A letter to my daughter on her first day of school

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First day of ‘big school’

Every year since you were born, I have written you a letter on your birthday. Well, this has been that kind of a year, so here I am on your very first day of kindergarten instead. It is an even bigger day, right? 😉 Be sure of one thing, my love, any delays or unheralded occasions are purely a reflection of me, not you.

One of my most gut wrenching moments as a parent so far came on one of your school drop offs. We put you in a new Montessori school at age 3. It took you awhile to settle in and find your confidence. On one of the early days, you approached two of your classmates in the playground hoping to play, only to be mean-girled. One girl – the ring leader – whispered to the other to relay the message onward that you were not welcome. They scampered off while you stood there alone at the fence in your little striped dress. My heart shattered into a million pieces in the parking lot. That morning hurt me far worse than you. I still feel it. Every bit of me wanted to protect you from the loneliness and vulnerability of that moment. I almost punched a 5 year old and still hold a grudge. You don’t even remember it. You grew to become one of the most confident and gregarious kids in the school and ended up befriending both of them.

On your first day of kindergarten, you woke up at 4 am asking if it was morning yet. Again at 5am. When I finally relented at 6 am, you bounced out of bed and through your morning routine, singing one of your made up songs about how much you love being off to ‘big school’. I bit my lip as we walked to your new pristine all-girls campus while you chatted away with excitement. On arrival, two friends ran up enthusiastically and swallowed up many of my concerns. You found your name on your cubby and we packed away your stationary and snack. I reminded you that some of the girls were feeling shy and to be sure to reach out to anybody who might be feeling a little bit nervous. “I will” you replied, “Bye Mom, I love you Mom”. And off you went.

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Your 5th birthday party!

Just like that. My little girl is a big girl.  I am predictably reduced to a bumbling pile of the exaggerated brand of emotions you ushered into my life when you were born.  Parenting, as it turns out is largely an exercise of trying to balance the wistfulness of what has passed with anticipation for what is to come; while trying to keep you safe and fed in the interim. It is honestly surreal. I will always remember the day you were born in exacting detail as if it was yesterday.  I will also spend much of my time dreaming and worrying about what it is to come. It takes true intention to live in the present and enjoy you exactly where you are. Luckily for me, you give me that gift almost daily.

You are the loveliest. In almost every way possible, you are already a better person than I am. Seriously. You are good at almost everything you do. Your report cards are glowing. Your teachers love you.  You are smart, capable, curious and teachable. You love learning and find genuine gratification in the process. You have a strong sense of justice and are a stickler for the rules. You are trustworthy. You are kind.

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I finally got you on skis. You predictably took to it right away.

You have exceeded my expectations so many times that I have had to re-calculate them. When we travel across the world on multiple flights, we have come to just expect you to behave like an adult and help with your brothers. If another kid can do something, we assume you can too. When you fall down on skis, we leave you to get right back up. When your friend scrapes their knees, we anticipate you will help them up.

As always, I live in fear of all the risks you face in the world. At every level – tragedy, the messages circulating trying to chip away at your worth as an African girl, growing up too fast, turning into a teenager and hating me. This was the year of #metoo. The depths of transnational misogynist culture have been unveiled at unprecedented levels. I have personally followed two high profile cases involving sports coaches and doctors who manipulated and abused young girl athletes; playing on their dreams and using their greatest strengths against them. It is utterly terrifying and tempts me to lock you in a vault. In the same breath, I have watched these same girls – now women – dig deep and find the strength to bring their abusers to account. My own friends and peers recently closed a series of twenty-year-old traumas with a resounding 37 guilty verdicts against a former coach and predator. Thanks to them, for the first time in Canada, there is now a 12-year prison sentence as a legal precedent for coaches who abuse athletes. All this in hopes that girls like you never have to experience the same.

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Graduating from pre-school. You were a giraffe in the school play

I also grew up underneath someone who was perfect. Your Uncle Strachan, who you know all about, was impossibly good at everything he did and loved by everyone. I see so much of him in you. He was amazing by all standards, but I saw first hand the costs that came with it. I know well that perfectionists are their own harshest critics. Your grandparents had to speak to Strachan in high school to stop him from waking up at 4:00 am to study. At age 5, I have backed off from disciplining you because you are already self-punishing. When you make mistakes or break rules, more often than not we need to comfort you instead of correct you.

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A ski hill with a moving chairlift, skiing girls and all!

Just yesterday, you completed a lego set that you got from your grandparents for Christmas. It is for 8 – 12 year olds but you put it together, by yourself, one piece at a time. It is impressive and I love watching you work. But the final product does not tell about the two times you could not figure it out and got so frustrated that we needed to put it away. When we packed the lego up for our trip home from Canada, I figured we would re-visit it once you were a bit older. But low and behold, you pulled it out of the box to give it another go. As you did, you discovered a series of pieces you had previously missed and shrieked with delight ‘THIS is why I couldn’t make it fit in Canada’ and carried on your merry way with a smile. I love, love, love that you tried again. And that you cheered for yourself with an “I did it”  with the identical beaming enthusiasm and pride as you did moments later when your baby brother stood all by himself.

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You wanted a baby sister so badly, but welcomes your baby brother with love

We are so very proud of you Khaya, My faith in the girl you are becoming grows faster than your never-ending legs and big ol’ feet. The more I watch you, the more I trust that you will handle your own self and whatever life throws at you better than I ever could. This growing up thing is now in your hands too, and that is such good news because you really are terrific.

I am utterly unprepared to be deferring to your judgment and abilities when it feels like you are still my baby; yet here we are. We will always, always be here to love and support you as best we can. Being privy to your life is one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life; but your journey and relationship with your own self will be the greatest in yours. I hope you continue on your path with the same zest for learning you have now and that you continue to challenge yourself with fervour and honesty.

Thank you for being you my Khaya. I am so proud to be your Mama. You are my greatest work and I look forward to walking with you in this chapter. Be brave. Be strong. Be kind. You are so very loved.

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