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A letter to the baby of the family

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We need to have a talk.

It’s about something important. It’s about who your parents are. You've noticed, I'm sure, that sometimes I treat you differently than your older siblings. Well, there’s a reason for that. You're old enough now, and it’s time we talked about it.

You have a different mom than the other kids.

The mom who raised your brothers and sister did look a little like me, but she was thinner, and had better skin. She ran without tiring, fueled by energy, enthusiasm, and expectations. She could read important things like thermometers and medicine bottles without glasses, and could hear her children clearly when they hollered for her from the “upstairs” phone. Everything - from great grades and high achievements to missteps and failures - was kind of a big deal. She knew her kids’ homerooms and classmates and report cards and teachers like the back of her wrinkle-free hand; she did frequent stints as Room Mom and PTA president, mostly to stay "on the inside". She was heavily involved.

The trouble with all this was that she expected her kids – because she more or less expected herself – to be ever excellent and practically perfect. By the time the young mom was asking herself how this was sustainable, and how come it all felt so hard all the time, it was already a little too late; she was already falling apart a little.

As a result, you got a refurbished version of a mom, the kind you end up with after the first one breaks down but is still under warranty, and is returned to you with different insides, a whole new Motherboard. This one is notably more laid back, to be sure, but also CANNOT HEAR YOU when you call from your room and who pees her pants a little while fake-nice-shouting for you to PLEASE COME DOWNSTAIRS TO HAVE A CONVERSATION, for God's sake. And who is constantly interrupting you to ask, Is anyone else in this house hot??

This one knows that it is much too late in the school year to admit that she does not actually know what home room you are in, and keeps forgetting to log in to check your online report card. Though she claims publicly that this is intentional, and might loftily declare that she understands that your grades are yours and not hers, and that even a failing grade is less damaging than a mom failing to keep perspective, it is much more likely true that she just cannot remember her password.

The mom you got has been a back-at-work mom, while your siblings’ was the mostly stay-at-home variety, and this has cut both ways. On the good days, when I have been on my game, I have been proud to be providing a model of working motherhood: you have gotten to see your mom be a whole different person in the world, bearing the excitement of a new project, the pride of professional accomplishment. But you and I both know there have been other days, too, the ones when I just couldn’t quite keep all the plates spinning; it's been you who has so often been hit by the shards as they’ve come crashing to the floor.

Your working mom has been distracted, by emails on her phone or laptop, and has half-listened as you chatter about the day’s events, the group project, the upcoming field trip. I am pretty sure I have missed more of your school events than I missed for all three of the others combined. Worst have been the fall evenings that I have sped into the school parking lot, choking back tears because I am so late coming from work that it is getting dark; the sight of my baby girl walking to the car in the fading light with what looks like resignation has caused me to seriously consider tendering my own.

Your self-reliance on all things from lunches to laundry to teacher emails fills me with pride for a modern-day mothering job well done – until I belatedly discover that you are in over your head on something a girl might rightfully ask for help with, if that girl was not trying so very hard to be independent, not to bother her overextended and exhausted mother. These are the times that when I miss the young mom. When I wonder if she really did the better job.

I can only hope that it will matter more that you have a mom who is old enough to have learned – and to teach you – important things the younger mom did not yet know, truths which might come in handy for the girl you are and which will prove essential for the woman you will be.

• That perfectionism is just a fancy way of covering up the fear that you are not enough. Many of us know that we have this problem. Many more of us have no idea that we do.

• That though you may do great things, your worth is - and has always been and always will be, forever and ever, amen - in who you are, not in what you do.

• That being kind and a good friend is important, even and especially if the friend who needs care and kindness is yourself.

• That though people that you love and people that you despise may disappoint, and hurt, and even betray you in equal measure, they all really are just doing their best.

• That it is not your job to manage other people’s feelings, or expectations, nor to always be the bigger person, to always have to pick up the slack.

• That sometimes friendships - and people, too - fall away, and it is nobody's fault; it is just how it is. This truth may never stop breaking your heart, but it might keep the losses from breaking you.

• That courage is essential, perhaps the most essential thing, and that you must practice it often, so that you can cultivate and access that courage when the chips are down, to show up for yourself, take up your allotted space in the world, and allow that space to help you show up for others.

I am telling you this now with the hope that learning all this a lot earlier in life than your mother did might help keep you, once you are the young mom or perhaps even the older one, from falling apart a little, too.

And no, darling, I do not remember you telling me about the field trip. “Please,” I say, noting your familiar exasperation without comment, and putting my laptop to the side, “Please, tell me again.” And as you approach, prepared as always with the complete set of things we will need for this transaction – permission slip, checkbook, pen – I reflexively ask if you also might have thought to bring my reading glasses?

And, for God’s sake, is anyone else in this house hot??

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