I always knew I wanted to be a mother. More than that, I always knew I wanted to have a daughter. As I grew up, I made constant notes about what I would teach her. When I was very small, I would commit to memory small events, moments I thought were essential for when I was the mummy. I ferreted them away, cataloging them so that when I was the mummy, I could pass them along, make sure that my daughter was a bit better prepared for life than I had been. By the time I was 10, I had a surprisingly specific mental list.
1. How to make cookies
2. How to sing (I thought my father was the author of all of James Taylor's songs)
3. How to make quicksand in a pail, and to provide assorted dolls to slowly sink into said bucket
4. How to tie shoelaces (I myself never learned properly until I was in high school)
5. How to sew
6. How to remove a splinter
7. How to play the recorder, piano and any other instrument that might fall into your hands
8. How to be brave when faced with such obstacles as gigantic, freshly-paved driveways
9. How to enjoy getting really dirty, even if it means there are bugs or thorns involved (my mother was an expert at this)
10. How to approach potentially terrifying wild or dead animals
11. How to build a snow fort
12. How to use the monkey bars
These weren't always the most relevant things in my life, but they were the things I either got the most pleasure from or saw as important on some cosmic level.
During the next five years, I became an avid reader of sci-fi and fantasy and began to live a vivid private life. I wrote constantly when I wasn't reading, and at the same time began to develop a wide circle of friends. The whole while, in some small part of my brain, I was collecting a to-do list of things that I would have to teach my daughter whenever she was old enough… whoever she might be.
13. How to stand in the middle of a thunderstorm and feel the electricity in your soul with your bare feet on the soil
14. How to cry until your chest is empty of the painful feelings you thought would never leave
15. How to wrap presents so that they look magical
16. How to paint
17. How to wear clothes that make you feel like yourself
18. How to tell your friends that you disagree with them
19. How to write what you really think and make it more eloquent than your own confused mind
20. How to deal with your crazy, curly hair
21. How to find music, artists and authors to devote your attention to
22. How to try every new food, within reason
23. How to always be willing to fall in love, despite how teenagers are complete idiots
Again, I never mastered some of those skills… but I had this gut feeling that someday I would, that someday I would be an adult and all of those things that were so difficult for me at 13 would just somehow be better. And unlike my own mother, I would find the way to teach some of these invaluable skills to my own daughter.
During the rest of my teen years, the list grew slowly. I was busy thinking about things that were much more important — the present. I was so focused on my friends and my boyfriends and my wild, youthful experimentation that the idea of being a mother took a back burner. Still, more items made my little list.
24. How to tell your parents if something horrible has happened to you
25. How to keep horrible things from happening to you
26. How to let go of the horrible things that happen to you, once it's too late anyway
27. How to know the difference between a good idea and a bad idea
Then I went out into the world to seek my fortune. For many years, I felt that I had failed. I wandered from place to place and thing to thing and never finished anything. Over the last decade, only a few lessons were added to my list.
28. How to go somewhere, anywhere, with a purpose
29. How to stay connected to your roots, your faith and yourself
30. How to lose with dignity
And then I fell in love, and I got married, and fate granted me not one, not two, but three daughters. So far, I have taught them none of these things. They are still too young to even begin to understand, and I must confess that I am afraid of trying to teach them so much of what I believed they must learn.
My granny once told me a story about her own childhood. My great-grandmother grew up in a household where her own mother never cooked. All her life she wanted to make fudge with her mother, and was determined that when she grew up and had little girls, they would make fudge together. Well, she grew up and had two daughters, my granny and great-aunt, and they hated fudge. It wasn't until my own mother was born that she was finally able to live out that particular dream. But with her granddaughter, not her own children.
I have never been able to imagine a life where I didn't have a daughter, where she didn't love playing in the dirt, baking cookies, making music and learning about the world around her. I have never been able to imagine a life where I didn't create a child who was essentially like me. Who had the same needs that I had, who had the same desires that I had and who had the same pains that I had. I never doubted that I would become a mother, and that I would have a little girl, and that I would teach her all the things that I wished I had learned, loved and treasured.
I worry that part of why these lessons were so important to me was that I had to discover many of them for myself. I remember learning to make quicksand from a library book, and taking out that same book week after week, to keep making buckets of quicksand in which to slowly sink my Barbie dolls, and from which to rescue them heroically. I remember removing a splinter ALL BY MYSELF as my family was house hunting the year I was 5, feeling so full of pride I could burst, and having an understanding that showing the splinter to my parents and boasting of my accomplishment would somehow diminish it.
So, I maintain my list. I secretly treasure it, waiting for the days when I can pull it out and pass on my very important knowledge to my infinitely more important daughters. I know I will never be able to teach my children to use the monkey bars; I suck at that and always will. I know I am incapable of teaching them to avoid the horribleness of being a teenage girl. I know that I may be unable to teach them to play piano or paint or sing if they have no interest, and I will not force them. For the first time, I have doubts. I have daughters and doubts, and I had always believed that so long as I had one, the other must simply not exist.
I see myself more in my daughters every day, but in different ways. In one, I see my enthusiasm for learning and my constant need for approval and affection. In another, my willingness to put aside my fear and just get dirty. In all of them I see hints of something akin to my creative streak. I have a hard time picturing one of them standing beside me in the rain, with our eyes closed and our feet bare, while the thunder shakes the air around us. Another is difficult to imagine sitting still at the piano day after day, learning to make beautiful music.
Perhaps I have been granted three daughters so that I might actually be able to pass along my full list, divided though it may be. Perhaps we all come into the world with different needs, and different desires, and as completely different people. Perhaps we are all essentially the same person — and me and my great-grandmother and our need to pass along what we see is an important part of being a daughter or mother.
Or perhaps our duty is to protect our children from all of our own memories of the confusion of being young, being a human being, and having endless faith that one day we will be exactly who we want to be.
Lea Grover is a writer and toddler-wrangler. When she isn't cultivating an impressive dust bunny collection she waxes philosophic about raising interfaith children, life after cancer, and vegetarian cooking. In her free time she blogs at Becoming Super Mommy. Follow her on Facebook here.