When my daughter was younger I could’ve sworn she was Darth Vader’s child. I’ve never slept with Darth Vader. I promise. Yet somehow I found myself wondering if she really could be related to him in some strange, star-crossed way. She never wore a Lycra body suit, donned a black cape, or stalked across the room in time to those ominous duh-duh-duhs. But her voice was awfully deep, her breathing sounded more like rattled honking than actual air exchange, and for some reason she always seemed to be trying to kill me.
I was Luke Freaking Skywalker for God’s sake. Didn’t she see I was trying to do good things? I was trying to help her? Why didn’t she understand that when I said it was time for bed I was only trying to get her to rest? Why didn’t she get that holding my hand near the street meant keeping her safe? Couldn’t she see that when I stopped her from eating all that candy I was really helping her learn self control? And when I stopped her from spinning around a thousand times in a row didn’t she understand I was really preventing her from experiencing that heinous overly dizzy feeling? You know, the one where it seems like you’re being sucked into an endless black hole of death where you’ll surely drown in your own vomit and tears?
It didn’t matter if I tried to reason with her. She never listened. In fact it seemed as though she did the exact opposite of what I suggested just to spite me. Sweet mother she seemed so menacing, always waiting in the wings to turn my well-planned expectations into festering turds of disappointment and self-doubt. If I said stop she said go. If I said down she went even higher. If I said “no” she said “yes.” And if I tried to trick her by saying “yes” when I actually meant “no” she was always one step ahead of me, ready to throw the coercion back my way. Didn’t she see how sick and tired I was of feeling one step behind? Good God, mini-Darth Vader, give me a break! Why did it seem she was the only child who pushed so hard? Went so fast? Yelled so loud? Never stopped asking, prodding, breaking?
Maybe I really was broken because I couldn’t get it, no matter how desperately I tried. Then, one day the force field lifted and I figured it out. I was setting myself up to misunderstand her. I was pushing against her pull. Dragging her through the mud. It seemed like she was just a strong-willed kid raging against the mommy machine, when really I was the one making the fight. I was creating the opposition. The moment struck me like a well-timed hack from a light saber. Only it wasn’t my arm that fell to the floor. It was my heart.
Oh my sweet ever loving God…I was Darth Vader. I was the mother effing Dark Side.
I clearly remember the very moment when it all clicked into place. We’d just moved into a new house and she was having a rough time adjusting, which meant I was also having a rough time adjusting, and for all intents and purposes it meant that the entire family and basically anyone within screaming earshot of our house was also having a rough time adjusting.
She was laying in her new bedroom and I was laying next to her, trying to help her fall asleep. She was kicking the wall and yelling, “I hate this place,” on repeat. My first reaction was to stop her from kicking and then to argue my point. You know, start listing all the cool things about our new house. It was bigger. More outdoor space. More kids to play with. Basically start harping on her for acting like a dick. Only I didn’t do that. Instead I felt her pain. Let it seep into my own bones. I didn’t say it was okay or even that it was eventually going to be okay. The only thing I said was, “I know.”
“I hate this place.” Kick. Kick. Kick.
“I don’t want to be here.” Kick. Kick. Kick.
“I hate this place.” Kick. Kick. Kick.
I let her kick. I let her cry. I surrendered.
You see, most of our lives we try to fight back against something outside of ourselves not even realizing we are the ones creating the fight. Either we forget or we never take the time to learn that sometimes it’s perfectly reasonable, if not preferable to surrender. It doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It just means you’re letting go of the fight.
That night it took over an hour, but eventually she fell asleep breathing her raspy breath into my neck. In those precious moments I learned that I don’t get to decide who she is or what she does. It might seem like as her parent I have that control, but no matter how hard I fight she will become who she wants to be. That fierce little girl is never going to let anyone else define her. Even if I keep pushing my agenda she’ll still be herself. I just won’t get to see her because she’ll learn to hide from me.
People wear masks to protect themselves, forgetting that it works two ways. Battle shields don’t just keep us hidden inside. They also keep everyone else out. On that night in the new house she helped me take off my mask. Unlike Darth Vader I didn’t look any different, but I sure saw her differently. After that I started looking for opportunities to surrender the fight whenever possible. Instead of asking her why she wanted to do something I started asking myself why not. If the answer didn’t involve harm or didn’t infringe on someone else then it was the perfect opportunity to let her be and just surrender my own expectations around her actions and choices.
She wanted to sit on the table. Okay. She wanted to draw on her walls. Okay. She wanted to cut her doll’s hair. Okay. She wanted to draw tattoos on her skin. Okay. Clear boundaries were set of course, but allowing her to be the person she created was what finally set us both free. Along with the freedom another amazing thing happened too. I finally let myself see her. I’d known her for almost four years but I’d never truly seen the person she was. She lives in the moment, sucking up the joy like a high powered Dyson. She pushes boundaries, identifying arbitrary bullshit like a trailblazer. She sees things other people miss, like wild strawberries and clouds shaped like dragons (or turds shaped like dragons). She is incredible and once I really saw her I realized I really liked her. I enjoyed being around her. I started appreciating her as a person instead of just loving her because I was bound to by genetics.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still days where we both look at each other like, “Are you fighting for The Dark Side?” but when that happens I use it as a way to renew what I already figured out. The Dark Side doesn’t really exist. At least not in the way I’ve been taught. It isn’t some evil external force trying to squash all the goodness and love from my soul. In fact it isn’t external at all. The Dark Side exists inside of me. Unfortunately life can make it seem like I need to unleash the fight at every turn, which creates more problems than it solves. We stop learning about ourselves to avoid the fight or we rage against it until it finally weakens our spirit. Neither of those outcomes are particularly uplifting and in the end nobody really wins. In fact, everyone loses.
Thankfully this life gives us countless chances to surrender.We just have to be strong enough to let go. I want to thank my daughter (and Darth Vader) for helping me understand that one of life’s biggest questions isn’t, Which side am I fighting for? but instead, Why am I fighting at all?