me – I remember my Dad running behind me on a gravel driveway in France and realizing suddenly that he had let go and that I was on my own … this time it was I who was the parent standing, watching you bike away.
You are desperate to learn to read and the gusto with which you apply yourself to this effort reminds me of when you decided you wanted to learn to write your name. Determined, you practiced and practiced, scrawling spidery “R”s that looked like jellyfish and clenching the tip of your tongue between your lips. You were so little and so determined; the same sense of absolute commitment permeates our attempts with the beginning readers today. You sound out words (wow, I did not remember how very hard that is) and try and try, sometimes guessing blindly (“Sam” – “sandwich? Sarah? someday?”) but often actually getting to the word, slowly and with great pain. The satisfaction that takes over your face when you get a word right is visible, your delight tangible.
You want so, so desperately to be “good,” to be liked, to play by the rules – the degree to which I identify with these desires is so close as to be painful for me. I watch you oscillate between the innocence of not knowing about rules, expectations, and norms, to suddenly being aware of them; sometimes the impact is like watching your wings be clipped, watching your spirit shrink. I wish I could keep you in a world where all that matters is your whim and the comfort of those around you, wish I could protect you from the onerous cloak of expectation and performance that the world is slowly pulling around your shoulders. And as much as I want to protect you from it, I know I’m pulling one of the corners. Ack! The conflicts of parenting. I want to celebrate your free spirit, your joy at devil-may-care adventure, your unbridled enjoyment of your own physical self and what it can do. But I also know I need to help you live within the world, and I know what it is to feel a deep need for approval.
I adore you, Grace Eldredge Russell. I love watching you venture out into the world, love seeing that curious half-smile on your face as you hang back, assessing a situation quickly before plunging into it. The way you peer over the edge of the diving board for a moment before looking up, shaking your head quickly as if to rid yourself of anxiety the way a dog shakes off water, and then closing your eyes and cannonballing into the pool. The way you approach a wall of backpacks at Target and say to me, with no small amount of resignation but also no attempt to change my mind, “I guess no Hannah Montana or High School Musical, right, Mum?” The way you want to be Wonder Woman for Halloween and the way you rejected an all-girl party because you still think it’s fun to play with everyone in your class.
I’ve written a lot about your fierce independence and how much I admire and encourage it. I also, truth be told, love the moments when you still need me. Of course I want you to bike away from me, skilled and confident on your two-wheeler. But I also like when the only thing that makes a bruised knee better is my kiss, or when the middle of the night nightmare is soothed only by my special good-dream-head-rub. I realize what a tremendous blessing it is to be aggravated by your intense, constant need for my attention. The call to “please slow down, Mummy – you know if the police officer notices you are going too fast it will take a long time” is both super annoying and absolutely correct. There is so much that you do masterfully for yourself now, but you still want me to wash your hair for you, need me to tie your shoes, and hold your hand up instinctively for mine as we cross a parking lot.
I admire your wide-open attitude about your own life. Your openness to all kinds of friends, diverse in age, race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic background. It is my devout hope that you can maintain this. I am prouder than you can imagine when you announce that when you grow up you want to be, “An Olympic horseback rider, a doctor, and a mummy.” That’s a good trio, in my book. You make me laugh and you make me cry every single day. Your very existence marks life’s passage in a viscerally bittersweet way, but how would I know where I am without you to show me? I know I am sad sometimes, and when you ask me, “Mummy, why are you crying?” I always wish I could be a better, happier, more constant mother for you. I simply can’t, and I guess what I am teaching you there is that it is useless to fight certain inalienable parts of who we are.
I’ll pick you up today at 3 and will hear all about your first day of kindergarten. It’s equally as easy to remember October 2002 as it is to flash forward and imagine the day you graduate from high school. You and I feel perched on a fulcrum here, launching into Real Life, as you become more and more who you are each day. It is my honor to watch you unfold, Gracie, and I honestly believe my only task in life is to keep you alive and fed and loved. I think the seeds of who you will be – who you already are – were in you the day you were born, and the best thing I can do is stand back and let you grow. I hope I can demonstrate to you that there isn’t much in life that matters more than finding people you respect, work you love, and being as true to both of those as you can (and I’m not saying I’ve accomplished either, just that I’m engaged in the effort to do so). But ultimately I know I am neither your keeper nor your source; I am a passage you come through on your way to the Great Wide Open. On this day I feel distinctly privileged about that.
I love you. No matter what.