Editor's note: This post by Rachel Macy Stafford originally appeared on her blog, Hands Free Mama. It has been posted here with permission.
The ocean water was barely 55 degrees, but yet my daughter ventured out each day of our vacation, willing to push aside her fear of sharks, jellyfish and chattering teeth to ride the waves.
And she wanted me to watch her.
The girl who had packed her own suitcase, applied her own sunscreen, and made strawberry smoothies for the entire family that very morning still hungered for her mother's eyes when she battled the waves. There was no denying this child had changed since our last trip to the beach, but there were still remnants of the little girl who needed her mom.
Later that evening, my daughter's upper body ached from her innovative boogie board maneuvers so I gently rubbed her shoulders. That's when she asked me the meaning of a specific profane word. It was a heavy, heavy word that opened doors into an adult world. I had anticipated this moment, but yet I stood there feeling dry-mouthed and ill-prepared.
My eyes nervously darted to a generic picture of seashells that hung on the wall above my child's head. I thought about subtly switching topics. Even though she's almost 10, I knew I could still distract her with talk of rescuing beached starfish or the making of saltwater taffy.
But I glanced back at my child — who was looking less like a child with each passing day — and saw an open window. She was letting me in. Her eyes were looking into mine for answers.
I sat down on the edge of her bed, and as much as I wanted to avoid her gaze, I didn't. I looked straight into chocolaty brown eyes alive with curiosity and told her the truth. The words felt awkward coming from my lips, as if I were speaking a foreign language. But I told her what she needed to know, in words she could understand.
Surprisingly, my child did not look away in embarrassment as I did when I learned such things. Her eyes rolled upward thoughtfully as if reaching back into her brain to make sense of it all.
I assured her that when my parents educated me on these important life topics (sometimes referred to as "the birds and the bees") I felt a little awkward. But it didn't appear that she felt the least bit uncomfortable. In fact, my daughter asked more questions — openly, maturely, frankly. I had read somewhere it was better to address these uncomfortable topics when children are not so self-conscious or easily embarrassed. This notion seemed to be true with my child. The window was open — and she had invited me in.
As I slowly doled out bits of information, I envisioned each one as a piece of armor — each fact making her a little stronger, a bit more aware, a little more prepared to navigate a fast world that could be devastating, alarming, and cruel to young people trying to find their way.
And since the window was open, I offered more — more armor, more substance, and more wisdom to equip her.
I said, "I believe knowledge is power. I don't want you to be the person sitting in the group who doesn't know what other kids are talking about. I don't want you to be unaware of the dangers that come with risky behaviors. Because sometimes kids are misinformed. They might tell you something that they think is true, but it might not be. If there is something you don't understand or a word someone says that is unfamiliar, you can come and ask me. I will tell you the truth. I will give you the facts. Because when you have the facts, you are more likely to make smart choices with your body and your life."
I described some real life examples from both the news and my own personal experience when young people's lives drastically changed because of the choices they made.
I smoothed a few of her fly away, sun-bleached hairs and concluded our talk with the most important thing I could say to my child. "No matter what circumstance you find yourself in, know that your dad and I will always, always love you and we will face any problems together."
She smiled warmly, "OK, Mama." And then as if to tell me that was enough information for one night, she whispered, "I'm sleepy now."
I held my breath as she climbed into bed and pulled the covers to her chin. I feared that this new knowledge would instantly age her.
"Can we go to the beach again tomorrow, Mama? I want to catch a big wave on my board!" But just like that, she was 9 again.
That night I had trouble sleeping. Our talk had drudged up painful memories from my own preteen and teen years. I reviewed our discussion in my head — hoping I had made it clear that she could come to me with anything. As if on cue, a scream of "Mama!" violently punctured the silence of our vacation rental.
But it was not the voice of my oldest child; it was my 6-year-old. I ran to her bedside and instinctively put a cool hand on her forehead. "What is it, honey?" I asked softly.
"You know that little tiny elf that visited Grandma and Grandpa's house last Christmas?" she asked in a semi-delirious state.
I nodded. How could I forget? I had never seen two children so delighted by the sight of a semi-creepy doll unexpectedly perched in a high, humanly-unreachable location.
"Do you think the elf will come back next Christmas?" my child asked earnestly.
I couldn't help but smile. In contrast to the questions her sister asked mere hours before, these questions were quite enjoyable — even at midnight. "Yes. Yes. I do believe the elf will come back," I said with absolute certainty.
And with that peaceful assurance from her mother, the curly-haired child drifted back to sleep.
I felt my eyes well up with tears. Yep. The line is mighty fine. You know, the line children cross when they go from believing in all things magical to facing the harsh realities of the adult world, including drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, and peer acceptance — just to name a few critical issues.
As I watched my youngest child's dark lashes flutter in the midst of a whimsical dream, I was never more certain of my role in my children's lives.
When they cross over from the child world to the adult world, I want to be there. I want to cross that line with them, or at least be there to accept the invitation when the window is open and they ask me to come in.
So I will watch her when she asks me to count how many waves she rides.
And I will talk to her while she makes her strawberry smoothies.
And I will rub her back when she has trouble falling asleep.
And I will give her truth when she asks questions that have no easy answers.
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I will try my best to be a constant presence, an every day parent, not just showing up for performances and holidays.
My child is going to have to brave the world whether I like it or not. I wouldn't expect her to battle the ocean without proper skills, knowledge, and equipment — and I won't expect her to navigate the world without them either.
Therefore, I vow to give her pieces of protective armor — armor that comes from daily offerings of parental presence, wisdom and unconditional love. So that if one day, God forbid, she finds herself drowning, she'll have the strength to call my name.