An open letter to the village “elders”
Recently, several “elders” in my village – friends from various chapters of my life that are somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 years older than me – have told me that I am a role model for their pre-teen/teen/young adult daughter. This makes no sense to me, as I am in the trenches of just trying to keep my tiny humans alive and not get fired from my job. There must have been some miscommunication along the way. So, my dear, sweet, older (sorry, couldn’t resist) friend – let me clarify what our arrangement actually is.
At some point, the universe brought us together. I can’t remember the specific details because I was in a fog then, probably at Target, probably having just spilled out the contents of the diaper bag all over the floor, which you knowingly helped me clean up, while simultaneously dabbing away my tears and soothing my infant. (Apparently, you have three arms in this version of the story.) Over the years, our lives became more intertwined. I got to know you and your family and you were always there in the background checking on me, even after our lives may have taken us in different directions or put hundreds of miles between us. I’ve loved getting to know you and your family, including that kickass daughter of yours. I’ve learned so much from you, especially what it means to be surrounded by a village full of strong, caring women who just get it and who show up when it matters most.
You told me I looked great, even when we both knew I hadn’t slept in days and I had foul-smelling spit-up crusted on my shirt. You brought me food all the time, because you know I can’t cook and, even if I could, when was I supposed to fit that in? You stepped in at a moment’s notice to care for my sick kid who had been sent home from daycare yet again, so I wouldn’t have to miss that important meeting at work. Most importantly, though, you kept cheering me on, encouraging me, promising me it would get easier and that I was doing great. If your daughter looks up to me, it’s because you were there lifting me up when the weight of my own young children and career felt so heavy, so that I could still have a bit of light left to shine for her.
My own mother was and is incredible. But, of course, I don’t remember all the amazing ways she parented me through my “difficult years” (which I believe was actually more like decades). I was too busy being in it to step outside of my egocentric adolescent mind and observe how she handled my siblings and me, how she skillfully navigated the sensitive conversations and never made me feel silly or naive for swearing for the one hundredth time that [insert boy’s name] was definitely “the one” and no one in the history of the world had ever felt the heartbreak I was feeling in that moment. My experience watching you all these years has helped me to understand what she did for me and how I became the person you want around your daughter.
Your daughter can’t see it yet, because she’s still in the thick of it with you. But when that day comes, when she is ready to hear it, I’ll be there to tell her. I’ll tell her how you spent so many nights worrying about whether you were strong enough to be her mother, whether she will find her way, whether you were there for her enough or too much, and whether you were making the right decisions for her. I’ll remind her of all the times you worked quietly behind the scenes to create opportunities and situations that allowed her to spend time with me and others in our village that you wanted to have an influence on her. I’ll help her see that none of that was an accident, that you haven’t spent your life trying to make her become you, but rather have worked hard to surround her with people that help her to become whomever it is she is meant to become.
I’m not your daughter’s role model. You’ve got it all backwards. You have given me the priceless gift of a crystal ball. I get to have glimpses of what’s coming and examples all around me of how I might tackle the array of inevitable challenges I will face. While your daughter was watching me, I was watching you. I saw how you balanced rising early to care for your aging parent, while forcing yourself to stay awake late at night, “just in case” your teenager wanted to talk when she got home. I watched you try to appear casual and nonchalant while your daughter broached one of those big life conversations, knowing that inside you were wrestling mightily with the importance of your response to her. I watched you cheer for her on the sidelines and bite your tongue when she had to learn certain lessons on her own. I also paid attention to when and why you called on me to step in with her at times.
I’m not so afraid of what’s ahead anymore. While you were so busy making sure I was there as a role model for your daughter, you didn’t even notice that you were mine.
About the author: Amanda Zelechoski is a mom of 3 boys and, by some miracle, is entrusted with educating the next generation as a psychology professor at Valparaiso University. In her work as a forensic psychologist, she focuses on juvenile justice and trauma, which will come in handy when her children inevitably blame her and her husband for ruining their lives. You can learn more about her workaholic tendencies at www.psychlawtrauma.com