I remember the day my daughter came home with a cherry tomato plant she had potted while spending the morning with our former nanny, now a good family friend.
"Mom, maybe Ms. Karen can teach me how to grow other plants too," she gushed. "Maybe we can grow them together!"
I could feel her excitement rising at the same time my own defenses were going up. Didn't my daughter want to grow plants with me… together? Why hadn't I thought to have her pot a tomato plant? Was I being replaced?
But then I came back to reality. Who was I kidding? My daughter knows me. She knows I've killed every plant I've ever tried to love, despite my best intentions. If my daughter wanted to pursue gardening, I would rightly be the last person she should call on for help.
The truth is, I can't be everything my daughter needs. As much as it stings to say it, I know it is true. As much as I want her to look at me and say I am the embodiment of emotional strength, the perfect teacher of cooking, the best math homework helper, the greatest fashion consultant, and the best friendship advice giver, I know I am not.
To believe that I am is only to set myself up for failure.
I do believe I am uniquely qualified to be her mother. I am the primary female role model in her life. There are things I provide her that no other person in the world can. That was especially true when she was an infant. It's still true now that she's a grade schooler, although to a progressively lesser degree.
As she grows and becomes an opinionated high schooler, she will need my guidance, but she'll also have more needs that I won't be able to fulfill. She's her own person, and her personal interests will reflect her, not me.
And the truth is, I'm terrible at math. I don't garden. My body shape will certainly be different than hers. She's long and lean like her dad; I'm short and curvy.
Holding the budding cherry tomato plant in my hand, I thought back to my own childhood. When I was a child and a teenager, I needed my mom's best friend Kris in my life. She showed me that other moms do things differently—she did cartwheels when she was pregnant and made delicious enchilada casserole for dinner. She gave me a big hug and let me cry on her shoulder when I didn't make the cheerleading squad in 9th grade.
My mom got married at 18 and never lived in a college dorm. She couldn't understand why I would haul my laundry eight hours in a car just to use the washing machine at home. Kris lived two hours away from where I went to college—she told me to save my quarters and bring my laundry to her house when I needed a retreat from school.
Does Kris' role in my life make me think less of my mom? Absolutely not. My mom is a constant in my life. She knows me. My mom gave me the paper to write my first "book" when I was seven, and she was the one who encouraged me to apply for that college internship that led to my first real job.
Through each of my dad's deployments, my mom showed me what it means to be a strong, independent woman. I don't call Kris multiple times a week on my commute home from work. I call my mom. But Kris's impact in my life while I was a child has marked me—and, in some small way, it has helped make me into the person I am today.
Researchers have noted for years the importance of role models in young people's lives. When my daughter was a baby, I read somewhere that children need at least five non-parental trustworthy adults in their lives to stay grounded and confident. These could be teachers, coaches, aunts, grandfathers, or family friends.
My husband and I adopted this guideline for our own children. I am a person who prays, and one of the prayers I have prayed for my children is that we would be able to look back at every stage of their lives and count five trustworthy adult influencers.
Five people who can offer wisdom. Five people who know their dreams and struggles. Five people they can talk with openly.
Even today, we see that prayer being fulfilled in abundance. I am so grateful for our friends, our children's school teachers and our family members who love our children. Already they are filling gaps that we don't even see.
My daughter needs the interminable patience—like one of those magic baby bottles that always refills when you tilt it up. She needs the expertise of her elementary school art teacher who can nurture her love of art. Already, I see how she admires the way my friend Erica grows tomatoes, sunflowers, zucchini and herbs on the patio of her Washington, D.C. rowhouse.
She looks forward to the hugs she receives from my friend Stacey, a stay-at-home mom, who is one of the first people she sees after school every day. My daughter is learning all kinds of ways to make people feel welcomed and valued from my friend Jessica who is an incredible hostess. In the future, she will need the tenacity of a coach or instructor who pushes her. She doesn't know it now, but they are a part of her five today.
Through it all, I will be there. Her biggest fan. Having conversations about friendship on our walks to school. Singing to her as I tuck her in at night. Reading aloud with her. Keeping open communication with her. Doing my best to teach her and guide her. Putting a huge amount of effort into learning about her and her interests so I can help her become her own person.
But I can't be everything she needs. And I'm okay with that, because she'll be a much better person for it.