I look at them and I marvel at their innocence. They live in the present, enthusiastically responding to the stimulus of this moment. I can say one short phrase, and Short-pants eyes’ brighten and she runs upstairs with glee to get her notebook and pens to draw a picture that corresponds. On her way up the stairs, Buddy-roo finds a toy she left there this morning and forgets why she was following her sister to begin with, folding into the fascination of that thing in front of her now. They are vibrant beings, open-minded and open-hearted, eager to please, eager to learn what the world is about. They are natural and not yet self-conscious. They act on impulse and without editing. This is exactly how they should be.
It makes me wonder: What will they become? And how on earth will they get there in one piece?
I don’t think of myself as a worrywart, and any of you who knew me in my younger years could easily recall to me my relatively cavalier level of risk-taking. That I escaped my teenage and college years – even my twenties – without being assaulted or abducted is beyond me. My father used to say that I was naïve enough to get myself in ridiculous situations but clever enough to get myself out of them. I’d shrug and think to myself, what’s life for, anyway? Sitting around on the back porch playing it safe?
Now I nod my head heavenward at both my parents and with profound understanding. These two little girls in my charge have so much life ahead of them, so many interesting, incredible experiences and adventures and opportunities. So much to learn. So much to do.
So much that could go wrong.
Rainy days with strangers offering them a lift in a dry car. Candy anyone? Mean-spirited classmates. Sloppy, arrogant boys in stone-washed jeans who’ll break their hearts and lie to them in hopes of physical affection. Will they do well in school, so that later they can more choices in their lives? If we push them too hard, there’s too much pressure; if we’re too lax, then we don’t give them enough of a nudge to inspire them take on life’s challenges. When will they decide to give up their virginity and how and with whom and will it be lovely and respectful or will it be stolen from them with deceit? Will they resist the temptation to try drugs? Will they ignore our advice and try anyway? If so, will it be just a brief sampling or occasional recreational treat? Or will they fall into the habit and join another culture that we’d hoped to help them avoid? Will they make many stupid mistakes? Will they recover from them? Will they be cool enough not to get picked on, but not so cool that they’re intolerable to live with? Will they grow to resent us? Will they be nice to us? Will they be nice to each other? Will they succeed? Will they find love? Will they be happy?
A friend whom I admire for her very zen, chill attitude wrote to me about her 27-year old son who went hiking with her just-beyond-teenage son and together they drank a bottle of wine and the oldest one came down with heat stroke. She received a semi-coherent call from his cell-phone; he was overheated and unable to sweat, shaking, confused. Fortunately friendly locals and other hikers helped until the help she sent could arrive. In the end, she wrote, “Everyone is all ‘phew, disaster averted, guess they learned their lesson,’ etc. But me, I’m still shaken.” She went on:
“The next night there was a tremendous thunderstorm, a real deluge with cracking thunder, and I woke up imagining him still lost on the mountain in the rain, and realized that although my babies were all okay, the whole notion of keeping them safe is hopeless.”
Does this mean it never ends, the worry, the gnawing feeling that these little creatures we introduced to the world will always need a little looking after? Motherhood – I suppose parenthood – is a perpetual lesson in surrendering, isn’t it? Surrendering to the 24/7 experience, to the inextricable commitment, a pact for forever that began the moment sperm met egg, a relentless job that is as depleting as it is fulfilling (and still not carbon neutral). I know I must surrender to the fact that ultimately I will have done all that I can possibly do for them: offering guidance and guidelines, steering them toward the good things I was steered toward. Once the foundation is set, they will build the walls and the roof of their lives they way they choose. Maybe they’ll follow our design, if we model it well. Maybe not. Ultimately, it is not my life they are living; each has her own life – to thrive in, to fail in, gloriously – to live.
They are not mine to keep. They are merely guests in my life.
And still. I worry.