You were in your car-seat and I was driving around a corner in the post office parking lot, getting ready to throw some letters in the drive-by mailbox. It was then that it hit me: My mother loved me the way I love you. She was all wrapped up in me – air, life, soul – I held all that for her.
I called my mother. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I never knew.”
Your tiny body. Your little self. I was 22. You were two weeks old.
And when I got onto that road, I thought about 18 years. I thought how I got 18 years with you in my house, at least, and a lifetime as your mother, and then, that day, and for so many days after, those 18 years stretched in front of me like a wild, eternal road.
Today you turn seventeen.
I could write what it feels like to see you standing in a doorway, your face suddenly drawn with wisdom, your eyes echoing more than a reflection of daddy of me. When did that happen? I guess that happens.
Your refusal to buy suede cleaner from Amazon because you “don’t want to give Jeff Bezos more money.” Your phone-banking in the midterms. Your gleeful pre-voting registration. Your disdain for single-use plastics.
I see your heart. Your diligence and teenage clarity and energy. I remember when things were straightforward.
I see the muscles in your arms and legs and the way your hair falls across your shoulders.
You’re more of my friend, now, than you’ve ever been. I’m your mother, but we laugh like friends, sisters. And we fight like that, too. When it’s over, we laugh about our tempers being the same. You say “I got this from you!” And I can’t argue. We try to be better together.
You drive now. I watch you pull away from the house and I’m reminded of those clichéd movies. The fear you feel when the daughter drives away. It’s true.
You learned to drive a stick shift. You ride your mountain bike even when blood runs down your legs. You joined cross-country and nearly puke after races.
Your Twitter feed is my favorite ever. You comment on my Instagram and I feel a little like a super star.
Not yet. Not yet.
It’s getting close. It makes me think.
I hope you know you don’t have to leave, and you don’t have to stay. I hope you know the screaming matches are just as they should be and we’re alright. I hope you know how happy I am you agree we must always say “I love you” before we leave the house, no matter how mad we are.
Those must be the last words because sometimes they are the last words.
I hope you never take any shit from men. I hope if you’re harassed you’ll raise hell. I hope if you’re grabbed you’ll scream. I hope you never accept the things I accepted. The years coming your way, these are the ones when it all goes down.
I hope you know we’re here to kick some ass for you.
I hope you’ll wear make-up if you want and never wear it if you don’t want and I hope you’ll get into tight clothes if you want and I hope you’ll wear hoodies if you want and I hope you’ll know your body as your friend.
There were so many things I thought were decided for me. There were so many things I thought I had to appreciate. Attention from men, mostly. Their “insights.” Even when I didn’t want it. I thought I should be grateful. I thought I should be quiet.
A male elder, a family member, told me once my voice was “like sandpaper. It grates on people.”
I hope your voice is like sandpaper. I hope you fucking grate on people. I hope you speak no matter what and I hope maybe I have shown you what that looks like, and that we can survive.
I hope you study what you love and trust that will be enough.
I hope you know money is necessary but also so is art.
I hope you have four babies or no babies and don’t expect fulfillment either way.
I hope you always come home, or go as far away as you must, and I hope you know you aren’t responsible for us, for our happiness, for our joy.
We are whole. We are fine. We are yours.
Here, or there.
I hope you know I never want to let you go, not because of what I get from you, because you define or complete me, but because I love hanging out with you, my girl, your sense of humor, your horrible puns, the way you fold Arlo into your arms and announce, “You are the cutest and best and I would die for you.”
Do you know what that feels like? Do you know what it feels like to see you do that? To see you, my first child, the one who felt the most of my alcoholism, who remembers, who still has a box in her room of all the letters I sent while gone – do you know what it feels like to see you love? To see you scooping up a toddler and smothering him with kisses?
A family. The first and the last.
A family that’s become itself. A family that you “aren’t ready to leave.”
You said that the other day with tears in your eyes, thinking about your seventeenth birthday.
I hope you know you can stay. I hope you know you can go. I hope you know most rules are bullshit built by people too scared to live.
I hope you know that in that post office parking lot, when I felt the thread woven from my mama, to me, to you, wasn’t about eighteen years, or eighty. It wasn’t about doing this or doing that or doing it right or not right. It wasn’t about taking off or sticking around or fixing it all or letting it stay broken.
We’ve done all that. We’ll do it all, more. We’ll see this through to the end.
I hope you know what it’s like to see you, seventeen.
My book is on mega sale right now on Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
$2.99 for the ebook!
JoanieWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 13:15
This is beautiful, and so is she! Thanks for sharing.
MeredithWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 14:22
Oh Janelle, thank you. Thank you for sharing this beautiful relationship with us for so long now. This is wonderful x
Kathy SWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 14:42
Beautiful. Things I should say to my own daughter
DarahWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 15:14
Best love letter ever. Happy birthday— to both of you!
Susan, Mum to MollyWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 15:53
Greetings Janelle, from Sydney Australia.
I love this so, so much. I am one year behind you – with my eldest daughter recently turning 16… Your words speak directly to my mama-heart.
I found you a few years ago through your article “I looked away and she was gone” in Brain Child mag. https://brainchildmag.com/2013/07/i-looked-away-and-she-was-gone/
I still look it up and re-read it when I want to pick at the wound that is my babies growing up and have a good cry.
Thank you for your words, always. I’m so glad your brother & his family are safe.
AshleyWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 17:35
It brings a tear to my eye hearing you describe a small lifetime that feels like an instant looking back, and knowing that the next 10 years I have with my own daughter will slip away just as quickly. This is a beautiful piece of advice and hope that all young girls should read. Well put!
JulieWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 18:16
Such a gift to her
DanielleWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 20:17
So beautiful! The fear…oh the mama fear. Thank you so much for sharing.
Peggy McCloskeyWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 20:44
She is lucky to have you as a mother—with all the good of you and your rough years, she is lucky.
melissaWednesday, 21 November, 2018 at 21:59
“I hope you know most rules are bullshit built by people too scared to live.”
BonnieThursday, 22 November, 2018 at 2:33
Sat on a train, breathing in shallow chunks, trying not to cry. Words. You do words good.
IljaThursday, 22 November, 2018 at 3:39
Indeed, our children are not responsible for our happiness and joy. Let them be free!
BarbThursday, 22 November, 2018 at 8:09
Ah Janelle, you capture what is in my heart.
RaeFriday, 23 November, 2018 at 0:08
You are such a good woman Janelle. You see to the heart of things and make us cry, and then we get to look at our own growing-too-fast babies and, we may not have our own words, but we have yours, and they feel like ours, and they help. A lot. Thank you.
SuzFriday, 23 November, 2018 at 9:22
You just break my heart in all the best ways.
BernieSunday, 25 November, 2018 at 17:38
You are an incredible writer and we’re so lucky to share in your thoughts. Thank you for being you and for being raw. XO
KarenMonday, 26 November, 2018 at 10:49
Beautiful and poignant as usual, only more tear-jerking this time,
Cheryl S.Tuesday, 27 November, 2018 at 7:22
My daughter is only 13 and I’m crying reading this because it’s all true and she’s growing up so fast. Thank you.
ErikaWednesday, 28 November, 2018 at 7:05
You always make me cry in a good way. My daughter is only 5, but I can somehow feel all of this. It’s scary, but it’s beautiful and exciting, and I’m glad I’m sober for it – thank you for your part in that! Love you!
Kristen KerwinWednesday, 28 November, 2018 at 8:46
Screw you for making me ugly cry into a bag of chips! (Just kidding…though I am eating chips rn. BECAUSE I AM SAD.) My oldest is newly 18, and doing all of the applying to colleges aka leaving us / flying / etc. crap. I’m a hot mess most days, but seeing her drive around like an adult and be beautiful and whole and such just tears me to pieces. So as a punishment, I’m eating her chips while she’s at school, and I’ll make her read this when she gets home…so we can cry together. My mom died suddenly a few years ago, the week before Christmas, found by a neighbor on her bedroom floor (heart attack)…and I’ll never be the same. Just wanted to say goodbye, you know? So I hold on tight to my 4 kiddos, and try to let them use their wings. Sometimes. For short bursts. Because they are my soul. And I never want them to leave without knowing how much I love them! BTW – your daughter is a beautiful soul! So glad to know she’s in the world, making it brighter!!!