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3 Lessons Learned in the First 5 Years of Parenting

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FIVE YEARS
images by Tang Ming Tung via Getty Images

March is a strange time-space continuum in my world. In March, I celebrate my daughter's birthday. I also celebrate my mother's birthday, even though my mother has been gone for eight years. I spend much of the month gearing up and then winding down and reflecting on how family is always changing. It is always celebratory and bittersweet.

Living with children (and parenting them) has changed me immensely. When we learned that we were expecting a baby five years ago, we adjusted to the idea of becoming parents even though we had very low expectations of parenthood. I could never have imagined how I would react when I became a mom. My own mother always told me that being our mother was one of the best things she had ever done in her life, and before I had children, this thought depressed me. I knew that my mother had some regrets in her life (like not finishing college), and I felt obligated to avenge those regrets in her honor. I always thought that I would be a mother and even more.

Then I became a mother. My own mother had already been gone for two years, and in my earliest days of motherhood, struggling to fall in love with my daughter, I felt like I did not understand my mom at all. How could this new role be the best thing she had ever done? Those first days felt raw, unfinished, frayed -- and I felt like a curator, tending but not mothering. I actually didn't fall in love for a full eight weeks, but when I did, I discovered the deep and unyielding connection I would have with my daughter. There was this moment when I knew my daughter -- my mother's namesake -- really, truly saw me. She locked eyes and offered me a smile. And in that moment, I fell hard. I was breathless.

That moment could have been yesterday or last week as far as I am concerned. Every day since then, even in the toughest moments I have experienced, I see my daughters and I just revel. Every day they teach me something new, and as each day passes, I channel my own mother a little more. I feel myself saying things I know she said in both joy and frustration. I can see how my mother must have delighted in my sister and me when I see my daughters discovering and exploring, piecing together their own understanding of their lives and their world.

A few weeks ago, my older daughter turned 5. In five years, there are so many days when I feel like an expert parent and even more days when I still feel like a novice. The sense of confidence has little to do with my own skills and more to do with time of day, the phase of the moon and the barometric pressure. Children are predictably unpredictable.

This predictably unpredictable life is exhilarating and terrifying. And as we muddle through each day, I have made a few discoveries about parenthood and motherhood through the eyes of my children:

1. Surprises add to life.
All kids, including my own, surprise you. The other day my little daughter drew a picture, her very first real picture. My older daughter is delighted with her own "grown-up" writing, surprising me with new words she has learned to spell. They create expansive games of pretend family, complete with airplane trips and costumes. And sometimes, I find traces of their world in my coat pockets or in my work bag. Bead necklaces "made for you mommy" and tucked away for safekeeping, or "pictures of whole family" mixed in with my students' essays.

There is something touching and lovely about these discoveries. Not all of their surprises are as endearing, though. Like the evening when big sister had fallen hard on the wood floor having slipped in a puddle of liquid that I later discovered to be someone's potty accident. Hysterical, I could not decide which to attend to first, my crying child or the puddle of urine. Or last week one morning, little sister comes downstairs after an overnight nosebleed, face smeared with blood. She was a sight, but my ability to stay composed and figure out what had happened is a testament to my calmer moments when I show my expert parenting chops. Not every surprise is perfect or adorable, and that's just how life goes.

2. No discovery is too small.
From an early age, my daughters were talkers. Early talkers carry on lots of conversation about our world, including their discoveries. Every. little. discovery. It has been an endless game of 20 Questions since they each learned to talk. They see everything, hear everything, notice everything. And as they get older, every discovery is massive in their world. Though an incessant inquisition feels infuriating, often we get to see the world through their eyes, and understanding what makes sense to them is a treat. I learn when they learn, and I slow down to see the new things they see. And slowing down means being in the moment with them.

3. It is worth it to live big.
I often wonder how my children sustain the energy to be so dramatic because their emotions are expansive. Every achievement is a grand celebration and every frustration is a calamity. Their emotions are enormous, and their hearts are open wide. When they pitch the ultimate tantrum, I am dazzled at the fireworks. So many times, I have peeled them off the floor and carried them screaming in frustration to their rooms. And in those moments of pure anger at the world, I am struck with how committed they can be to their convictions. I hope they can harness their anger in the future, and use their fiery tempers for a good cause. Weathering their stormy tantrums is worth it, though, when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. Because as easily as they express sadness and frustration, they dole out affection by the bucketload. Their hyperbolic expressions of love, telling me that I am "their favoritest mommy in the whole world" or "the best mommy ever," make me weak in the knees.

Recently I realized that in addition to being a mother, I have sort of become my mother. I understand her now better than I ever have because I live with children.

And in quiet moments with my exuberant little girls, I regret ever thinking that becoming a mother was not enough.

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