Parents can not always control what happens to their kids, but they can help them cope.
When my daughter came out of my body and was placed on my chest, bloody and blue, ears stuck to her cone-shaped head, eyes that were open but saw nothing, I whispered something to her. Tired, sore, and on the verge of passing out, I could only think of one thing to say to her: “You’re going to change the world, baby.”
It was an urge from deep within, this desire to speak those words to her, to have that be the first thing she hears come out of her mother’s mouth. It felt like a blessing, and it felt like a promise. That whatever she was going to experience in this world, I would always be there with her, and for her, believing in her abilities to contribute and do her part, and to love her through the challenges that I knew would come.
I always thought that it was my job to protect her as much as possible, and when she was in utero, that included protecting her from her biological father. He left when I was four months pregnant and things got a little scary. He never came to prenatal visits, never asked how I was doing, and wasn’t there when she was born, because by the time she was born, I had a restraining order. So the visceral desire of a mother to protect her child became a palpable thing in the form of a 9 pound 2 ounce baby on May 15, 2008.
Perhaps my speaking those words over her was partly to convince myself that I could handle the immediate fear I felt upon having her there in person, on my body. The fear I had at the time (and no longer have) that she was entering the world with a strike against her. That she was entering the world unwanted by her other genetic and biological half.
After a few years of almost complete absence passed, my daughter’s biological father decided to come back into her life. I suspect it had to do with a new wife and a new baby on the way. His presence in her life was unstable and irregular to say the least. He would not show up when he said he would. He would go months and months without seeing her. He would show up late and leave early. I saw it confuse her, I saw it make her sad. And my insides twisted at the thought that he legally had a right to put her in that state emotionally.
So I pushed back, put up boundaries and voiced high expectations. You know, expectations like: If you aren’t going to show up, you should let me know; or, you should try calling once a week since you can’t visit often; or, you should make your visits at the same time each month if you can. None of my high expectations were met. (Let me guess, you must be shocked to read that?)
So instead of trying to control his actions, I decided to try and help her with her reactions. I put my baby in play therapy at the age of 3. “A 3-year-old in therapy? Really?” was the question I expected of just about anyone I told. So I didn’t tell anyone. But really, play therapy was just me paying someone to play with her, (children that age express themselves through play) and then interpret her play for me and tell me how I can help her as a parent. It gave her a neutral person to express herself to through play, and it gave me someone I could get advice from. I’ve seen big changes in her since then, she has grown and matured in her ability to express herself over the course of that year, especially in matters related to her father. But that’s a subject for another story. Someday.
One of the biggest lessons in this whole process was the lesson of letting go. Not just letting go, but doing it at a time that was too soon for my comfort. I had to figure out that it is not my job to protect her from her father. He wasn’t physically hurting her. He wasn’t abusing her. He was just being who he was—mostly absent, erratic, and clueless. How many people reading this could say that they had at least one parent with at least one of those characteristics? My daughter’s plight is not an uncommon one.
One day, with tears in my eyes, as we drove home from school, she told me that she was “the only baby that mommy would ever have” (she realized she wasn’t her biological father’s only baby). It was then that I realized that it is not my job to prevent her from ever feeling any pain in this life. Of course, where I can prevent it, I will. But I could not prevent her father from hurting her emotionally, if that is what his presence in her life resulted in, there was nothing I could do to stop it, literally, and legally.
So I decided that my job was to help her to cope, teach her how to deal with sadness in a healthy way, and make sure she knows that she is loved unconditionally at home by myself and her stepfather. It feels sometimes like lessons that a little girl at 3 and 4 years old should not have to learn. But even on days when I want to rail against the unfairness of it for her, I am reminded that this frustration I feel on her behalf is not—cannot be—the focus. Her feelings, well-being, and emotional health must remain my focus.
Learning to let go of what I cannot control has made me a better mother for her, and I know someday I will look at her as a strong and confident young woman and be so proud of who she is knowing what she has had to overcome. And I think when the time comes for her to take a big risk, to fulfill that blessing that I spoke over her in her first minutes outside of my body, that I’ll be ready to watch her change the world.
Maria Peña is a mother and feminist working in higher education. She serves students with disabilities, is an academic advisor, and participates in campus sexual assault intervention efforts. She has worked in public health, maternal and child health and in the movement to end domestic and sexual violence, which she continues to be involved in currently as a member of a statewide committee to prevent sexual violence in Texas. Maria enjoys writing poetry and prose in her spare time, reading, and spoiling her rescued Great Dane, Mina.