“If you and Dad get a divorce, I’ll live with Dad,” declared my then 5-year-old. She had just learned about a divorce in which the mom was granted sole custody.
Keep in mind, I hadn’t asked my daughter which parent she would choose. My husband and I had not discussed divorce or separation. My marriage wasn’t going through a rough patch — my daughter and I were.
Our little powerhouse child was a much better match for my husband’s personality. At just a few weeks old, she was joyful, loud, curious, and nearly vibrating with energy. I couldn’t always keep up.
As a toddler, she would race up and down the street. Our kind neighbor, Jim, would say, “She’s going to sleep well tonight!” And we’d mutter, “That’s what you think, Jim.”
She could dribble a soccer ball at 18 months. At age 4, we entered her in a mile race. Most kids only lasted a lap or two. Our child ran all four laps, finishing in 11:49.
The Olivia children’s book helped me feel seen. After pages of shenanigans, the mama pig tucks Olivia in bed, saying, “You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.”
I’d like to say that parenting isn’t a competition. The truth is that I was losing to my husband. He would take our daughter to the park at 6 a.m. He had the patience to stand for an hour as she jumped in cold puddles, and then carry her home as she shivered and screamed.
It didn’t help that I was always in charge of day care drop-offs, ever the jailer and never the liberator. “Let’s brush your hair and hurry up with that breakfast” is no match for “Let’s play ponies and have snacks.”
Although I had a flexible work schedule and spent more time with her than her dad, our daughter asked me why I worked so much. It was as if our playdates and many trips to the park and Museum of Play were forgotten. When her younger sister was born and my time was further divided, I worried that my eldest would feel even more resentment.
In my worst times, I thought there was something wrong with me. It was as if this innocent child was looking at her mom and seeing something missing . . . or rotten.
I tried my hardest not to take it personally. It helped to ask myself: If we were kids at the same time, would my child and I be friends?
The resounding answer was yes. She didn’t need another kid to match her energy; they’d burn each other out. Some of the strongest relationships involve complementary, balancing personalities.
I knew from being a camp counselor and nanny that I connect well with elementary-age kids. As my daughter got older and wanted to do more complicated crafts, I was ready with lanyards, glue guns, and knitting needles. I introduced her to loads of fun books. We read the Harry Potter series as a family. When the volunteer work was less about sports mechanics and more about herding cats, I “coached” her basketball and softball teams.
We now have a joyful, loud, and curious preteen. Our breakfasts together are filled with plot summaries of Naruto and Olivia Rodrigo sing-alongs. My thoughtful child wants to craft gifts for the whole family.
With this one question, I felt like a second-string quarterback promoted to starter: “Mom, can you help me make a schedule so I can get the presents done on time?” She sees my strengths clearly now.
Family relationships have seasons. Sometimes love bursts forth in riotous color; other times it’s stored tightly in the roots. I’ll remember that when I have moody teenagers, or headstrong twentysomethings. Just a few years in a long relationship can’t possibly sum up what we mean to one another.
You know, you still wear me out. But I love you . . . always.
Lisa Perks is a professor of communication and media at Merrimack College. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.