"I'm Especially Proud When You're At Your Worst": A Letter To My Teenage Daughter

My job is not to hold you tightly to me, but to let you go out into the world.

Dear Emilia,

When you were a baby, I sometimes imagined how I would feel as you grew up. I pictured myself tearfully ushering you into womanhood, full of nostalgia for your chubby cheeks and baby curls. I assumed that I would always be as achingly attached to and as fiercely protective of you as I was then.

I was wrong.

You see, when you were a tiny little thing, my love for you was almost crushing in its intensity. I fought to stay pregnant with you, against all of the terrible odds that I was given, and after you were born I fought for you at at home with tiny bottles and syringes, and in the hospital with respiratory infections and more ugly odds. You made it through without so much as a single scar, but my heart was shredded, stitched up, and shredded some more.

That was a long time ago, though. You're 15 years old now. You're not a little girl anymore—even though you wish you were, just a little bit.

Now, your reality is Snapchat, Starbucks, and drug store makeup. You fight with your brother as often and as easily as breathing, and sometimes you hate me, too. You take the city bus and manage your own homework, and you even care for other people's children. Adulthood seems so close and you wish it would hurry up and start already, but I can see how far off it still is.

You've told me before that I don't watch over you enough; I don't have high enough expectations of you. But what I've never told you is that I have absolutely no expectations for what you do with your life because I simply do not care. What I care about, and what I devote myself to in ways you may never recognize, is who you are. I care about how you feel about yourself, Emilia, and how you make others feel. I care about nurturing your confidence and sense of self, while teaching you to value and nurture others, too. I care about raising you to be a strong, fulfilled, and secure woman who does no harm but takes no shit.

This isn't to say that I'm not proud of the things you do. But I am not wedded to any one idea of your future, and it makes no difference to me whether you go to an Ivy League college, a state college, or no college at all. I don't lay awake at night wondering whether you'll be a mother of five or a mother of none, or even whether you'll be an artist, an actress, or an attorney. Instead, I am proud of the trials, the tribulations, and the seemingly impossible feats that you sometimes manage to pull off. Not because those are my dreams for you, but simply because they were yours—for at least a little while.

As paradoxical as it may seem, I am especially proud of you when you are at your worst. In those dark moments, when you rage and churn and feel like no one cares, I struggle to keep my cool, too—but I also understand that this separation from me is a natural and even healthy part of your development. I'm not your friend and I'm not in absolute control of your life anymore, and that's as weird for me as it is for you. But, as much of an asshole as you can be, it is these missteps and shaky steps toward independence that will lead you on your path to adulthood. Parenting you through these rocky years has been uncomfortable at best, and it has forced me to re-evaluate my own beliefs and ideas about the world on a daily basis. You have made me a better woman and a better mother not in spite of these challenges, but because of them.

Although your teen years are brief, what you do now will leave an imprint on the woman you will become. Because of that, you might think that I worry about drugs, alcohol, or sex. I was a teen mother, and maybe you think that I'm afraid that you will be, too. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What life has taught me is that success comes in many forms. And you will succeed plenty in your life. But you will also fail. And, the more you fail, the more you will know that you are taking risks, following your dreams, and refusing to settle for the simple, safe trappings of success. If I want anything for you, Emilia, it is never to settle. It is to grasp at life with both hands and wring every last bit of joy out of it that you can; it is to work as hard as your dreams are big; and it is to have the courage to be vulnerable and to love yourself without reservation. It is to get the shit kicked out of you by life and love, dust yourself off, and jump right back in.

I am no longer crushed by the overwhelming need to keep you close because your safety is no longer my primary parenting goal. What is even more important now is giving you the autonomy and independence you need to grow into a strong and capable adult. My job is not to hold you tightly to me, but to let you go out into the world and stumble and fall—while I'm still here to help you pick up the pieces.

Sometimes, you accuse me of babying your little sisters. You hear me tell them that they will always be my babies, and you shake your head at me. But what you don't know is that I baby them because I have learned that these days are fleeting; they are the last babies whose necks I will kiss in just the right spot and who will tuck their feet under my legs as we sleep. I baby them because I know that soon they, like you, won't be my babies at all. I will be too busy raising them then to think much about these days, and even when I do, the memories will be faded and muted, and nothing at all like the passion and intensity of my feelings today. So I tell myself and them that things will never change, because this time around I know just how much they will.

But by then, I will not want them to be my babies, and they won't want to be, either. And that, Emilia, is exactly how it should be.

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