A few years ago, when our youngest daughter was just four, she tip-toed into my bedroom on the morning of Valentine’s Day as I was getting dressed to go to work. She had caught me in one of those hurried intervals, between packing lunches and signing 4th grade reading logs, when I was trying to make myself semi-presentable. One of my few moments alone amidst the kind of craziness that ensues at 7:30 a.m. in households across the country. Which is probably why she was tip-toeing. Because on more than one morning when she had needed my attention, I am positive I said something less than kind to her about giving me a few minutes to myself.
So there she was in her mismatched outfit, nest of sleep-hair still tangled in the back of her head, holding something so very carefully in her cupped hands. It was the same way she held all of her treasures: the pretty rocks from the neighbor’s driveway; the wood chips from the Montessori playground; the seagull feather from the beach; a glittery plastic bead from under the bed. This time, it was not something that she had found that she held with such care, but something she had made.
With her still-pudgy hands, she had cut two hearts, almost rounding the edges but missing the curve a little here and there so that there was an endearing imperfection in their outline. She handed me those scotch-tape-joined-together-hearts so gingerly and with such expectation. It turns out that the shape was of little importance. What she had poured herself into was the message.
“Be careful with this. I Love You.”
Though I think she only meant to indicate that the paper hearts were fragile, her words could not have been more profound. A reminder to me of what I signed up for when I became a parent. Of the expectation our children have that, as their parents, we will always keep them safe. Not just their physical selves, but their emotional selves and the things they treasure most. Always.
I knew, as I held those crooked paper hearts, that it was a goal I would continuously aspire to and one I would have to fail.
Allowing my kids to feel the aches and pains of growing-up is one of the toughest life lessons I will ever have to learn. It’s not the stuff of Hallmark Valentines. When they look at me with the expectation that I will make it all right, I will always struggle with the desire to hold onto them as if they were as fragile as those paper hearts. Always. No matter how old they get. Even as I let them go.
Be careful with this. I love you.