The majority of each of my pregnancies was a hormone-induced blur. One moment of clarity stands out so clearly in my brain, surrounded by a swirling vortex of experiences. An ultrasound technician, offering us a guided tour of the new life we created, begins their sentence with “So, we are looking for three lines to show us it’s a girl. And there they are!”
For our fourth and final guided tour, we intentionally turned our eyes away from the screen. I managed to convince my husband it would be better to be surprised.
Twenty weeks, two days, and twenty hours of Pitocin later, my final baby is placed to my chest. The room was still fresh with the hurried, frantic pace of a rapid arrival. Throughout the bustle of nurses, residents, and one knowledgeable attending provider with a smug “I told you this baby would come fast” grin, I felt peace. Everyone involved seemed pleased, but with one remaining question: “What did you have, Mom?”
It took me a moment to realize she was asking about the baby’s gender. The baby was here, and I was swept up in the haze of relief as I met this wonder staring back at me. My husband, immediately to my left, leaned down to whisper, “You were right.”
Memories of the week prior flooded immediately; the piles of little girl clothes, lovingly stretched to capacity by three older sisters. I remembered our drive between church and Easter lunch, where I declared I really didn’t like the name for a boy we had settled on seven years prior. This name carried us through the first twenty weeks of our older three daughters, not to mention 40 weeks of this final pregnancy. I’m still not clear how, but I knew this baby was a girl.
Even in the anxiety present with delivery, in this moment, with our fourth daughter fully alive in her baby beauty, clutching my outstretched pinky, I felt a peace that passes any level of human understanding. I recognized this peace from one prior experience: standing behind closed doors at the opposite end of the aisle from a man who looks remarkably like the lovely ladies who call him Dad.
Over time, we notice we experience polarizing reactions, mostly from strangers. We are either applauded or pitied; our life with four daughters in tow is projected as either pure bliss or borderline torture. Those who know us best can’t imagine our family any other way, and we can’t either. Our four daughters bring us an overwhelming sense of completion, as they were carved out for a purpose beyond our understanding.
These responses, whether from the cashier at the grocery store or a waitress at our favorite restaurant, never sat well with my second daughter. She is prone to black and white thinking, without any nuance of grey. While her sisters can mostly shrug off, or choose to internalize, the unwelcome commentary, she takes this feedback as a personal affront to her family.
Why is what she holds so dear worthy of criticism? What is it about having four daughters that makes life so hard for parents? What is this narrative, passed down for generations? Are daughters still a financial liability? Is their only value that we can assume daughters will care for their aging parents one day, still visiting on holidays so we aren’t alone?
And what about our poor Dad? Despite that they adore him with every fiber of their being at this moment, when they are all teenagers at once, the grace period ends. The consensus, with everyone except us, is that our sense of peace is a ticking time bomb, ready to detonate with a flux of hormones.
A favorite colleague of mine is a social worker, and in passing conversation, she offers sage wisdom when navigating the lives of tweens and teens: “Be the potted plant.” Just be present; present and most importantly, silent. I am on board with this advice without hesitation. I value quality time and presence above all else, so I assume my role in their adolescence will be comfortable and familiar.
A few Christmases prior, my husband asks if we could add indoor foliage to our piano room on the front of the house. My thumb is without a hue of green, so this ask is loftier than it might be for others. We attempt an awkward selection. With the help of a knowledgeable neighbor and Pinterest, we lug two desert plants home from our local nursery. “Be careful not to overwater,” they warn.
Confident in my ineptitude, through gritted teeth, I pour soil into new planters. This process is part delicate, part force, working to ensure each plant is grounded. With a stable foundation, it’s my hope they can sprout strong roots, digging as deep as the planter will allow. I fill our plastic cups from the football stadium, which must be at least half a gallon, to the brim. Remembering the warning against drowning, I split the water between two planters.
Just enough, I convince myself. Just enough.
This year, we have two daughters squarely in the thick of tweendom at ages twelve and ten. Our younger two daughters are delightfully in the familiar space of early elementary school. Their shots of independence are approached with caution. We know this will no longer be the case once they hit double digits.
For our older daughters, the emotional swings are bigger. The pushback on boundaries is stronger. Unpredictability may be uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary step as they grasp for their identity and space in this evolving world. I work hard to be the potted plant. I am here, available if needed, and mostly silent, which is not an easy role or good look on me.
We rotate the two plants in our piano room every few months to chase the sunlight that peaks in around the tree blooming outside the window. Branches are reaching across the piano bench, no longer upright, as they strain for the sunlight they need to thrive in this world. My second daughter’s frustration mounts, since she can’t play the piano with one of the plants searching for the sunlight. She can’t reach the lower keys without a leaf poking her in the cheek.
What are these potted plants, naively rooted and cared for by an amateur, telling me about how to love my daughters best? Am I stagnant, just present, and reliable while looking nice and adding ambiance? Or does love mean coming alongside them, ignoring the voices of those that might pity our family structure, and reaching for the light?
My daughter’s frustration continues through the seasons, as the plants continue to grow and thrive. I pause before I shift their trajectory, even just for the minutes she practices each afternoon. In this pause, I’m reminded that my role as their mother may be more like our own potted plants than those used in the popular metaphor.
Maybe my role in this evolving time is helping them search for their own light, which will nourish and grow them on their journey. I may get in the way at times, causing frustration and annoyance. I can be present as a listening ear, but never stagnant as they grow. My presence is their foundation, as I reach for the light alongside each of my girls.