When Margaret had her “3.5th birthday” party in preschool, we played a game that made me sweat. I was blindfolded and asked to determine, by touch alone, which child was Margaret. Luckily, luckily I was able to find my kid. Or I would have been so embarrassed.
But really: how well do we really know our children? Sometimes I am stumped when asked to describe Hannah or Margaret; this may seem weird to my interlocutor but to me it feels honest. In a way I know them, and in a way I don’t. I marvel at them, puzzle over them. I’m expecting surprises as they grow into themselves. Both girls love to make predictions about their own futures — spouses, babies, jobs — but these vary wildly depending on mood and sibling rivalry. And usually they mix in wild combinations: “I want to be a mommy and a lifeguard and a princess!”
Up until now, I haven’t identified really strongly with my girls. They are they; I am I. In general, I think this is healthiest for all of us. (What am I advocating, de-tachment parenting? Perhaps.) I like the idea of giving them space to become themselves, unburdened by my past or my expectations.
But all these philosophies are flying out the window as Hannah reaches an age for which I have strong memories of my own, and in particular as she starts to “tell stories.” My daughter is developing a rich imaginary world, much more detailed and private than her early forays. This habit is proving very, very handy because Hannah can only “tell stories” when she’s in motion. So now we walk long distances (9 km yesterday, to and from the Old City) with nary a complaint from Child #1. She walks a few long paces behind me, muttering to herself, with a spacey, slightly stoned and happy expression. She doesn’t like to be interrupted or overheard. Jerusalem is full of people praying, swaying and saying deep things to themselves; Hannah fits right in.
And even though this is Hannah’s habit, her “thing”, her gift, I can’t watch without remembering myself as a six year old. My grandmother said I was the easiest-to-entertain child of all time: “we just put you outside and you talked to yourself for hours.” I had a full cast of characters in my head, my “pretend friends.” My stories also unraveled best through repetitive motion, so I wandered circles in the back yard and, especially, bounced a tennis ball against the side of the house. I woke up our downstairs tenants early every weekend morning. I can still remember the shame when one of them asked me to cut it out. I’m sure if anyone had talked about a “spectrum” in the early 1980s, people would have thought I was on it.
And now I’m watching this long-buried quirk resurface in my daughter’s behavior. I feel moved, amazed, connected. Yet I’m concerned because I don’t want to compromise her uniqueness by over-identifying. Her pretend friends have different names and faces than mine.