The Promise I Can’t Keep
This post originally appeared on Coffee + Crumbs.
“Don’t let me fall, Mommy,” my two-year-old says, trying to muster the courage to let go and come down the slide. Her eyes are wide, her fists tense on the rails.
“I won’t,” I promise, holding my arms out with an encouraging smile. “I’ll never let you fall.”
Down she slides, nervous and squealing, my hands holding her steady and safe, all the way down. At the bottom she leaps up, cheeks pink with pride. “Again!”
Again and again she slides; again and again, I don’t let her fall.
I think about it on the ride home, my promise: I’ll never let you fall.
Because even though I meant it, it’s not entirely true. It’s not a promise I can keep, not a promise I should make. As much as I fight it, the day is coming when I’m going to have to break that promise. Let her try, all by herself. Let her take a risk. Let her take a fall.
I think about it at bath time, as I scrub the sandbox sand out from between her ticklish toes.
One day she’ll want to learn to ride her bike without training wheels, and at some point I will have to let go. For a few glorious wind-in-her-hair seconds, she’ll ride—she’ll fly—and then she’ll fall.
One day she’ll procrastinate so long she doesn’t get her homework done, and I’ll have to let her face the consequences of getting a bad grade.
One day she’ll try out for something, give it her best, put herself out there. They’ll post the list of names, and her name won’t make the list.
One day she’ll give a piece of her heart to a boy, and come home with puffy eyes and a broken heart.
One day she’ll leave home for a life of her own, making her own choices—some right, some wrong.
I think about it that night, when I tiptoe in to watch her dream. I want to keep her here, safe in her bed, safe near my arms, safe from the world. I want to swaddle her body and heart in bubble-wrap, so she’ll never get hurt. But I know I can’t. I remember my husband the quarterback once telling me, “Great athletes know how to take a fall.”
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Resting my hand on my daughter’s back, feeling the rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing, I rethink my promise. My role. The gifts I want to give her in our precious few years together.
The gift of knowing that everybody falls.
The gift of knowing it’s okay, maybe even good, to fall.
The gift of knowing she needs to fall, because falling is part of risking and growing, of living and loving.
The gift of knowing how to take a fall; how to fall in such a way that she’s hurt but not broken.
The gift of knowing how to get back up after a fall. How to wipe away the dirt and blood and tears. How to stand once more on shaky legs, take a deep breath, and give it another go.
The gift of not wasting her falls. Of letting them make her stronger and better, braver and wiser.
Maybe the best promise I can make my daughter is that if she falls—when she falls—for as long as I live and as long as she lets me, I’ll still be there at the bottom, waiting. Still loving her. Still liking her. Still believing in her. When she’s young, I’ll be there with bandages, with tissues and shoulders she can wet with her tears. When she’s older, I’ll be there with stories of my own falls, so she knows she’s not the only one. At every stage, I’ll be the one cheering loudest when she picks herself up and tries again.
I lean down and whisper a new promise in her dreaming ear, “When you fall, you won’t be alone.”
She sighs and blinks up at me, bleary-eyed. I sing lullabies until she falls asleep.
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Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.