At the end of this month, my younger daughter, Peony, will turn 5 and march out of preschool and into full-day kindergarten—milestones she’s both eagerly anticipating and dreading terribly. She’s at ease in the elementary school she'll be attending since her big sister has been there for three years already. At the same time, though, she knows stepping through its front doors as a student instead of a visitor will mean being away from me for most of each day, which is basically a 180-degree change from her entire life up until now.
Given the opportunity, Peony would crawl back into my womb and take up permanent residence. She enjoys me like most people enjoy air, which is to say, she gasps and sputters for dear life when it’s taken from her. She gets that she has a good thing going, and because her sweet little mind can't imagine anything good could come from living another way, she never wants to let go.
As the first day of school rapidly approaches, she’s become especially articulate about just how long she expects she and I will be together exactly as we are now.
“I am not going to be a growned-up,” she said. “I am going to stay with you forever.”
“Even when you’re grown up,” I told her, “you’ll still be my baby.”
“So you’ll still give me baths when I’m growned up?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
If a mom can't (tell her children) she'll always be around to care for them as she does now, then what's our function, really?
I imagine in three years or less she'll start slamming the bathroom door in my face when it’s time to shower, although at this moment, there’s no reason to make her nervous by saying eventually she’ll start doing more things for herself. Her still-developing brain simply cannot grasp how she’ll manage without her shadow, and while I generally don’t believe in sugar coating much for kids, in this case, me being a security blanket in perpetuity is a lie I’m all too happy to perpetuate.
My older daughter, Petunia, who is almost 8, never experienced the same level of separation anxiety as her little sister—then again, I'm pretty sure that's because, like a newborn baby, she still thinks we're essentially the same person. She only really knows a life in which I am in it full time, despite the fact that she's about to enter third grade and is continually experimenting with the depth of her independence (read: thinking she can go biking on the street without asking, which she totally cannot, by the way).
As she should, though, Petunia has the distinct comfort of knowing I am there for her 150 percent. While she's becoming increasingly aware, curious, excited and nervous about things like sleepovers, sleepaway camp and college dorms, she often reassures herself out loud that her personal picket fence (me) will always surround her like a bear hug. Even though we read it four years ago, she's never forgotten about the invisible string connecting us.
The invisible string comes in handy when the subject of death pops up. We've talked about how bodies don't work forever, and my daughters ask me questions about how you get to heaven ("Is there an elevator?" Peony asked) and how they'll recognize God. They also know I am not an exception to death, even if hopefully mine (and theirs) won't happen for a long time.
But when the girls ask me how long I'll care for them, I mean it when I say forever, even if it's not 100 percent truthful. I won't live forever, and I won't wipe their nose until my dying breath. But if a mom can't give her children the gift of guaranteed contentment in their formative years by telling them she'll always be around to care for them as she does now, then what's our function, really?
They'll push me away from their day-to-day routines soon enough, which is why, until then, I'm more than happy to reassure them with the lie that some things will never change. When they inevitably stop believing it because they feel strong enough to go out on their own, I'll still tell them I'll be there for them forever, because while their needs will change, their backstop never will.