My youngest daughter Ada is eighteen months old. She’s so different from her older two siblings, who are so like each other in so many ways. She was a high-strung infant where they were easygoing. She cries and gets upset so easily, where they both had general sunny dispositions at this age. She clings to my husband and me constantly, preferring more often to be held than not, while her siblings were both usually content to hang out and explore on the floor. She has been a challenging baby from day one, all the more so because the two who preceded her were largely not. There are days when I get so tired of having to carry her around, when I heave deep sighs when she demands that I pick her up yet again.
The other night, her older brother put on some temporary tattoos he had received for Valentine’s day. He asked me to put one on, too, so I put one on my forehead, like the ridiculous person that I am. Ada had been nonplussed by Jackson’s tattoos, so I was totally unprepared for her reaction to mine. As soon as she saw it, her face screwed up in that telltale way, and she began to cry. She ran for her dad and wouldn’t let me get near her, even though I am usually the parent she prefers when she’s upset. Even after I scrubbed the tattoo off, she still wanted nothing to do with me for the rest of the night—she insisted her father put her to bed, and she wouldn’t even let me hold her or give her a hug or a kiss before he took her upstairs.
I was shocked, and I was even more shocked to discover how sad I was. Those few hours were probably the longest in her life when we’d been together and she hadn’t at some point been in my arms. I was surprised to discover how much I missed her. I missed every clingy, intense, emotional bit of her.
The next morning, I was grateful to discover that all had been forgotten, or at least forgiven. As soon as I picked her up from her bed, she wrapped her arms around me and nestled her head on my shoulder in that snuggly way she has, the one that reminds me so much of her big sister. I was grateful to have her back.
And what I realized then was this: while she may be the clingiest of my three children, she’s also the one most likely to cuddle with me on a whim. While she may be high-strung, her love is equally passionate and fierce. She gets upset more easily, but she also offers her love more easily.
What I realized was this: those same qualities that make Ada challenging to parent make her easy to love. You can’t have one without the other. She is who she is, and I love her just the way she is.
And the next thing I realized was this: isn’t that true for all of us? Isn’t it true that the qualities that make us hardest to love are often just the flip side of the qualities that make us easiest to love? What if we could embrace that truth and love ourselves wholly and completely, knowing that those parts of ourselves that we often find unbearable are little more than inverses of those things we love most? What if we could simply accept that we can’t have one without the other, and what if we could be okay with that? What if we could love ourselves just the way we are?
I always want my children to know that I love them for just exactly who they are. I feel like it is one of my most important jobs as a parent. But like with the oxygen masks on a plane, maybe my first job is to love myself that way.