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The Little Secret So Many Parents Share

We all say the same thing. But usually we're lying

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aarp, girlfriend, illustration
Melanie Lambrick
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Every pregnant woman gets asked the same question: “Do you want a boy or a girl?”

And we all respond: “I don’t care. All I want is a healthy baby.”

I said the same thing. But in a way we all lie. Secretly we have other wishes for our unborn children. I never confessed out loud that what I really wanted was a ballerina. I planned to give birth to one, convinced I’d have more influence over my future child’s destiny than DNA or inborn personality traits.

Long before I was ready to have a baby, my local grocery was next to the Joffrey Ballet studio. Longingly I watched the girls with tight hair buns, pink tights flowing beneath their jackets, dance bags over their shoulders. Those mothers and daughters holding hands looked like a perfect moment in time. When I had a child, I vowed to hold my young ballerina’s hand on the way to barre class.

Even though I rarely went to the ballet. And I was miserable in the short-lived ballet class my mother had once foisted upon me. Yet before my daughter could read, I enrolled her in preballet. A teacher urged me to ramp up her studies, claiming, “She has the perfect ballerina’s build and flexibility.”

There was only one problem: All she wanted was to kick a ball down a soccer field rather than carefully practice the five positions. Would I become a mother who forced my child down a path I determined for her? Or let her jeté into her own passion?

I bought her cleats, even though soccer was more foreign to me than pliés.

As parents we must decide which decisions to let our children have, from hobbies to careers. When do we intercede? It’s fine to ignore high fashion when our kids match red polka dot pants with a wild orange plaid top, but I drew the line with safety. Absolutely no negotiation on bike helmets, seat belts and street-crossing behavior, or when to grant freedom to walk to school alone. I didn’t budge on discipline I believed in, staunchly repeating lines as if reciting a mantra in meditation: “I don’t care how many of your friends watch TV on school nights …”

It’s not always clear when mothers must step back and let our children make their own decisions. The clarinet has been my benchmark. I wanted to play the drums, but my mother insisted it was clarinet or nothing. That was the instrument she’d never had the opportunity to choose. Growing up in an orphanage, she’d been institutionalized when her own Russian-immigrant mother was too poor to care for her children.

Repeating her military-style upbringing, my mother was unduly strict and didn’t allow me to make my own decisions — from musical instruments to career paths. Unmotivated, I endured the scowls of Mr. Sonofsky, the orchestra teacher who thought I was the worst reed player he’d ever endured. The clarinet lasted less than a year.

When my daughter insisted she didn’t want to study dance anymore, I realized it wasn’t just a ballerina I’d yearned for. It was that peaceful, loving experience of holding my daughter’s hand on the street that I really craved. The one I’d never had with my own mother.

“I never learned how to be a mother,” she tearfully told me. Authorities in the orphanage made every decision for her, and she repeated the only upbringing she’d known with me. It was time to break the cycle, as difficult as it was to let my daughter choose. It made me feel less needed, less of an influence in her path to adulthood.

Although my daughter’s dance career ended at a young age, she’d still slip her hand in mine as we strolled to school or out for an ice cream cone. I didn’t need a ballerina to enjoy this moment of intimacy with my daughter. I imagined other women, watching us, fantasizing what motherhood would be like. Little did they know that you have to pick your battles. And embrace the small, everyday moments of joy.