Selah reaches up for her daddy’s hand, wraps five of her pudgy fingers around a single one of his, and begins to pull him to her play area. Her fingers are literally wrapped around his, and he is proverbially wrapped around hers. This is a game that plays out countless times every day. She reaches up and leads him away—to where it doesn’t matter so much. Sometimes I’m not sure if she even has a plan or if she just wants to know she has power as he trails behind her.
We had friends over for dinner recently, and we all sat on the back porch while Dan grilled. We feasted on fresh chicken that had been steeped a lemon-thyme marinade, a salad of perfectly ripe avocados and fresh tomatoes and crispy cucumbers, and sweet potatoes with bacon and balsamic vinegar. The kids were excused early to go play while the adults lingered over mango IPAs. Our friends’ two boys scampered off to the backyard, playing an intricate game with a ball and a stick, but Selah reached for Dan’s hand. It was clear she wouldn’t take no for an answer, and as she started to cry for him, he acquiesced and let her lead him down the stairs and into the wild terrain of our suburban backyard.
I felt suddenly embarrassed in front of these people—friends from Dan’s college years, but whom I had just met that night. Are they going to think we cave too easily to Selah’s demands? Are they going to judge us, assuming we let her run the show in our house? I laughed awkwardly and said, “I don’t know how we’ll nip that behavior in the bud someday, but for now it’s cute.”
And then I wanted to put the words right back into my mouth, more embarrassed than I was before. My daughter loves her daddy and wants him to follow her, to watch her, to play with her—where is the issue? And her daddy loves to let her lead (most of the time)—where is our error?
Yes, someday I want my child to understand the meaning of “Not right now” and “The grownups are talking, but we’ll come play in ten minutes.” But at 22 months, there is only here and now, the present desire. The concept of later is not just foreign; it’s inconceivable.
I don’t know if our friend sensed my discomfort or just wanted to reassure me, but she spoke up: “Oh, it’s sweet. She’s just a baby still. In a growing body, yes, but just a baby.” Her husband agreed: “She doesn’t even have the cognitive skills for waiting yet. You’re doing fine.”
This piece of me that felt steeled all night—waiting for Selah to have a meltdown, waiting to judged and admonished like I’ve been by other friends, waiting for something to go wrong and to be deemed “less than” as a mom—that piece softened and unfurled in the safety of their words, in their acknowledgement that there is plenty of time and that kids aren’t meant to be perfect anyway. These fellow parents gave me permission to trust my instincts, and in that moment I exhaled the doubt I’d been holding inside.
A few weeks prior, a different friend had offered me some well-intentioned but poorly timed discipline advice right in the middle of one of my daughter’s meltdowns. I know this mom meant well—she saw me struggling and offered a method that had worked for her family, but I knew right away that this was a not a strategy I felt comfortable using. Still, in the heat of that moment, as I watched my daughter throw a tantrum and felt embarrassed that this mom felt the need to step in, self-doubt about my parenting practices lodged itself in my mind. In the weeks that followed I had been on edge, questioning my instincts and feeling like a failure and worrying that I’m raising a self-centered kid.
It all came full circle on that summer night, when Dan let Selah take him by the hand and lead him away from our dinner conversation in an attempt to avoid a meltdown. I judged my own mothering in this moment before anyone else had a chance to, thinking that I could communicate this message under my words: I see it! I’m doing my best! It’s not everyone’s definition of an ideal parenting decision, but I know this and I’m willing to deal with the consequences!
But by doing so, I had assumed this other mom was judging me in the first place, casting both of us into a shadow we didn’t need to occupy. Her reminder of what I already believed—that Selah is a baby who just really loves her dad—made me feel as though she were taking me by the hand, walking by my side, leading me into the light.
I’m still learning to trust my gut as a parent, and also as a friend, wife, and woman. I’m still learning to give myself permission to ignore advice that feels ill-fitting for my family and to chart my own path of parenthood. Aren’t we all?
As I learn to do this for myself, I’m on the lookout for fellow moms who need the same, comrades who are stuck in the shadows of shame and uncertainty. I’m looking for ways to be a hand holder, an approver, a bringer of light, a carrier of community. Not because any other moms out there need my permission to parent their kids in the way that’s right for them, but because receiving permission in the face of fear feels a lot like being bathed in grace. Just as grace washed over me that summer night, so I want to pour it out.