01/22/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For My Daughter on Her 4th Birthday

Dear Zadie,

There are stories about mothers who will perform incredible feats of strength for their babies. I'm not saying that this is one of those tales, but I walked a good 20 minutes in a blizzard, yesterday, to get to a train that would ensure my presence on the morning of your 4th birthday. And even though I made the train, I somehow missed the connection to the second one I needed to catch, possibly because I was browsing Twitter on my phone and/or waiting at the wrong track. And then, I walked for another 20 minutes -- uphill in the snow -- on the other end to get to your Grandma's house where you were only supposed to spend one day because Mommy and Daddy needed some child care help. Only then there was a storm, and the guilt associated with you not having me there for your birthday motivated me to get my very out-of-shape 37-year-old self moving.

So here we are, in the apartment I grew up in, where you now insist that my childhood bedroom is your room. You actually tried to negotiate with me last night over where Daddy and I would sleep -- "Not in MY BED. On THE COUCH." For a preschooler, this setup is a dream come true: Grandma's house, fresh snow, an Elmo balloon, a new Elsa doll and Mommy and Daddy trapped. We definitely could come out on the other end feeling sorry that we didn't just stay home and toast you from afar. (Honestly, you'd have believed me if I told you your birthday was actually moved to Thursday because of snow, like how school is closed.)

But I made a promise to you, along with Daddy, that we would have a special birthday breakfast. I'm here because the moment you arrived, four years ago today, I vowed -- without even knowing it -- not to let you down. I will be here for you, always. Getting here in a foot or two of snow is only a tiny part of keeping that promise. Here's the rest of it.

I will remember that you are watching me. A few months ago, you developed an odd habit -- lying. I would ask you how school was. "Not fun!" you'd say. "Who did you play with?" I'd ask. "Nobody. None of my friends were there and I did not do anything at all." I knew this was untrue because I saw your friends at pickup and your teacher told us you did art that day, or yoga or French. (We live in Brooklyn, yes.) So, I finally asked why you were answering like this. "Because that's what you do, Mama," you said.

Oh, right. I do that. Sometimes I tell you you are NOT allowed to have any fun -- as a joke! It makes you laugh! Only now I need to explain sarcasm and how a different inflection is what makes something ironic as opposed to a lie. These are both probably good lessons to learn, but on my end, I've discovered that you are taking your cues from me and I better be aware of which ones I'm giving you.

I will listen. When you are not practicing to become a cynical little me, you tell stories. It only started in the past six months, this wonderful propensity for holding court, but when you will sit at the dinner table and tell me about how you got to be Calendar Helper or Song Kid at school, it feels as though I just got a call from a Carrie Mathison filling me in on a matter of national security.

I have noticed, however, that when I am doing something else, usually screen-related, I do not hear all of your stories. You get frustrated when this happens, understandably. I fear this might lead to fewer stories, and will do my best to avoid that end.

I will be patient. You have such strong opinions. No pants, only tights. No ponytails. More frustratingly, no movies. You are afraid of going to the movies. This makes me sad because I love the movies and the thought of getting to sit for 90 minutes in a dark theater watching a feminist Disney flick starring Kristen Bell instead of having to stay home and beg you not to put all of your stuffed animals on the living room floor sounds almost as good as a weekend at Canyon Ranch. So I keep trying to convince you that movies are not scary. But I think this is like potty training. Different kids reach different milestones at different times, and the party line on kids who need diapers longer is that nobody goes to college in Pampers. Likewise, I'm pretty sure nobody goes to middle school without wanting to see a movie. So, I will back off.

I will encourage you to do the things YOU want to do. Overscheduling kids is a noted epidemic. There are too many after-school classes and not enough time for free play. I know this. And yet, I honestly didn't think we'd fall victim to that pressure. Only now I have noticed that more of the parents I know are talking about what their 4-year-old is signed up for and I feel that twinge of Maybe we should be taking swim classes because you shouldn't have to be a "Guppy" when you could be a "Dolphin" and we could squeeze it in right after ballet. Also, planned activities are really useful for me, as your mom, when you're so little because what the heck else are we going to do?

But no. Stop. Let's embrace free time, figure out what to do with it together. There might be something magical in those moments.

I will not let my own stuff get in your way. Ideally, I shouldn't let my own stuff get in my way, but I've been working on that for a long time and it seems far more important to tackle it from this angle. You want to wear the same dress to this year's birthday party that you wore to last year's because that IS THE PARTY DRESS? Fine. I won't let my fear of what other people think stand in your way. You love the Barbie dolls that you got for gifts despite my disdain for all things unrealistically plastic? OK, then. Instead of banishing them to the bathtub, I will ride this one out, teach you to be proud of your own body in a way that a silly toy can't counteract. Like I said, it's my own stuff.

I will keep you safe without smothering you. It already seems like this will be a tough one. As an adult, the running joke between my mom and me has always been that if the forecast calls for rain, she'll call to make sure I have an umbrella. And that I'm planning to go home from work soon. (Home is only a short subway ride from my office.) Because god forbid I get wet? Now, I walk outside and feel slightly cold, and am immediately concerned that you are too. You go into your ballet class, and the door closes, leaving me in the parent waiting room and I panic that something terrible could happen in that brightly lit happy dance room. But I will not run in. I may even go grab coffee during that time.

If you decide to have your own baby, I will be there when you are tired, lost and scared. The most important thing I have learned these past four years is that I had no idea what parenthood entailed. I understand my mom in an entirely new light and am basically sorry for everything, except the years between age 6 and 9 (because I hear those aren't such a bad time).

For me, the beginning was especially jarring and I couldn't have done it without help. So, I do hope that one day I can pick you up off the floor, show you that this can be done -- and remind both of us that I did it all pretty well.



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