Your father and I try to show you every day how much you are endeared to us. We read you stories and sing you silly songs. We engage you in play and mirror your funniest faces. We snuggle you close and rub your back. We call you Cheeks and Beast and Bitty and Love. We tell you that you are precious and hilarious and wonderful.
We know already, just a few months in, that you hate naps but that you love bath time and bouncing, the ceiling fan in our bedroom, and exploring everything you can reach with your tiny hands. We know how to make you smile and what you look like when you have been taken by curiosity or surprise. But I can’t say yet what kind of woman you’ll be, or even what kind of girl, so it’s hard for me to find an appropriate point of reference for all of things I want to say to you, all of the things that I know I will one day want to share with you, when the moment is right.
Instead, I can offer only what I wish my mother had told me, the things that I wish I could go back now and tell myself if I had the chance to try many of my years again:
Play a sport. Even if you aren’t particularly athletic, it will give you the fellowship and sense of community you are always craving. It will build your confidence. It will be more fun than you think.
Buy more dresses. You don’t have to be a girly girl or a priss, but honey, almost no one looks cute in oversized black T-shirts.
Wait one more year before you give up your virginity. Let it not be to the jerk who graduated three years ahead of you but still hangs out with high school sophomores, who doesn’t work but who does deal pot, who is only interested in one thing from you. There are boys who will love you more, who will treat you better, who are more worthy of the many things you have to offer.
Don’t wait until you’re an adult to be kind to your younger sisters. Don’t act like begrudgingly taking them to the mall after school makes you Sister of the Year. It won’t be too long before your lives take the three of you in different directions, before you’re all living in different states and are lucky if you see each other more than once or twice a year. You will miss them. Your time with them now is more valuable than you realize.
Hang out with your high school boyfriend less. No, you are not going to marry him. Spend more time doing your homework and being around your friends.
Care about college a little earlier. Ask your guidance counselor a few more questions. Take the SATs more than once. Apply to more than just a couple of schools. Look harder for scholarships. Regardless of how good it is, don’t get talked into going to a university just because it’s close to home. There is a whole world beyond the city in which you grew up. Start exploring it right now.
Demand more from yourself and also from everyone around you. Do not be afraid of self-preservation. It is not cruel to cut out friends who are mean or jealous. It is okay to choose not to marry someone who makes you hate yourself even if you’ve already promised a lifetime with them, even if you’ve already accepted the ring.
When you finally understand that your husband is a nightmare, don’t waste the extra year trying to fix what’s clearly and irrevocably broken. Just pack a bag and leave. You will be better for it almost immediately. It will not hurt nearly as much as you think. You will find that a surprising amount of support from your friends and community is waiting for you. Real love is coming, and when it finds you, it will be good in a way that you can’t even imagine. It will be worth the wait and the struggle that it takes to get there.
Long before the birth of your daughter, before you finally find happiness with a loving partner, long before your first marriage and divorce, before you move to a new state, before graduate school, or traveling abroad, or college, or even high school, when your father finds you alone one evening in the kitchen and asks you how you’d feel if your mother’s treatment isn’t successful, read between the lines and understand that she is dying, that this is as close as he’ll ever come to telling you. If you don’t, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting that there wasn’t a better goodbye.
Sweet daughter, life will get so complicated. I hope so many things for you: That you will grow up feeling safe and loved, that you will always have a venue through which your voice can be heard, that you will discover the things you care most about and fight hard for them, that your life will be filled with happiness and adventure, but mostly, that your father and I do not leave you prematurely, that we will be here for many years to help you with each challenge and experience, to give you the foundation and support that you need to become your own independent being.
It is easy to promise ourselves that we will be the best parts of our parents. But we also must live those choices daily, and that is hard, exhausting work. I promise that I will never grow too tired to be the best that I can for you. I will work hard, always, to offer you only patience and kindness, to listen sincerely, to communicate clearly, to help foster your creativity, and to make sure you know that you are deeply, deeply cared about.
With your arrival, I was surprised to see how strongly old grief could resurface, how clear and present an absence could be felt, even now, so many years after my own mother’s death. But in a way you have also helped to fill that void, and I am so grateful to you for this unexpected gift. My relationship with my mother was at best unresolved. And so my greatest hope right now is simply that I am here to share your life with you. Whether I am lucky enough or not to have that chance, please know this: No matter what choices you make or what kind of a woman you become, I am always your champion and in your corner. No matter what, I am always loving you beyond measure.
With all the love one heart can hold,
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others and is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain and Rock & Sling. She teaches composition at Indiana University’s Southeast campus, and she lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome daughter.