I didn’t realize that my 3-year-old likes popcorn.
But more significantly, I didn’t realize that I didn’t know things about my 3-year-old.
I was awakened to both realities after the toddler-in-question spent a night at my parents’ house, an activity that occurs every week or so. As I drove her home after the night away and asked about the particulars of the event, she gave her typical answers (“played Candy Land not the right way,” “had toast for breakfast,” “did origami”), all of which I expected. The girl loves routine and ritual, and my parents are indulgent. But later in the day when she mentioned that popcorn is her favorite food, I did a double take.
“Popcorn? When have you eaten popcorn?” I asked.
It was as if she told me she had gotten Mr. Tickle tattooed on her lower back. I was so surprised.
“On sleepovers,” she responded with a smile and, dare I say, smug satisfaction. “Grandpa Oui makes it in the little pot, and then we sit in front of the fire and we have popcorn.”
It was a dear moment, in so many ways: the image of her sitting by the kitchen’s wood stove on the little red rocker that belonged to my mom as a child, the wistfulness in her eyes as she recalled sharing a snack with my dad, her clear articulation in recounting a happy memory. I hadn’t anticipated the shocking joy and gratitude I experience as I watch this relationship—My parents! My daughter!—develop, and this scene distills the tenderness.
But it was also a hard moment, this instance of recognizing that my daughter—my baby!—has a life entirely her own. She not only has her own opinions and preferences (which I already knew about since I get her dressed every day, after all), but she also has her own experiences, ideas, and memories, all those things that make a person their entirely own self.
My daughter, it turns out, is not an extension of me.
Of course, I knew this on an intellectual level before the popcorn awakening. Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget the reality of separateness in the early years of parenting, the years when I can tell the difference between hungry cries and tired cries, the years when I pre-chew certain food items (please don’t tell me I’m the only one), the years when I’m more aware of her bodily functions than she is of her own. Separateness feels like a distant dream on bad days, and on good days it feels like something that I don’t have to worry about for a long time.
But then a conversation about popcorn happens, and I’m reminded that my daughter is hurtling full force ahead to independence.
Reflecting on all of this, I’m forced to confront the fact that, even before my daughter had any experiences of which I was not a part—even as she lay naked on my chest in the seconds after birth—she was never really an extension of me to begin with. She has always been her own little person. And what’s more, she’s not only not me. She’s also not mine.
This one is a little harder to wrap my mind around, in part because everything from the way early parenting looks (we named her; we provide for her; we make choices on her behalf) to the grammar of the English language (I regularly introduce my daughter as just that: my daughter) suggests otherwise. But the reality is that, from a faith perspective at least, my children do not belong to me any more than the trees in my yard or the soil beneath my house belongs to me. As inextricably woven into the fabric of my heart as my loved ones might be, they are not mine. They are God’s. And I’m simply lucky that God has blessed me with the beautiful and heart-wrenching privilege and responsibility of nurturing these young souls as they begin their journey of development.
From a faith perspective at least, my children do not belong to me any more than the trees in my yard.
While the realization that my daughters don’t belong to me is initially unsettling (a mama bear instinct kicks in and I want to roar: THEY ARE MINE!), it doesn’t take long for me to recognize the freedom that comes with accepting my lack of ownership. Nothing can or will change the love I feel for my daughters, so, mine or not, I’m going to do everything in my power to nurture, cherish, and support these humans now and as they grow. But that’s the crux: Everything in my power is not everything, nor is it even a whole lot. I can feed; I can read to; I can cuddle; I can teach; I can sing; I can laugh with; I can celebrate; and I can discipline. But I cannot ensure health; I cannot prevent hardship; I cannot guarantee safety; I cannot fix every problem; and I cannot pave the way to good fortune. So much is out of my control.
Acknowledging my limitations as a parent is, well, terrifying (the illusion of control is so grounding!), but it’s also life-giving. For starters, it helps me relinquish the internal resistance that so often rears its head when things don’t go the way I had imagined they would. If I think it’s in my control, I’m going to be furious and frustrated when it goes differently than I envisioned (it being everything from how my children’s personalities develop, to the ways they express their gender, to their chosen hobbies). But when I recognize that it’s out of my control (because, let me say it again, they are not mine), a spaciousness opens within me to accept whatever comes to pass. Recognition of limitations also reminds me that, if I can’t control all the outcomes anyway, I may as well loosen my grip and stop micromanaging the universe of my home in such an exhausting and tedious way.
The spiritual bonus is that resistance relinquishment and grip loosening create fertile ground for seeds of faith, trust, and hope in God to grow. When we think that everything is in our control, we box out the movement of the Holy Spirit. When we operate from a place of ownership, we overlook the gracious involvement of God—the source of life, the true owner of all—in our day-to-day lives.
I’d give up ownership of my children (as if I ever had it) for the Holy Spirit’s presence in my parenting (as if it wasn’t always there) any day.
This article also appears in the July 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 7, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.