Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dear Ellie - Four Years

My dear Ellie,

Today you are four years old!

What a girl you've become. You are silly, clever, happy, kind and loving. You're friendly and sweet and imaginative. You're creative and smart. You are just really something! In our recent conference with your preschool teacher (more on that momentarily), she told us that if she could choose one word to describe you, she would say you are authentic. Your daddy and I loved that description because it does fit so well. You are you, unapologetically and enthusiastically, at all times. You say what you think, you do what you like, and you love to share yourself with others. I admire that so much, and I'm so in awe of how much you've grown!

A big, big thing for you this year was starting school. You have excelled in school. You seem to have made friends easily (and still try to accumulate more whenever possible at the playground or otherwise out in public), and your teacher tells us you are diligent in your work and you enjoy success. She also tells us you are very kind to the other students and a great addition to your Busy Bees class. I was so proud to hear her say all these things about you! Not surprised, of course, but so, so proud. And, in addition to just having some new social interaction and exposure to a classroom environment, you have learned so much about our Christian faith through preschool instruction. It's so beautiful to hear you talk about Jesus! I'm just so proud of the little student you are this year.

You have really taken to being "funny" this year! You even like the "orange [Teenage Mutant Ninja] turtle" because Daddy told you he's the funny one. You love everything silly and whenever something tickles your funny bone, you're quick to share it with us. I mean, if we're being honest, sometimes your idea of humor is just to make random loud sounds, and I don't quite get the joke, but hey, if it makes you laugh, we'll roll with it!

I know in past letters I have written about your verbal development and I suppose that will remain in-progress for years and years to come, but it almost seems silly to talk about anymore because you are just so well-spoken. You have such a great grasp of language and honestly, sometimes I think that your speech works against you because in my mind you seem much older than you are, and perhaps I expect too much of you sometimes. I try to keep that in check, all the while marveling at the things you say. I'm sure it will embarrass you to no end to have this in writing, but one of my favorite times of the day is when you call me into your room during naptime because you have to go potty. It's just you and me and you just talk and talk, entire streams of consciousness spilling right out of your mouth. I love to have that unfiltered insight into what is on your mind!

You like to have a plan and know what is going to happen (I get that). I got you a calendar for your room this year, and I put stickers on the dates to show you what we're going to do. Each night you cross off the completed day and look forward to the next to see what we'll be doing. If we have a big event coming up, we talk through what will happen over and over. You like to know what to expect, and you remember the plan as it comes to fruition.

You also seem to have a great memory for past events. You can recount things that I would have thought long forgotten, like specific details from trips we've taken years ago. It's amazing. I wonder how long those memories will last!

As for your major interests this year, your love of princesses has continued, but you're interested in some new things, too. You have started taking ballet lessons and are eager to show off your moves at home (though the recitals so far have left a little to be desired). At this time last year, you wanted to be a doctor (a la Doc McStuffins) and that lasted well into this year until you discovered SPACE. It all started with a Star Wars coloring page I had you color for Daddy's birthday and soon morphed into a full-fledged Star Wars obsession (and you pulled your brother into it along with you), and that has translated into a love of outer space. You now say you want to be an astronaut, and you have your own dress-up astronaut suit that you can wear while sitting in your rocketship tent, watching stars projected on the ceiling in your room. This new interest also inspired a recent trip to Kennedy Space Center, which you loved! We met an astronaut and, aside from calling him a "blueberry pizza head" (a quote from your current favorite silly book), you wanted to ask him when YOU can go to outer space. I don't know what your future actually holds, kiddo, but I am so proud that you're already shooting for the stars. I have no doubt you can get there if that's what you really want.

Your play is very interactive these days. You do play alone during "naptime" (which rarely involves an actual nap anymore), but whenever we're around, you love to involve us in your games. You give very explicit instructions as to what we are supposed to do and say to keep the game going, and will repeat the sequence over and over (usually until we run out of time and have to stop!). One of your favorite current games is "ballet class" in which we take turns being the ballet teacher giving instruction and the student, performing a dance.

To be honest, Ellie, this year I have missed you. That seems silly to say as we spend almost all of our time together, but since E.J. was born (and now has grown into a walking, talking little person), the content of our time together has drastically changed. I know I touched on this in my last letter, but as E.J. has continued to grow into toddler-hood and has demanded more of my "keep E.J. alive" energy, and as I have lost you two mornings a week to school, it has become even more pronounced. When you were a baby, I was able to spend all day every day giving you my undivided attention. When you were an infant, I spent my time with you pushing the stroller for miles along the bumpy bricks of the Hoboken waterfront and hours passed as we cuddled in bed during your naptimes. Then, it was our walks and bike rides through Papa's neighborhood as we passed the time waiting for Daddy to get home from work. When we got to Jacksonville, it was our strolls out to the turtle lake and our rigorous schedule of storytimes around town that gave us such great quality play and learning time outside of the house. And, all along the way, we spent hours upon hours just sitting on the floor in our living room or your bedroom playing whatever it was that popped into your head: everything from stacking rings to endless book-reading to pretend play. We were side-by-side, doing it all together, every step of the way.

Now with your brother around, things have had to change. You seem to roll with the punches just fine, and you never complain, but I can't help but wonder how it really feels to you. Whereas once I was able to be your constant playtime companion, now there are so many days when I lay in bed at night and feel pangs of guilt for a day spent telling you, "I can't play right now Ellie, I have to make lunch," or "We can't play that game on the playground, Ellie, we have to stay close to E.J.," or "I can't read that book right now, I have to put E.J. down for his nap," and so on. Many nights I think back over the day and just pray that somewhere between all the "I can't, I have to"-s, I have still somehow managed to give you what you need. I pray that even though our time together looks so different, that you are benefiting from having a sibling and that you won't resent me (or him) for the necessary redistribution of my attention. I know in the end you will be okay. You're such a great kid. But I so worry about short-changing you, and, frankly, I miss our one-on-one time very much.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention other worries that keep me up at night these days. I also mentioned in last year's letter that you experience emotions very intensely. Needless to say, that has not abated since your last birthday. In fact, as much as I hate to admit it, it's quite likely that we actually butt heads quite a bit more these days. You are a very strong-willed girl, and that is something I greatly admire in you. However, sometimes, I feel pretty confident that you argue with me just for the sake of arguing, you whine just for the sake of whining, and my day is spent navigating tantrum landmines. I sometimes worry that the world will miss out on seeing what an incredible person you are because your awesomeness gets buried under stubbornness and inclination to argue. Some days are worse than others, of course, and the good days do still greatly outnumber the difficult ones. And, I also know that much of this comes with your age—not only are your emotions still new and overwhelming to you, but your days are also spent doing what I say to do, going where I say to go on my schedule. I don't fault you in the least for trying to exert some control over your daily life, and I do try to give that to you when I can. But some days, it just seems we can't get on the same page.

When I say that I love your strong will, I mean it. I don't stay up at night worrying about this in a "how do I break her of this" way. Instead, I stay up at night questioning if I handled it well during the day, and if what I'm doing is best in the long run. I pray that I will be able to find a way to encourage you to continue to form strong opinions, to freely and confidently express what you want, and to fight for what matters to you. You are lightyears ahead of me in all of those things and the last thing I want to do is squash that determination. I struggle with finding the balance between encouraging you and teaching you that sometimes you do have to do what I ask simply because I said so. I so badly want to do what is best for you in the long term. I pray for patience and wisdom, and overall it's a work in progress. No matter what, though, Ellie, I want you to know two things in no uncertain terms: 1) that I am doing my very best to be the mother you need; and 2) that no matter how at odds we may feel at any given moment, I always love you completely and entirely. No arguments or tears or yelling or door-slamming could ever shake my devotion to you. Ever.

Speaking of "mothering" and devotion (but on a lighter note!), you are really trying to take charge of E.J. these days! There's a good bit more sibling squabbling in our house now, as you both like to play ONLY with whatever toy the other is currently holding. You have also taken it upon yourself to watch out for E.J., not only telling him what he should and should not be doing but reporting back to me if he doesn't listen (which he never does). You do like to play with him (on your terms, of course) and it is very clear that you adore him. You like to cuddle him while he nurses and if he's crying in the car, you will reach out and hold his hand. You even call him "Eej" and it melts my heart. At the end of the day, you take care of the little guy. You're an exceptional big sister.

As for other little Ellie memories from this year, your favorite show is probably still Doc McStuffins, though you've also gotten into movies a good bit (you really like Cinderella, Tangled and Inside Out). You still love books, and have recently started working on a couple of chapter books with Daddy (you're so excited to read "big girl books!"). Speaking of being a big girl, you are fully potty-trained, drink out of a "big girl cup" and can pedal your tricycle (if you're in the mood). You still love the "seahorse park" and even go down the big slide regularly now! You love to listen to "princess music" (Disney music on Pandora) and like to eat your meals at your picnic table in the living room. You are obsessed with the Star Wars droids and even do a C3PO voice! You love your family, both immediate and extended, and are always happy to have visitors or to travel to see them. You love staying in hotels, and are an excellent traveller (you handled a two-week road trip this summer like a pro!). You still don't like loud noises (though your "ear mouse" have helped a bit). You love to run and always invite us to join you. You've tried some new foods and your most favorite is ziti with meatballs. You love the color pink (and you keep track of everyone else's favorite colors, and point out things in those colors to them regularly). You love to pick flowers. You like to sleep in slippers, but don't like to sleep under the covers. You like to color and paint and you love stickers. You have gotten really good at puzzles, too! And, you can write your first name all by yourself!

Basically, you're a really awesome kid. I'm so honored to be your mom and it is such a cool thing to watch you grow into this little person before my very eyes. What a gift I've been given!

Ellie, I know you will never fully realize how much I love you (at least not until you have a baby of your own), but I will keep on saying it anyway. I love you so much. I love every piece of you, from the tiny freckles on your nose to your deepest thought. You are my baby, my firstborn, my girl. You are so special to me.

Happy birthday, sunshine.

All my love,

* * * * *

My dear Ellie,

You are four whole years old. Despite how insignificant that is going to be when you get around to reading this far into these letters, it feels like a really big deal for your Mama and me. Having your little brother around makes me shake my head weekly trying to imagine you ever being so young or small, even though we have more than enough pictures to prove it. The truth is, although you have only added a single year of age, it feels like you have grown so much more than that in complexity.

The best way for me to explain what I am talking about is to admit that, for the first time, I am less certain we are on the right track raising you. We love you completely and are doing our best, but I am no longer sure our best is what will be best for you in the long run. Essentially, you are always fully committed to the way you feel, but not always capable of rationalizing, even to yourself, why you feel that way. This makes it extremely difficult for me to know what to say or do. Trying to talk you through doesn't usually get anywhere until you, seemingly arbitrarily, decide to move on. Taking a stronger tone or threatening consequences never spurs the right action, though it often makes you even more upset which sometimes leads to a reset. I am sure this means you are emotional, thoughtful and, yes, complex, but it does not mean I have any idea how to guide you to a productive use of these emotions and thoughts.

In addition, you also do so many more real things. You started Tuesday/Thursday preschool and take weekly ballet classes. I should note that your first recital featured an epic display of what I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Without really being able to talk rationally to you about it, I really do not know how to keep it from becoming a thing you do in similar situations. Given the randomness involved, I am so afraid you might snowball bad experiences and that I will not be able to encourage you to keep trying. That said, I do hope the snowballing happens to the good things, like school, which you absolutely love. You also use the potty, walk by yourself a lot more and can follow longer books and movies. You would also dress yourself most days if you didn't melt down to various degrees at the simple request to do so. Again, see the previous paragraph.

I should also confess that two other things make it hard for me to reflect properly on your past year. First, I am sitting down to write this letter with a lot of other thoughts in my head. Most pressing is the fact that my temporary teaching certificate will expire at the end of this school year and I do not have anything decided for the summer or fall. Yesterday was the last day of spring break and I have been working hard on a coherent vision for my own future, scared that I might change my mind later or abandon the exercise altogether. I feel the gap between idealism and pragmatism getting wider as I get older, and I am afraid if it takes me too long to figure things out, I will lose the former option altogether. Ellie, I have no doubts about our little family, but feel the ever-growing weight of responsibility to make the professional choices that ensure the brightest future for all of us. You will obviously know how things worked out, and I hope this is helpful in some way. It is, at the very least, honest.

In addition to working through my thoughts about your fourth year, I can't help but reflect on the passing of my mother and grandmother last summer. Death is always difficult, but it makes me sad to know that they will never mean anything to you. Thanks to pictures, you will know that you met them, and I hope you will benefit from the enormously positive impact they had on my life and personality, but I know this is less than it could have been had circumstances been different. I am so grateful to have been loved by them and do not take for granted what it meant to have their fullest confidence and unwavering support. As uncertain as I am about my own professional future, I know I want to have that kind of relationship with you.

Ellie, I think part of what makes it so hard for me to think about the big picture is how strongly you keep me grounded in the present. Regardless of where we end up, I can't regret the decision I made to come to Jacksonville because of all the time it has allowed us to spend together. Had I kept better notes from this year, I am sure the following list of examples would span pages. I didn't, but I still hope it is inclusive enough to make this, my most important, point. Off the top of my head, I love that we have been able to read so many books so many times and that you almost always indulge me more than I expect (like when I try to encourage you to sight read or make predictions or test your comprehension). I love that you try to do different voices for characters and have opinions about the ones I try. I love the four times we "got married" and the countless times you invited me to act out the most romantic scenes form Tangled, Cinderella and other Disney movies. I loved being able to sit in on a glowing report from your very first teacher and watching you perform (or refuse to perform) at all of your school concerts. I love our dance parties and running along the river so we can jump out and surprise Mama and EJ. I also love that I have been lucky enough to put you down to bed almost every night this year. We brush, read, pray and sing and you always (save for exactly once) move on from not wanting to go to bed to spend this time perfectly present with me.

You are my very best girl and I love you so very much.

All my love,

P.S. I hope you read the whole thing in a C-3PO voice.

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