It’s midnight in Minnesota and my four-year-old daughter can’t sleep. I thought my day was almost done, but my daughter has a lesson to teach me about what showing up as a parent really means. We are visiting the family lake cabin for a much-needed vacation. We’d spent four hours in the morning packing and getting to the airport, three hours on the plane, two hours with family at my in-laws, and three hours driving to our destination. My two-year-old fell asleep in the car, but big sister is still awake, wired with excitement.
During the three minutes I took to brush my teeth, she’s helped to unpack, put on pajamas, had a snack, taken a brief walk around, and accidentally knocked a picture off the wall. I’ve tucked her in twice and I’m exhausted. I’d like the chance to put on my own pajamas, lie down, and maybe keep one continuous thought in my head to process the day and the week ahead. My daughter, however, cannot sleep.
After the second tuck-in I’d left her to figure things out on her own, but now, from the bedroom, I can hear her whimpering. I head over, ready to give her a firm, “You need to sleep now” lecture, and then I see her face. Her small chin is quivering, her mouth is pinched and frowning, her body stiff with sadness. Through sniffles she says, “Mama I’m scared. I’m scared because I’m in a new place and I don’t know what to do. It feels scary like I’ve never been here before.”
Before I became a parent I dreamed dozens of dreams of what my parenting future would hold. I imagined frolicking in the backyard, tranquil moments of story reading, laughter, having a Band-Aid and a kiss ready to soothe a hurt, always knowing the right thing to say to help a trouble. In my dreams however, I forgot to account for the fact that both children and adults get tired, get in bad moods, and sometimes don’t want or need the same things at the same time.
Now in Minnesota, here is my chance to rise up as the super mom I envisioned, but I am irritated, drained, and ready to punch out on my time card. None of these facts make sense to a four-year-old, though. She is afraid and exhausted in an unfamiliar place. All she knows is that she needs me and the question in her mind is, will I be showing up for her or not?
I take a deep breath and sit down next to this anxious and beautiful little being. My fingers smooth away the worry lines on her face. I can do this. I can do this for her. With every bit of energy I have, I acknowledge her fears, hug and kiss her, let her know that it’s okay to feel scared, and assure her that she will feel better in the morning. I’m not sure if it’s my best work but eventually her body relaxes and her sniffles dry up.
Wondering if I’m a ‘good mom‘ often keeps me up at night. I torture myself, second-guessing my parenting decisions with an almost inexhaustible list of questions: Will forcing them to eat at least one bite of vegetables at almost every meal backfire and push them to junk food? Am I enrolling them in too many activities? Too few? Do I hug them too much? Does the fact that my four-year-old told me I was talking in a “bad witch voice” last week mean that I’m an unfit mother?
Back in the quiet dark of the family cabin, I watch my daughter’s tired eyes close. The thought occurs to me that I’m asking the wrong questions. None of my worrying, none of my efforts, matter if they don’t fit what my children need to feel loved and secure. Instead of agonizing over the idea of meeting some unattainable standard that no one, including me can exactly define, I need to ask myself if I’m showing up for my kids the best I can, as much as I can.
Tonight I showed up. I might not have done it perfectly, and it took all the strength I had, but I did it. My daughter is sleeping now. The questions fall away and all I hear is the deep and regular noise of her breathing.