I am someone who feels a lot of feelings. I am quick to cry, quick to laugh, quick to be honest about how I’m struggling or why I’m sad. My emotions are never guarded; I wouldn’t even know how to fake it if I tried.
So it came as quite a surprise nearly ten years ago when I gave birth to a human whom I lovingly say has a heart of stone, my fierce and fearless daughter Ella. While I am balling my eyes out watching Wonder at the town library, she is dying of embarrassment. While other kids are stressed about friends and school, she seems mostly oblivious to the anxieties of others.
My younger daughter will tell me she loves me ten times a day and call out to me in the middle of the night just because she desperately needs a hug, but with Ella, we would probably go days without touching at all if I didn’t initiate it. When her little sister tries to hug her, she looks like a cat just waiting for the chance to scratch her captor and make a run for it.
It has been a challenge to relate to a child so different from me, and I know that sometimes I push her too hard, forgetting that just because she doesn’t express her emotions as freely as I do doesn’t mean she doesn’t have them, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me, or her dad, or her little sister.
She just speaks a different love language. She won’t hug anyone in our house of her own volition, but she is quick to engage in a wrestling match with my husband. She rarely says I love you first but is quick to tell me I’m good at drawing or to compliment my hair. She, until recently, was afraid to take out her own earrings but trusted my hands to do it. She doesn’t want to snuggle, but every night she crawls into my bed and asks if we can listen to an audio book on my phone.
And in some ways, I envy her emotional make up. While I wish she were more empathetic, like me, I see the benefit of what she lacks. While fear and insecurity imprisoned me for most of my childhood, Ella’s lack of either of those traits has enriched her life. At nine years old, she can snowboard down a black diamond one day and flip across the gymnastics mat the next. She wears fake glasses to school every day and makes her own clothes and couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks. She is completely herself all the time, and by the time I was in fourth grade, I’d already learned how to change myself in order to be liked. I am often critical of her lack of empathy, but I’m starting to realize that I have much to learn from her about not letting my emotions rule my life. There must be a balance between the two of us, a place where we can care for others but not spend our whole lives burdened by what others think.
So much of parenting is an act of letting go of expectations, of accepting your children for who they are, not as reflections of you, but as their own unique expressions of humanity. Every day I am in awe of this athletic, creative, intelligent, strong girl that I made but who is not simply my creation, and I am learning to accept her for who she is, not who I imagined her to be. And as I do that, we grow closer together.
And sometimes, when we’re lying in bed, listening to a wildly inappropriate YA dystopian novel that I know my tough girl isn’t too sensitive to handle, I reach my hand out to her in the dark, and she takes it.