The ‘this’ in ‘I can do this’ keeps evolving

Parenthood is constantly revising what I think I’m capable of. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Visitors to the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., move along a ropes course. USNWC is a nonprofit outdoor recreation and training facility.

My 10-year-old daughter nimbly scurries up the rope ladder with no hesitation and no looking back. Her limbs move quickly, as if this climb is innate to her – her skinny but sinewy muscles completely assured. She climbs like someone who knows exactly where they are going.

“Mommy!” she calls down. “Are you coming?”

I can’t see her high above me on the ropes course platform. I hesitate. “OK,” I say, sucking in my breath as I call back to her. “I’m coming.” Unlike my daughter, who seemed to float and glide her way up, my climb is awkward and jerky as my tense muscles shake and burn. I’m white-knuckling it one rung at a time.

“Do you need help?” she calls down with kind condescension. I arrive at the platform a minute later, a little clammy, but smiling. I quickly re-tether, casually attempting to stay as far from the edge of the platform as possible without looking scared. While I gather myself, my daughter grins and glows with anticipation. 

“Are you ready?” she asks.

Before I can answer, she reattaches her clip to the cord, and steps out onto the floating walkway connecting the trees.

Am I ready? I watch her in the distance. She’s quite adept without me, and I am suddenly aware that my role here is ceremonial. Am I ready for that?

And yet, I watch her move and navigate with such fierce bravery that I am inspired to move my own body across an abyss, something that I never would have considered doing when I was her age. Motherhood has pushed me to cross lines that I had long ago drawn in the sand, to open myself to possibilities that I had once closed.

I avoided risk for 30 years. And then, this tiny dictator took over my body and whispered to me in my dreams, “You can do this.” 

At first, I thought that “this” was facing the terrifying prospect of childbirth. And then she was born, and I began to think that the this was the exhaustion of night after sleepless night that we endured together, sometimes both of us in tears. But then this became potty-training tantrums and my otherwise-shy girl who would cry for me when I walked away, twisting my heart in her hands.  

This has morphed into so many incarnations over the past 10 years that only now, as I reflect upon it, do I see how clearly this little being has pushed, pulled, and molded me into a new and stronger form.

I watch her push out across the trees, choosing the “extreme” options again and again, and I realize that her tiny voice was right: I can do this, all of this. I can be brave and take chances now the way I never did before because my daughter is watching me, and my determination not to have her grow up scared is more powerful than my own fears. So I push myself across that course, too.

I shake and struggle a bit until my daughter pauses, smiling confidently back at me. For the first time, I am able to see not just the little girl that she once was, but also the incredible woman that she will be. The glimpsed moment gives me the courage to take on my hardest “this” yet: to begin to let go.

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