My 6-year-old daughter gets Saturday morning cartoons. She had to spend 30 minutes to an hour every day this summer reading and spelling. She was quite literally forced to learn how to ride her bike without training wheels and is still, after two months of lessons, trying to learn how to float, never mind actually swimming. I take her and the six-year-old neighbor boy to the pool every day. His family just wants him to have fun. They are oldest kids still stuck in level two. My daughter gets chastised for not paying attention to the lifeguard; he is praised just for putting his face in the water. Not surprisingly "John" is much more enthusiastic about swim class than my daughter. She complains that it's too much work and too little fun, while I beat my head against the wall in frustration. It's not that I want her to be an Olympian, but for safety reasons alone I want her to at least be able to swim. My family and friends all insist that she'll learn eventually.
My husband (a true non-disciplinarian) pointed out (after yet another mommy-daughter disagreement about reading) that he never read books in the summer, yet he learned how to read. I bite my tongue in anger. Yes, I'm sure she will eventually learn how to read, but my forcing her is actually my way of trying to impart a valuable life lesson: life isn't a party, it's work. There are things we don't like and don't want to do, but we have to do. When she finishes a book she is giddy with excitement and tells everyone what she can do. I want her to appreciate that feeling of conquering a difficult task; of knowing she accomplished something. And of course there is the discipline factor. I'm the toughest boss she'll ever have. She's going to have to learn to work for and with people that annoy, anger and yell at her. I want her to be tough, independent and confident that if she can handle mom, she can handle anything.
I try to hug more and order less -- it does not come natural to me. My husband, however, cannot resist spontaneous hugs throughout the day. They are always playing games of tickle, rock, paper, scissors, and making silly faces at each other. He's the fun parent; she sits on his lap, they snuggle and watch cartoons together and color pictures. That's a good thing and I do recognize that she needs the fun stuff in her life. But it is always mom whose approval she seeks; it is mom's eyes she first meets when coming into a room. In her defiant moods she will try to stare me down, sometimes lasting two minutes before her head lowers in submission. Some people think I am trying to take away her fighting spirit -- I'm not. But life is a jungle, and right now she is in my jungle and I'm the biggest lion. Her willingness to test and to challenge me inspires pride and respect from me even as I repeatedly demonstrate my dominance.
Not everyone views my daughter's and my relationship in a positive way and there is no doubt that sometimes she probably wishes she'd been adopted by a different mommy. But she loves me fiercely, as I do her. My hugs, smiles and nods of approval may be few, but they are meaningful. Some day, she'll understand.
I look forward to the moment when I can hold her adult hand in mine and she can stroke my gnarled fingers and say, "Mom, you were tough but fair. You made me into a hard-working, thoughtful, insightful and honest woman that I am proud of. Thank you." And with tears in my eyes, I'll smile and give her a hug. A really long one.