Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dear Ellie - Three Years

My dear Ellie,

You are three years old today, and I simply cannot get enough of you.

In the last year you have grown from toddler to pre-schooler, and I'm not even sure when or how it happened. It was as if one day I just looked at you and realized, wow. She's so grown-up. You are no longer the stumbly, three-word-sentence-uttering little baby you were only a year ago. You are your own miniature person now, and I have loved every second of watching you grow into the little girl before me today.

The change that stands out the most to me is your verbal development. At the time of my last letter to you, you were forming short sentences and I was marveling at how participatory you had become and how much about your experiences you were able to remember. Well, today I could restate those same observations, but tenfold. The conversations we have! I just cannot even believe it. Every day you say something that amazes me: you use a word I never heard you say before, you express a complex thought I didn't expect, you ask a poignant question, you describe a memory I assumed was long forgotten. You speak so well, and even still, sometimes I can see the wheels turning in your head as your mouth struggles to keep up with the thoughts racing through your mind. Even with as well as you speak, and as extensive as your vocabulary has become, you still do not have all the words you need to fully express all your thoughts. I only hope that when you are old enough to have the words you need, that you are still as willing to share your thoughts with me.

I know that in future years I will enjoy reading back through these letters to see the explicit examples of the kinds of things three-year-old Ellie was saying (and I hope you will, too), so let me share some: just today, for instance, you were thinking about your birthday party, which we hosted two weeks ago. You (accurately) stated: "Remember it was Rapunzel's birthday? And I had my party? I went with Papa. And Grammy was there, at my party! And you were there, too, Mama! You were decorating my party! And I loved it." Well, melt my heart, why don't you! (For the record, at the time of this conversation you were pretending to be Rapunzel, and Papa did drive you to the party, as Daddy and I were already there setting up.)

That was a fairly recent memory to recount, but you have also described things as far back as our meal at the T-Rex Cafe at Downtown Disney over a year ago. You also talk frequently about our Disney trips (mostly meeting the princesses: "Remember we meet Anna and Elsa? They were so happy!"; and the classic Disney characters: "Remember we saw Minnie? But I didn't want to meet Minnie. I cried. But we saw her outside, at the parade! There were no fireworks. The fireworks are too loud."), as well as other fun events we have enjoyed together, like the circus or the races you have run with your Daddy. One memory you often discuss that particularly strikes my heart, though, is E.J.'s hospitalization, when he came down with a fever just 10 days after he was born. You often talk about "when E.J. was sick at the hospital, and he was crying." You also nearly destroyed me when, for weeks after my trip to Cleveland with E.J. over Christmas (while you and Daddy stayed in Jacksonville), you kept talking about how you "didn't want to make [me] be gone." It is both exhilarating and (at times) heart-wrenching to have such an explicit look into your thoughts and feelings now.

Physically, you have grown so much, and much of it has been just within the last month or so. Sure, you became more and more steady on your feet as the year progressed. But you have always been a bit timid physically—not that you couldn't do certain things, but you just didn't seem to feel inclined to do so. You were happy to go to the playground and just use the swings, and it took you a long time to want to try the slide, and even then you ran hot and cold towards it for a while. But just in the last few weeks, you are like a new kid at the playground. You go down the biggest slides all by yourself, you want to swing higher and faster, you simply cannot run fast enough, you climb the rock walls, you'll even slide down the smaller slides head-first. You are unstoppable and excited and so much fun to watch. I love seeing this newer side of you and I am proud of you for trying your hand at new things.

You are also a very sociable little girl, which always impresses me (your very introverted mother) so. You have taken to sitting off with your friends at storytime (you call all other children your friends), and when we get there you will just say, "Bye, Mama!" and run off to join the other children. At the library just this past week, I watched you go up to another little boy and say, "Hi! What's your name? I'm Ellie. Want to play together?" and I was just in awe. I was never able to do that, and still am not very good at it, but you make it look so easy. In fact, we signed you up for preschool starting in the fall, almost entirely because I felt you just needed more interaction with your peers (without me hovering nearby) than I was able to give you.

Your social nature both thrills and scares me. There was one instance at the playground a month or two ago that comes to mind in particular: some older kids were playing keep-away with a ball, and you desperately wanted to join in. You ran right over into the thick of things and extended your arms, calling out, "Over here, friends! Throw it to me!" When they did not, my heart broke for you. In fairness, they were much older and playing a pretty rough game that was not really suitable for a sweet two-year-old, and we found our own ball and you and Daddy had a blast playing your own game, so all was well. But it was a very painful reminder that someday, there may be kids who don't want to play with you, or don't want to be your friend, or say mean things to or about you. I hate to know that you will someday feel excluded or hurt, or will be teased or ignored. The very thought pains me to my core and I just want to pull you close to me and hold you tight and keep the world away, because I just love who you are right now, that little girl yet untouched by the meanness of the world. I love that you see everyone as friends, and go right up to them and invite them to play. I love that you don't yet have feelings of self-consciousness or uncertainty. I love that you are bold and kind and friendly and self-assured. My dream for you is that those traits will hold fast for you throughout your life, but I know that there is a great likelihood that they will be shaken as you grow and begin to concern yourself with what the world thinks of you. Even now, you have already taken to asking me rather frequently: "Mama, do you like me?" I don't know where that question comes from, or what is motivating it, but my answer will always remain the same: "Baby, I love you, so much." Still, your question reminds me that someday, you will worry if others like you, and you will likely put far too much stock into the opinions of your peers. Ellie, always know that you are special, and important, and worthy of respect and kindness and love.

Arguably the biggest change in your life over the past year has been the addition of your baby brother to our family. Ellie, you are the most exceptional big sister. You have far exceeded any hopes or dreams I may have had for how you would respond to your brother. Since the day he was born, you have shown him nothing but pure love and unrelenting devotion. You fuss over his tiny features ("Look at his little tiny toes! He's so cute!"), you make sure he always has a toy to play with, you make him laugh every day, you try to cheer him up when he cries (often using strategies you have seen me use), you encourage him when he learns something new, you shower him with hugs and kisses. When he wakes up from his morning nap, you are the first one in the room to greet him. You introduce him to new people ("That's E.J.!"), you love to imitate his sounds, you narrate his every move, and you love to cuddle him (and when his soft hair rubs your face you say, "E.J.'s fluffing me!"). I have been so amazed with how joyfully you have welcomed him into our family, without hesitation. You are truly extraordinary.

Frankly, the adjustment to our larger family size has probably been more difficult for me than for you. You and I had a really good thing going before E.J. was born. Now the three of us are in a groove and we have a lot of fun together, and it feels like E.J. was always meant to be a part of our family. But there are times when I miss our one-on-one time quite a bit. I feel sad that I can no longer spend my days giving you my undivided attention. I often struggle with balancing your needs with your brother's. Sometimes I feel that there simply isn't enough of me to go around. If you feel that way, you have yet to let on, but I hope you know how much I treasured our two years of solo time before E.J. was born and how I continue to cherish all my time with you.

You handled the transition to big sister flawlessly, but that wasn't the only thing you handled in stride this year. E.J. was in the hospital for two weeks after he was born and I stayed there with him. It was terribly difficult to be away from you all that time at such a time of upheaval for our family, and I agonized over that. But you really handled the whole thing with such maturity and grace and were so well-behaved for Daddy, and so eager to visit with E.J. and me in the hospital every chance you got. We also moved to a new house shortly thereafter, and you did so well with that change, too. You just really impress me, little girl, with how well you adapt to changes in your world. You are really something.

Of course, I fear I must mention that you do sometimes struggle with your emotions. We have our fair share of tantrums, pouting, whining, defiance and contrarian attitudes around here. I know much of it is typical "threenager" stuff—you're testing your boundaries and trying to assert your independence. I get that. But you are a person who feels emotions very intensely and expresses them fully and freely; you always have been. When you are happy, your excitement just bursts out of you as you literally start jumping for joy. But when you are sad or angry or hurt or frustrated, you feel those emotions deeply and they also burst out of you with tears and wails, and they can escalate very quickly. There are times when I can just see you struggling because you are so out of control of your own emotions. I, too, struggle with that sometimes. It can be scary and is certainly frustrating to feel your emotions running you instead of the other way around. I am doing my very best to help you learn to cope and calm yourself and better deal with the overwhelming feelings you are experiencing. I only hope I can do my job and help you find balance where you need it.

In addition to keeping your own emotions right at the surface, you have started to be very aware of the emotions of those around you, too. You ask me countless times a day, "Mama, are you happy?" When I scold you for something, you whisper that question under your breath and then try to think of ways to fix the problem: "What could make Mama happy? Maybe my toys will make Mama happy?" It shatters my heart and I try to tell you as much as I can, even unprompted, just how happy you do make me. Baby girl, you bring me so much joy, I can't even put it into words!

As for other changes this year has brought for you, you have checked quite a few things off your "big girl" list: you transitioned to a "big girl bed" (something I dreaded beforehand but it could not have gone more smoothly), started potty training (though we have shelved that for a bit), got your first haircut (your hair is so long now!!!), and even rode your first roller-coaster! You have a pretty set schedule now, with three meals you enjoy and one attempted nap per day (sometimes you sleep, sometimes you don't, but you always go willingly into your room and entertain yourself for a while at the very least!). We have a good little routine going!

Another hallmark of this year that cannot go unmentioned is your blossoming fashion sense! You have started to really enjoy choosing what you wear and as much as I can, I try to give you free reign over your wardrobe. That has led to some pretty interesting get-ups out in public (one night, for example, a new friend of mine was going to the park where you already were with Daddy, and I told her to look for you—the little girl at the playground in tiger ears and a tail!). Lately you just love to play pretend and get into "costumes," and you will even get back up after we have tucked you into bed at night to redress yourself in your favorite costume du juor. That means when I get you up in the mornings, I never know who will greet me: Princess Anna (in dress and shoes), Minnie Mouse, Doc McStuffins...the possibilities are endless!

As for other things you have enjoyed this year, your favorite toy was most definitely your stethoscope/doctor's kit. You became hooked on Doc McStuffins, and were even given a couple of real stethoscopes by doctors while E.J. was in the hospital. That meant everybody got very regular check-ups from Dr. Ellie for quite some time! You also really love the show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (a spin-off of Mister Roger's Neighborhood, from my own childhood). You enjoy playing outside (the "seahorse park" is your favorite), and your love of books remains strong (you like to sleep with books in your bed at night!). You caught "Frozen fever" and love all things Anna and Elsa, though Anna is your favorite. You also like trains, and riding the Jacksonville Skyway over to the Main Library for storytime is a weekly treat. A girl after my own heart, you also like to go to Target (whenever we need a non-food item, you suggest we go to Target to get it!). You love music (particularly the Frozen soundtrack) and have really taken a liking to dancing lately. You have also started singing more this year, which I adore.

Basically, Ellie, this was an awful lot of words to say that you are just a really, really cool kid. I know my letters are always long but that is simply because I want to do my best to remember every detail of who you are today, right now. I know that every day you are changing and growing up just a little bit more, and by this time next year it will be hard for me to put myself back here and remember who you are as three-year-old-Ellie. I cannot slow time down, but I can do my best to document as much of it as possible so these moments will never be fully lost. Because I do not want to lose a single moment with you. When I think about you as a newborn baby, the image that most comes to mind is you sleeping beside me during naptime, on those seemingly unending afternoons when you needed to nap curled up against me so we would just sit there in my bed, you snoozing peacefully while I did whatever I could to silently pass the time for hours. I can still see your little body and sweet little face laying beside me and now, when I look into those lovely blue eyes of yours and see you smile that happy smile, I can hardly believe that you are the same person. How did that little bitty thing tucked up against my chest turn into this incredible, talking, happy, thoughtful, imaginative, curious, sweet girl before me? What an amazing thing, and how blessed am I to have been able to watch it happen before my eyes! You are truly a special girl, my Elizabeth Alice. And I am honored to be your mother. I only hope I can be half the mother that you deserve, because you deserve nothing but the best.

I love you so, Bug! I love you "all the much." Happy third birthday, baby girl.

All my love,

* * * * *

Dear Ellie,

Happy third birthday! There is so much I want to say to you, but I'm afraid I won't even say any of the things I end up saying as well as I want to say them. I am also afraid I won't say things I meant to say at different times throughout the year because I was too busy having fun to take notes. I suppose it just goes with the territory of having to sum up an entire year in one try. I realize that by the time you read this, there will be so many letters, that leaving something out from, say, the fourth month of your third year will be inconsequential at best. However, I feel bad right now because I can honestly say that every age of yours have been my absolute favorite to date. I want to remember all of them but the new present has been so awesome each time that I never stopped to record a meaningful description of my previous favorite. Ellie, you have frown so much in a year and developed so well verbally and emotionally that you regularly leave me speechless with pride for the amazing little girl you are becoming. As much fun as it would be to elaborate with examples, I have pretty much decided not to retrace your adorable steps in my letters. Were I to try and follow this more traditional path, I know I would write a much less useful letter than your Mama will write. (FYI, ever since our very first letters to you, we have avoided sharing thoughts or details with each other until we finished writing). Therefore, I will leave you with another list of my current hopes and dreams for you, written ever-so-cleverly using contemporaneous characteristics.

First, I hope you always think it is great to be "just Ellie." One of my favorite things of all time has been watching you pretend to be characters from your favorite books, TV shows and movies. I really wish I had kept a list of everything you pretended to be or assigned to me, your mama, EJ or Achilles. The roster ended up getting so long in my head that it became impossible for me to write them all down, so I didn't. Looking back, something would have been better than nothing, but I sure enjoyed it while it was happening. More recently, this pretend play have gotten more substantial and involves costumes. You are currently cycling among Doc McStuffins, selected members of the cast of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, Minnie Mouse and Disney Princesses Anna and Rapunzel, complete with appropriate shoes, headwear and accessories, as applicable. All of that said, you almost always take breaks while in costume to insist that you are "just Ellie" when we try to play along and call you by your character's name. I want very much for you to have and pursue your dreams and use your imagination, but I will be even happier to know that you recognize that being yourself is just as worthwhile, interesting and fun. You are truly that great.

Second, I hope you always deal with change as well as you did when EJ joined our family. You have been so sweet with him since the day you met. This year, we also moved homes and spend two weeks together while Mama was in the hospital with EJ. You handled everything so well and were so loving and patient towards me, Mama and EJ during this time. I remember vividly singing "Old MacDonald" and "Wheels on the Bus" every night on our drive home to keep you awake. You would supply the person, animal or thing on the farm or bus and it was my job to sing the song and figure out a sound or action. You were so creative. I also remember the time you noticed the "golden arches" and asked me about the "french fry store." Whoops. I promise we don't eat them that often, but it was too funny not to share. In any event, you can be defined by either your circumstances, which are always subject to change without notice, or you can choose to be defined by your actions. As of now, it appears in your nature to make the most of what you are doing and who you are doing it with. Some day, you will have to decide to follow your natural inclinations and I hope you will.

I hope you are always willing to admit when you don't know something. No matter how much you end up knowing, I hope you know enough to know that you will never know everything about anything. These days, we ask you a lot of questions and you are so well spoken that I just love to listen to your answers. However, you have recently started admitting, "I don't know" with such an air of sincerity, as if you are genuinely curious about the answer. That is something that will serve you quite well. To be fair, you are only three years old and also say thins sometimes when you clearly know the answer, but I like to pretend you are being funny (which you have actually started doing on purpose, like the time you were singing the alphabet and said .".. H I E J" and everyone laughed, so you kept doing it). Regardless, you are so eager to learn new things. For example, you almost always sound out new words or phrases when you hear them for the first time. No matter how (adorably) far off you are sometimes, you always try and indulge us as we help you get closer a few more times. You will never be bored if you stay as open-minded and curious.

I hope you still think of everyone else as your friends. This year, you remained social and started to learn how to introduce yourself to other kids and how to actually interact with them. There were plenty of times you got spooked by these kids, but, in general, you are very interested in other people and especially in sharing your experiences with them. Ellie, people are so diverse and interesting and doing things with them can enhance your endeavors greatly. For me, I can't think of a single marquee experience in my life that I would not rather have had your mama with me to enjoy. Having the ability to interact with different kinds of people is a difficult skill, but your genuine interest in them should go a long way towards ensuring there are others around to enrich the things you end up doing.

On a more personal level, I hope you always like spending time with me. I am especially grateful that your interest in doing things with friends has extended to me at home, and that I have gotten to join you in so much playing this year. Honestly, we read so many more stories than there were days this year. If nothing else comes out of my career change, the extra time we have gotten to spend together these years these years will have made it a good decision.

Finally, I hope you agree to use the potty at some point, continue to do so from then on, and that this happens sooner as opposed to later.

Happy birthday, little Belle! You are, and always will be, my best girl.

All my love,

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