You are seven years old now. When I look back at your first grade school picture, I can’t believe how different you look. Some years we can see subtle changes when we line up your photos, but this year you almost look like a different girl. Your baby teeth are gone; your face is looking more grown-up. But your insides are changing, too. Our relationship is evolving, and not always in the most comfortable ways.
Sometimes it is hard to be your mother.
But it’s not because I don’t love you. It’s because you are so much like me. I am so proud when I see the qualities I cherish in myself shining through you; I love that you enjoy reading, I am so proud when I hear you sing, and it is so gratifying to read your creative writing. You are (sigh) a people-pleaser like me. I love how compassionate you are, and your natural gift of empathy is clear to anyone who spends time with you. You are self-aware, and you are tuned into the emotional climate and responses of others. It is a gift.
I smile whenever I see your excitement at making plans; you dream big, and you prepare for vacations, performances, special occasions, and holidays with unbridled enthusiasm and fervor. (Of course, like me, this causes you great disappointment when things don’t go the way you had planned.) Like your mother, you revel in the anticipation, the list-making, and the organization perhaps even more than the actual event.
And in spite of these wonderful qualities of yours that you have likely inherited from me, I still find myself triggered by you on a regular basis. You are often demanding, self-absorbed, and overly sensitive. The slightest disappointment will send you spiraling into a fit of tears, or a prolonged pouting session, or an unpleasant outburst. Though you are extremely aware of the feelings and moods of those around you, you are often oblivious to your surroundings and need frequent reminders to take care of your belongings and consider how your choices affect others.
I find myself getting so frustrated, even disgusted, in these moments, but it’s not because I can’t understand them. I get it. Like you, I spend so much time lost in my own head that I frequently neglect my surroundings and belongings. I too am highly sensitive, prone to overreaction, self-involved, and emotionally demanding. I am one of those women who are referred to as “high-maintenance,” and I’m sorry to inform you that you probably will be, too.
When I respond with irritation or anger to a temper tantrum or perceived carelessness on your part, it is because these are the traits that I possess that make me most ashamed. They are parts of me that I know cause others to feel uncomfortable or inconvenienced. Yet they are deeply rooted aspects of my personality, and I experience great inward frustration knowing that I cannot wipe them out. On the one hand, I am proud of qualities that make me unique, but on the other hand, I wish I could be more laid-back, less emotional. That, my dear, is what we call cognitive dissonance.
The fact that I can relate to the root of your frustrations and the depth of your needs should make me more compassionate, but often, the opposite occurs. I have tried to subconsciously banish these undesirable traits from my own being (unsuccessfully, I might add) and it leaves me with a lack of patience and tolerance when I see these “ugly” parts of myself in you. Please forgive me. I need to remember more often that I am parenting you, not attempting to self-correct my own faults.
I’m sure that you sometimes feel that we love your sister more than we love you. This is not true, not even the slightest bit true. Your sister, at age two, is still in a stage where she is so physically reliant on me that in some ways, it is easier to love her. She does not challenge me, or talk back to me; she has not yet adopted the defiant and sassy attitude that is so developmentally appropriate for your age. And she has one more thing working in her favor- she has the benefit of a more experienced mother.
Potty-training, naptime struggles, and refusal to eat dinner no longer throw me for a loop the way that they did when you were a toddler. I have learned. What lies ahead is more complex and requires more emotional resources. The time-outs, the toileting, and the tiny tantrums? I’ve already been there, and while they are irritating at times, they do not cause me to question my maternal competence as they did when you were that age.
That hardly seems fair, does it? You and I- we learned together. You are still teaching me. Perhaps the first-born gets the worst deal, and certainly being a carbon copy of your mother adds to the challenge. Who knows if your sister will grow up to be like us, or perhaps she will be less uptight and require minimal emotional upkeep. Sort of like Daddy.
No matter how upset I get when you unknowingly hold up a mirror and reflect some of my least flattering attributes, no matter how annoyed I get when your sensitive temperament derails an otherwise smooth day, please know that I understand you. At your deepest, darkest part– a place you may not even be aware of yet– I know you. I see you. I will try to be a better navigator for this disposition you and I share.
And please remember- you and I are two of a kind. You will always be my first child; it was you who showed me how far my heart could stretch. It was you and I who started this family- it was just the two of us before there was Daddy and before there was Sophie. When you were in preschool, I used to take your hand and press it to my heart, and place my own hand on your heart, repeating the words, “I love you- no matter what.” On the days when you question whether that is true, let me repeat it again once more- I love you. No matter what.