real life

A message to my daughter: 'I can no longer protect you.'

Today you turned 18.

I lay in bed last night and didn’t sleep. I wrestled with memory and hope and fear and excitement and terror.

Just over 18 years ago your father and I were living in a one-room shack, 10 miles outside of Palmer, a small town in Alaska. The shack sat in the middle of a crop of lucerne.  There was no power and no running water.

Outside the window the fireweed was in flower. We had been in Alaska four months, climbing, hiking, kayaking, travelling, and using this tiny shack as our base. Summer was fading, fall approaching, and there was a pulsing urgency in the air, everything, me included, was pregnant.

Each evening I walked through the lucerne. There, my horizon hemmed by rearing mountains, I tried to reconcile myself to the thrumming life inside me.

Back in Australia, and you arrived with the same urgency as an Alaskan fall. The mystery of you was revealed as soon as you were lifted onto my belly and we locked eyes. I was 24 years old, out of step with my world, unsure of my career, but consumed by you.

"You arrived with the same urgency as an Alaskan fall." Image supplied.

Now, 18 years later and I am still as unsure about being a mother as I was when you were born. Your coming of age has taken me by surprise. I would even go as so far as saying I’m not ready. But you’re ready and this is what pulls me up.

When you were tiny I could never imagine you crawling and when you were crawling I could never imagine you walking and the same with talking and reading and spelling and going to school and every small milestone you effortlessly achieved – all of those I couldn’t imagine. And now you are 18 and I can’t imagine it. At least I’m consistent.

How did you do that?

It’s no wonder I can’t sleep. Memories churn. You sitting on my lap, my swollen belly, pregnant with your brother making it hard for you to fit. Your shaking five-year old weight still heavy. The grief of you. Your father dead.

When you were eight, we negotiated (and I say negotiated as we were travelling with a three year old) our way across the UK, France and Italy. The maturity of you. At 14, a move from our home, family and friends across Bass Strait to a new life in Tasmania. Again, you found your way.

Memories churn. You sitting on my lap, my swollen belly, pregnant with your brother making it hard for you to fit. Your shaking five-year old weight still heavy. Image suppplied.

Why should I fear for your 18-year-old self?

Motherhood. The sudden, heated, animalistic compulsion to protect. Always, your safety, your wellbeing, the things you needed – ponies and puppies and wide open spaces and books and talking and things to draw - all those thing I can give you, have given you.

But now you are 18 and I can no longer protect you.

This is important and necessary. You make the choices. The mistakes and the successes are yours. And that’s the terror. I have to stand here and let you find your way. And this could mean, probably means, watching you fail.

You may make the wrong choices. But what I want to brand on you, what I want to sear into your flesh, is to make the wrong choices for the right reasons. Don’t choose to do something because it’s expected of you. Don’t be a hideous ‘stat’, some notch on a boy’s bedpost. Don’t be forced into doing or being something you are not.


You send me photos of your art and it’s about the boundaries of life and death. You are questioning where life begins and ends. You question mystery. What will you find? You send sketches of skeletons drawn with a surgeon’s eye, out of them life springs – at the end of the bones of a kangaroo’s paw is a eucalyptus flower, out of a horse’s leg rises a tree.

I watch as you navigate this next stage of your life. I’m envious of the choices ahead of you, though not in the slightest bit jealous as you negotiate friendships and first loves and exams and college applications.

Maggie's daughter. Image supplied.

You turning 18 has unsettled me. It ushers in a new phase of our relationship – one I embrace, of increasing independence, but one too that displaces me. For through circumstance and adventure we have perhaps shared more moments of grief and horror than other mothers and daughters. Now I must stand back, and don’t get me wrong, I want to, but it’s hard. My heart, it trembles. Have I taught you well? Or, have I taught you well enough? Are the roots we’ve dug together, deep enough, so when life turns its torch on you and I’m not there, will you stay strong? I know the answer to this and yet I must let you find this for yourself.

I want you never to lose sight of the small girl who seeks beauty. I want you to create a world around you that reflects this. I want you to fall in love with someone who sees in you a great mystery, feels fathomless desire when they look into your ancient blue eyes.

I want, I want, I want for you all of life’s pleasures and none of the pain. This is impossible. You turning 18 is a grief for me. Is that wrong? It’s a painful, exquisite moment. A moment that is worthy of a great trek, a moment where we should withdraw from it all, where we should cover ourselves in mud, where we should initiate you into the wonders of being a woman. None of this is possible in our sterile tame society. All the hopes for you I lay here and say go find your life.

Take what I’ve given you and make it yours and not mine. Learn from my mistakes, make your own in the knowledge they make us who we are.

Maggie's daughter. Image supplied.

I can’t help but think back to the Alaskan mountain I was climbing when I first grappled with the knowledge of you just over 18 years ago. It was a world of risk, raw beauty and physical challenge. Motherhood is like climbing a mountain, harder in fact. You can only control a certain amount. You can have the right equipment, you can be fit and the weather can be with you, but all of these things can change in a moment and you are left with your wits and your intuition.

The fear I grapple with on the cusp of your 18th year is about me; and not you.  I am THAT mother.  The one with horribly high expectations. I’m also the mother who is astounded when you do things so well. My jaw drops at your creativity, your energy, your tenacity, your character. Please my darling, keep seeking the mystery. And I will put my fear aside and cheer you on.

Listen to Debrief Daily's podcast on Mother-Daughter relationships below.

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