A Letter to Myself, 23 Years Ago


Dear Janet,

I’m writing this on the occasion of your youngest son’s sixteenth birthday. Wow! You will be amazed at what a cool young man he is. You have three sons, and as of today, you’ve been a mom for nearly twenty-three years.

This parenting thing is just beginning for you and I know you have ideas about who your children will be and how you will raise them. But it’s hard for you to realize how many days are in twenty-three years, how many habits and routines and traditions grow over that time. And now, I’m realizing that we’re coming to the end of our active parenting time. Lots of every-day living has sometimes interfered with those grand ideas you have now. For twenty-three years, almost all you will do will be for our boys. Carting babies, then toddlers, then school boys with friends, to soccer, art class, school, doctors, playdates, and more, for miles, incalculable miles, in the car. There will be countless meals made, gifts bought, holiday traditions built and celebrated. Birthday parties, first days of school, so many thresholds crossed. Under your direction, the boys will learn to read, to ride a bike, to tie their shoes, and write their names. Later, there will be religious ceremonies, driver’s licenses, graduations, and then they will start packing up, and moving out.

Yes, twenty-three years later, we have three young men: two out of the house, and our baby turning sixteen. So what does it mean? And what about you and me? What did those twenty-three years mean for us? Who am I now, and is it different from the who you are? Here I am, nearly an almost empty nester. I sometimes wonder why other new moms like you don’t recognize me as one of them. Wasn’t I you just yesterday? I can still feel the weight of a baby on my hip, I still wake up when someone twitches or rolls over in the night (yes, it’s true, you will never sleep through the night again), and I can still change a diaper and wipe a nose like a pro. Why don’t you recognize my 50-year old self as part of the club?

Right now, to you, this time of life seems impossibly distant. Something that happens to other people, but that certainly won’t reach you for a long, long time. I know it can be annoying to hear so many people like me tell you to enjoy this time with the little ones, that it goes so fast. You may question them, Does it? Because it actually doesn’t seem to be moving very fast. It seems like forever, seemed like forever, sometimes. And it seemed like it should last forever. That’s the hard part, really. When I was you, I grieved for the freedom of the life I had before the babies came. Now, I mourn because of the inevitable changes ahead.

You are going to worry so much about what you will pass on to those boys, how you will shape them and guide them and equip them to move gracefully through their lives. But having watched them grow and leave the roost, I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s meditation on children:

You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Remember reading this quote as a teenager, when our own soul dwelt in the house of tomorrow? Twenty-three years later, I think about what we’ve planted in our children’s souls — what they can’t help but bring with them into their futures. It’s a good time now, for me to let you know some of the things we’ve learned and enjoyed along the way.

It won’t surprise you to learn that one underlying theme throughout our twenty-three years of living with each other has been the books we have read. It is hard to express how important they have been to the socialization, education and emotional bonding we did, from the very first days with the simplest of board books. Believe it or not, it continues to this day.

We still have conversations about life and its social complexities prompted by the books we are reading. I do believe there is plenty of character education to be reinforced through children’s literature. The process of turning these kids into thinking, caring, and responsible adults has required input from all angles. And I have learned, you will see, that a book, especially when shared with a stake-holding adult, can be a non-threatening way to illustrate positive and negative behaviors and their consequences.

What may surprise you is the number of stories we’ve shared with no other motive or higher purpose than being together. More than the opportunity to be teaching specific values, sharing books has been a way for us to just enjoy each other. Sharing the books they instinctively loved made us closer. And even when the books were just stories, silly or scary or action-packed, without any noticeable lessons to be found, they were part of our collective history and ritual and love. And that has been awesome!

Our very favorite read-alouds, when the whole family participated, were by flashlight, in a tent, on the sandy bank of the Ellis River during our annual family campouts. (Yes, believe it or not, you even learned to love camping). Alvin Ho, Winnie the Pooh, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the 3rd, the Baudelaires, Chet Gecko, and Despereaux filled the minutes from tucking into our sleeping bags, until we transitioned to darkness and sleep each night.

So, I’ve come to learn, it is less the content of the books than the camaraderie they inspire that has made reading aloud with the boys so important. We didn’t even have to like all the books we read for us to find value. Some of the best inside jokes in our family have evolved from the worst books we shared. Thumbs up or down, the books we read became a common experience between us, a broad base of story and characters and critical discernment of good from bad, either in the characters we read about, or the quality of the writing itself.

So go forth, young mom. I’m sorry to report that you won’t enjoy every minute. It really doesn’t always go by so fast. Some hours seem like days, and some days seem like weeks. There will be tantrums in public, there will be sleepless nights, tears, and frustrations. But despite what people say, they will eventually be potty-trained, they will eventually sleep in their own beds, and they even will eat their vegetables. So don’t worry, and do enjoy the laughter and wonder and so many nights of those little warm bodies snuggled up next to you, reading a book.

Yes, in our library, just as in our daily lives, there are lessons to pass on, moral lessons to be learned and tales to inspire. But in the end, remember that the act itself, the sharing of story, mother to child, has been a legacy to treasure.