Last Sunday, in a glittery princess frenzy, we ushered in my daughter’s seventh year. I love children’s birthday parties and all the fabulous will-certainly-break-tomorrow presents that abound. Yes, I shamelessly admit that I ogle the gifts, lick icing off the birthday cake and become a member of the children’s club, for two kids, twice a year.
My husband likes to tease me, “You are probably more excited than the kids are.”
Much as I love birthdays, I do not enjoy watching my little ones grow up. Accuse me of being an archetypal Jewish mother, but I can’t help worrying about all the little things growing up in a modern environment entails — all the things I know so little about.
I worry because my daughter’s experiences are and will be radically different from my own, having grown up in a strict Hasidic environment. I worry because no self-help parenting book can prepare you to deal with the unforeseen future of a life you have never lived. I worry because I will need to grow up with her, to learn what it is like to be a teenager in this world, to understand the complexities and challenges of a girl’s life. I will relive my childhood vicariously through my daughter’s. In some ways I already am.
Rachel, or as we call her by her Hebrew nickname, Ruchy, is a little photocopy of myself. She has my green eyes, my auburn hair and my freckles; she relishes her food the way I do, is a pleaser by nature, makes friends easily and digs into those relationships. According to her bubbe, she even has my figure, and embraced the challenges of toilet training just the way her mommy did, eons ago. She is a bubbly, independent and loving child who has brought so much light into our lives. She amazes us daily with her maturity and ability to be assertive beyond her years.
Yet, we could not imagine all this fabulousness eight years ago when, after peeing on seven pregnancy tests and getting unmistakably positive results, I called the test company’s helpline begging for mercy. “Call your doctor, sweetheart. You’re pregnant.” There is a hole in the wall somewhere in a basement apartment in Kiryas Joel, perhaps covered with a few coats of paints, that was made by a cordless phone viciously thrown at it in a fit of anger and indescribable frustration. I was 20 years old, my son was barely walking and we were struggling to make ends meet. We were convinced my obstetrician knew his stuff when he insisted the 10 drops of Depo-Provera that leaked out of the syringe when he gave me my birth control shot did not affect my overall protection against creating another human soul. But he was wrong, and after seeing the little translucent paws and eye sockets on the ultrasound monitor three months later (I was already two months in when I found out), I fell in love with her.
Fast forward seven years — a two-year battle with severe postpartum depression and insomnia, a life-altering journey out of Hasidism, ups and downs in my marriage, love, hate, belief, despair and growth all around from all family member — I am facing the reality of losing Ruchy to the world at large. What is that world, I wonder? Will I ever be able to relate to her, to her struggles and triumphs? Will I ever understand what it is like to watch nipples grow into breasts, to learn what menstruating is about, and to not be ashamed of these natural pubescent occurrences? Will I ever sympathize with teenage crushes and losses, with extreme embarrassment of her uncool parents? Will I be capable of sheltering her against the forces that dictate girls’ lives – that tell them what is beautiful and desirable? Will I be able to teach her that a woman’s value is not measured by her looks, nor by others, but by her actions? Will she love herself unconditionally, strive for her personal best and live a life free of women’s guilt?
I have experienced more in my life than I should have at my young age. I have built an invincible wall to protect myself and my brood, yet there is one thing that can break me and bring me to my knees: the unforeseeable future, especially that of my children. I fret over this often, but on birthdays, as the proverbial clock ticks away, it hits me. I suppose this is not unusual for parents, to feel like their children’s childhood is slipping through their fingers, but I am more concerned for the parenting challenges I feel wholly inadequate and unprepared for — those moments that every girl has experienced to some degree, but ones that I never had.
But for now, for these last few innocent and princess-themed birthdays, I will lick the icing and help her unwrap the presents, carefree.