My oldest daughter turned four this March. I know four may not seem like much, to a more seasoned mother, but in our family it was a turning point. Although aware of her birthday in the past, this was the first year that Gemma seemed to understand the concept of getting older. Four was practically "grown up" (in her own words), and she anticipated the arrival of that day when everything would magically change. "I'm almost four!" became a repeated announcement; soon everyone from the dry cleaner to the guy who makes our bagels knew there was a birthday on the horizon.
And truthfully, I'm starting to see a change in her. I notice, more than ever, the pull to be mature; to identify with girls who are five and six, versus the two- and three-year-olds. I see it in her successes. The big girl bicycle (with training wheels). The letters that are perfectly formed. The simple words, written by her own hand. The facts about dinosaurs and animals and princesses, memorized and recited with a sense of knowing. The whispers in my ear, the secrets that are told. Life is now defined in the sense of "before" and "after"; "when I was little," versus "now that I'm big."
I see it in her exchanges with me, the times she states, I get it mommy! with a roll of the eyes (at four!). The conversations with friends. The disappointments. Those experiences that are essential parts of growing up. The ones I know I can't (and shouldn't!) stop or interfere with. The ones that make you strong and resilient and better able to cope with the ups and downs of life, but hurt a mother's heart, even so.
Still, this is tempered with behavior that reminds me SHE'S ONLY FOUR (after all)! One night, after a particularly contentious bedtime, I confided in my mother. She raised three children! With very little help! We're all normal (relatively speaking)! I sometimes wonder how my parents did it, while I tend to muddle through each day like it's an obstacle course, always questioning whether my decisions are the right ones for my children, my family, myself. Sometimes, it's precisely when you expect her to be a big girl, that she'll want to be a little girl, my mother advised. Then, it's precisely when you expect her to be a little girl, that she'll want to be a big girl. She threw her hands in the air with a shrug and a smile. If you can strike a balance between the two 50 percent of the time, you're doing pretty well.
Fifty percent. Not one hundred. Halfway to perfect.
I've begun to realize I'll always be walking this tightrope between big and little. Trying to provide the right amount of warmth with the right amount of tough. Balancing a lap and a cuddle with a gentle (or perhaps sometimes firm) push. It's a struggle that's implicit in parenthood, I suppose. As is the reality that sometimes you make the mark, and sometimes you miss it.
So, we move on. Arrange schedules; fold laundry; make sure everyone is fed and bathed and prepared for school and playdates. The sleepless nights will subside, or perhaps not -- replaced with hours mending broken hearts, anticipating kindergarten or high school or college admission letters, waiting for teenagers to return.
And, throughout it all, I'll be aiming for that magic number.