My daughter didn’t come with an owner’s manual. I know no children do. But there have been times when I really wished mine had. There have been times when I’ve been absolutely certain I was completely screwing it all up.
I know that most parents have felt at one time or another like I do — afloat in a vast sea of advice, questions, decisions, and perceptions — always on the brink of complete and utter parental failure. I realize that raising little humans is not a simple task for anyone. But there were years when I looked around me at all the other parents and all the other little girls and felt certain that they had some kind of knowledge and expertise that I just missed somehow, somewhere along the way to motherhood.
Melanie is my second child and my first daughter. I was and still am overjoyed to have another female in the house. She is excellent company — literate and creative and insightful at a rather mature 11 years old. I am proud of her every day and feel blessed that she has grown to be the confident, gracious, young lady that she is. But it wasn’t always this comfortable for me.
Melanie has always had a mind of her own. She is a strong-willed and stubborn child, marching to the beat of her own very unique drum. I first began to doubt my parenting aptitude when she became old enough to want to choose her own clothes. She was probably three years old, and I wanted desperately for her to go to preschool in the same type of adorable, matching, ultra-girly outfits that her classmates wore.
I bought them for her. I hung them with love in her closet and folded them neatly into her dresser drawers. I found matching shoes and headbands and waited eagerly to dress her up like a little doll before school each day. But each day very quickly became a battle. She wanted nothing to do with my adorable clothes. She wanted to wear her pink tutu over her green pants and then top that mess off with the same worn-out, multi-colored rain boots she wore to play outside in the mud. She definitely didn’t want the headbands I’d bought her.
She wanted a ponytail, worn in the same exact way every day without fail. She tore off every outfit I put on her and cried when I made her put it back on. I was frustrated and confused, and couldn’t understand why all the other little girls at preschool loved their dresses and their matching stockings and little white shoes with buckles.
Her insistence on wearing what she wanted continued into elementary school, and I finally conceded and nervously sent her off into the world in mismatched clothes. I jokingly called her Pippi Longstocking while watching her run off with friends at the entrance to the school, adorned in knee-high striped socks over her jeans, high-topped Converse sneakers, and one of three increasingly worn-out shirts that she wore exclusively.
I received advice from well-meaning friends such as, “You’re the adult, make her dress appropriately.” I worried. When I took Melanie to play soccer at age five (at the advice of a well-meaning neighbor), again I bought all the pink accessories I could possibly find to support her new activity. I excitedly prepped her for all the great fun she was about to have with new friends, learning something new, joining a team.
On the day she and I set out with the neighbor and her daughter to attend the first practice, Melanie was already having her doubts. I knew it. I could see the concern on her face when we talked in the car about how she would get to kick the pink soccer ball and run around outside with lots of other kids her age.
She wasn’t sold, and looking back, I shouldn’t have been trying so hard to sell her. As it turned out, soccer wasn’t Melanie’s thing at all. After another little soccer player stole Melanie’s pink soccer ball on the field, she refused to play at all.
I followed my well-meaning neighbor’s advice and tried to convince her — even force her — to get back on the field. I was mortified that she sat silently on the sideline and refused to even participate. I literally picked her up and ran frantically around the field with her on my hip to try to engage her in something she wanted nothing to do with.
It wasn’t until about four unsuccessful practices had passed that I relented and asked her if she’d like to try something else instead. I could see the relief and gratitude in her little blue eyes as she nodded an emphatic yes. My well-meaning neighbor told me I was allowing my child to become a quitter. I felt pangs of self-doubt and shame. I worried. Now, these are only two examples, and they might seem like small hurdles.
They are probably challenges that a ton of parents have dealt with. I know that. But for me, they felt like huge parental failures. I had been comparing my daughter to other little girls without realizing how ridiculous that was. I had been allowing other parents to tell me what was best for my daughter, or what I should be doing as a parent to ensure her “success” in life.
I had been expecting her to fit some invisible and impossible mold, and basing my worth as a mother on how she measured up. And it turned out that Melanie wasn’t doing the same thing at all. In fact, she was oblivious to the fact that she appeared different, uncooperative, and even difficult.
She was happy. She was comfortable in the crazy clothes she chose. She was expressing her individuality at a very young age, and fighting me to allow her to do so. She didn’t like soccer (or several other activities, it turned out), but we learned that she’s an amazing artist, loves acrobatics, and is a pretty aggressive field hockey player.
She knew all along — with that beautiful childish clarity that we adults seem to lose somewhere in adolescence — what she needed to be happy. She was simply being genuinely Melanie. I started watching her enter the school with amusement and appreciation, admiring her wild outfits and effortless self-confidence, and I finally understood that THAT was what I should be nurturing. Her individuality was a gift and strength, and nothing to be concerned about or controlled.
I began to relax and watch Melanie grow up with joy, valuing the moments we had together rather than worrying about striving for some unrealistic ideal that would do nothing to help her grow. I stopped listening to other parents. I began to focus on teaching her about kindness and empathy, and encouraging her to find the activities that best matched her talents and interests rather than pushing her into sports or hobbies that my friends’ children were involved in. I let Melanie lead the way (with loving guidance, of course).
The result so far? Melanie is now in sixth grade, surrounded by tween hormones and girl drama that lands many of her friends in the guidance office at school, sends others home in tears on a regular basis, or worse. And my little mismatched, break-the-mold daughter is somehow managing to remain outside of most of it. I won’t say she’s entirely immune to the drama, but she is certainly navigating it better than many girls her age.
Her positive attitude and unfaltering self-confidence astound me on a daily basis. She is engaged in her school work, excited about life, and is a leader in many ways. She knows who she is, and she has the freedom to be that person. I no longer question her clothing choices, even if they don’t match.
I allow her to make decisions for herself concerning her activities and pursuits. I have grown to respect the innate ability children have for knowing what they need. Melanie’s ability to be her true self without fear of judgment has inspired me to follow suit in my own life. Her authenticity is a model I now aspire to. And I no longer wish for an owner’s manual for her — mainly because I realize Melanie is owned by no one, not even me.
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