“Do you think you’re a good mother?” he asked. It was a year after my husband had suddenly died, and my daughter was entering preschool. I had met with the psychologist at the school, just to let him in on what our family was going through, and he asked me this question.
I replied, “Yes, I think I’m a great mom.”
He looked surprised, “Usually this is the part where moms express all of their guilt and regrets.” But I really did think I was a great mom to my little girl.
In many ways, the simplicity of a child’s world lends itself well to a grieving mother. We visited the library weekly and spent hours snuggled together in bed with stacks of picture books, flipping through pages of rich paintings and themes of hope. On long afternoons we blew bubbles, built forts and made play dough. There was the company of imaginary friends, dolls, and fairies that lived in tiny doors I attached just above the baseboards of our home. There was the reliability of snack time — small bowls of Goldfish or pretzels. There was a lot of tickling and a lot of laughter.
I had created a play space for her in our living room. Her “art studio” was a table with supplies where she sat happily cutting and pasting. Beside her play kitchen, at the small table and chairs with a floral tablecloth, I often dined on the chopped, wooden fruit salads she served me. I am a homebody, and life at home was comfortably segmented into this smaller world.
Now, seven years later, we watch videos together of those vignettes. “I’m not cute anymore,” she says sadly. As a highly sensitive, hyper-aware child, she has been conflicted about the end of her early childhood. She wants to walk places by herself after school and be on pointe like the older girls in her ballet school, but she also misses the picture books, the crayons and the tickles.
I’m also conflicted about this whole growing-up thing. I miss her little voice and adoring gaze. I wonder too — as I watch the videos and hear my singsong voice saying funny things — if I smile as much these days. Do I sound as loving when I’m saying “Don’t forget your flute!” or “How was your math test?” as I did when I read to her or gave voices to her stuffed animals?
I think about that conversation with the preschool psychologist and how I’d answer today. I make more mistakes, partly because I’ve had more years to make them in, and partly because it’s much easier to lose your patience with a tween who is rolling her eyes at you than a 5-year-old who is dancing around in fairy wings. “Do you think you’re a good mom?” he’d asked. I can’t answer as confidently now.
Her schedule now takes her to school, student government meetings, Girl Scouts, ballet rehearsals and piano lessons. She brings me tests and permission slips to sign. She complains that everyone else has a phone. I am part emotion coach and part secretary. It used to be so artsy, and now it’s become so papery. It used to be more tactile, like the play dough I could hold in my hand, but now it’s harder to grasp, like the highs and lows of her changing moods. It used to be finger paints and crayons and markers that smelled like blue raspberry; now it’s her face in front of the blue light of the computer doing long division. Now, suddenly, there are boys who like her. We’re in uncharted territory.
When I was purchasing a home, the inspector said that every time he bought a house, he thought of himself as a first-time home buyer. “Just because you’ve owned a home doesn’t mean you’ve owned this particular home,” he said. It feels that way with parenting. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade now, but with each new stage, I’m a new mother again.
The transition from mother of a little girl to mom of a tween feels like the biggest transition we’ve undergone. The setting, the characters and the props all seem to be changing. What if I was just better at mothering a little girl? What does it even look like to be a good mom to a tween?
I remember how it felt to let go of the daily habit of nursing when she was about 18 months old. I gave myself pep talks then: I was her mother — I would still have my intuition. I would still understand her, still comfort her, still love her. Mothering, I already knew, was the most all-encompassing creative endeavor I’d ever undertaken, and I would find new tricks. I would find new ways of loving.
What will be the new ways that I love her now? I’m not sure, but I think I caught a glimpse when she used her own money to buy me fluorescent feather earrings from Claire’s for my 42nd birthday and I wore them up to the school to pick her up. She came out saying, “You wore them!” I think I see it when we talk about the social dynamics at school over dinner, and I say, “I remember what that was like,” and she answers hopefully, “You do? Really?” I’m pretty sure I felt it when we were both a little blue one Sunday and went for a two-mile walk together marveling at the fall leaves, then stopping for doughnuts on the way home and eating them in the car.
Today, it feels a little awkward to tickle my lanky 10-year-old. But sometimes I still do. I don’t necessarily talk or read in a singsong voice anymore, but there’s always music in our house, and we do still read books together almost every night. We smile at each other when Anne talks about her disdain for Gilbert. And I’ll tell you a secret: Sometimes at home, she still jumps up, right into my arms. Though I have no idea how much longer I will be able to do this, I can still balance her there, on my right hip.
Julia Cho is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. She blogs at studiesinhope.com.