The Art of Growing Up
[I write my daughter a letter, every year, on her birthday]
You are turning twelve. Did you know? Twelve is my absolute favourite number. Perhaps it’s the combination of 1+2, and the fact that the number itself is a multiple of 3…there’s just something about it that’s always remained important to me.
About a week before you were born, I was gigantic and round, and attending one of my best friend’s weddings. Your dad was beside me and we were giggling over the history in the room (there was a lot of history in that room). I was, by then, ready to reach in and fetch you myself, but everyone remained convinced that you were a few weeks off from being ready. I knew. I knew when, a few days later, I *had* to hang the curtains, finish unpacking everything for the flat we’d just moved (back) into, and closed the drawers in what would become your room, where you napped sometimes, but never actually slept a night. By the time we’d got you home from the hospital, and I was lying on the floor of your room while you had your very first nap in your cot, I knew we were going to be the co-sleeping, share-a-room, everyone-sleeps, type of family. Any ideas anyone had about sleep training, enforcing routines, doing what the books say, went right out the window the very second I saw your face.
After all, you were going to do it all anyway. As luck (and character) would have it, that’s how it has been every single day. You have done it, and done it all in your way. People used to say you were an “easy baby” and that’s true. You did all the things you were supposed to do, at the time when you were ready to, and you were carving your own way forward while I battled to catch my breath, never mind catch up.
Those baby days, however, ended a full decade ago. Since then, your ability to shine and commit yourself to doing things your way — your very own way — has become the manner of your life. You’ve shaped stories around your heart, and used your creative skills to imagine a world into life: the world of your own being.
The thirds of growing up
It’s a funny thing, the way they divvy up the art of growing up. From 0 to 6, you’re a baby and then a small kid. From 6 to 12, you’re a small kid becoming a big kid. From 12 to 18, you’re a big kid becoming an adult. It’s always (and yeah, there’s another reference to 3 here) amazed me how the art of growing up is somehow delineated in thirds.
The thing my heart was not prepared for was how quickly two-thirds of it would zoom by. I don’t believe anyone really is ready for it, just as people aren’t ever truly ready for much of what life brings their way. We do, however, try our best to be prepared but, there are no books available in the library entitled: “How to Raise Your Child Who Was Born on June, Just After Midnight, in a Storm, And This Book is For You.”
I know, because I’ve checked.
Instead, you and I have written that book. Sometimes, especially in the early days, it was me who had to take the pen. Nowadays, more and more, the writing is a task I have relinquished to you. Sometimes, I do that happily. Other times, I know you have to wrestle the pen away from me. I’m sorry for that — it’s just that I’m never quite sure when I am supposed to let go, but I do know that — in this third of growing up, I must let go more than ever before. I feel like this third makes the approach taken in the preceding thirds almost irrelevant. During that time, I had to teach you how to handle this one. That, somehow, you will have learnt all the things you need for this part, from the first two-thirds.
I am not certain that I’ve been able to teach you everything, because I am human and a mother. If I’ve skipped a lesson, tell me. If I was determinedly giving us a Mental Health Day on the day I was supposed to be teaching you how to boil an egg, tell me. It’s in this third of growing up, that you and I will learn where I went skew in the first two-thirds. I want you to know that I’m listening, and I want you to know that I am okay with being wrong.
The House That We Built
You and I are both all too aware of my failings. This is something that I’m grateful for, and somehow comforted by. You know the exact way to ask the question, and I know the exact way you’re trying to avoid asking it, so I make you ask it anyway. Hah.
The parts of this team that work like cogs clicking over each other are often so funnily brought to life, that I can only giggle and look at you with a grin. The way we’ll mouth words to each other and know exactly what the other person is saying, even when the room is so noisy our heads might explode. The way we can’t say certain things without collapsing into giggles that nobody else understands. The way we refuse to reference certain people, and the way we’ll always reference certain elements of the world. There is this framework of understanding, of circumstance, and of reference, that builds like a wooden structure. I realise it’s still being constructed every day, but on occasion, I look back and up to it with pride. I hope you do too, especially because life has so often tried to tear it down, and we’ve never once let it topple. We remain a team.
There’s an element to your character and personality that I can directly link to both myself and your father: your determination. That obstinacy is something that will guide you towards all the success in your life, and the ever-present knowledge that you tried your best, whatever the circumstances. It is — for me (and I am sure for him) — hilarious, annoying, and comforting, that this character trait has played itself out so well within you. Hilarious and annoying, because I most often feel like I’m talking to myself, and comforting because I know that you can do anything you set your mind towards. I know, because you do not set your mind to things without purpose, without keen consideration, and without ensuring that you would be able to give of your best. Just remember that, most often, we know how your brain ticks, because it ticks like ours do. I will admit that your ability to come up with a counter-argument for something is all your dad — he’s the very lateral thinker, while I am more of a checkbox type. Very often, your ability to be empathetic comes from your dad, not me. Remember how I said I know I have failings? That’s one of them, but lucky for you, what you inherited from your dad has prevented you from picking up my flaw in that department.
On that note, never apologise for your character, because it is hewn from genealogy and experience. You may not know this, but I see parts of my own dad in your personality, and so much of my own mom in your eyes. I wish you’d been able to know my dad for longer, but the parts of his character that are sewn into your own are immovably, remarkably, present.
In this last third of growing up, I want to encourage you to explore this character — the things that make you, you. I want you to dig around and find the elements of yourself you like, the things you want to change, and the things you want to learn more about. This is the time when it’s okay to write bad poetry, treasure every keepsake, paint the pictures, and express yourself in the way you dress, do things, act, and respond to the world. So long as you do no harm to yourself or others, and are willing to defend yourself from harm, there are no wrong answers in this final third of growing up. The first two-thirds were all about learning what to do in this world, while the last third — this one — is all about learning who you are.
I could tell you, a thousand times over, that I love you and I’m proud of you. I am certain you know it, but I am putting it here anyway too. There is nothing in this world that can stop me from being those things — nothing ever can.
While, as you grow away from the tree of childhood and reach towards the sky with your own branches, remember that I am in the trunk of the tree. In fact, as recently evidenced by your birthday celebrations, this trunk is filled with so many people — so many more than we ever expected or dreamt possible. Lean on the trunk, my darling — we are all listening. We are all immovable and ready. Let this family be your cushion against the world, and a trampoline from which to jump into it.
Go feel the sunshine warm your leaves, and turn your face to the sky to grow. But, always know, I am right here. Immutable, immovable, and ever always, the name you blurted out one funny weekday evening when I was convinced you would never say it: