“Momma, can we keep a butterfly as a pet?”
My 7-year-old’s eyes were sparkling, already envisioning having a butterfly of her very own.
“You can’t tame a butterfly,” I told her. “They aren’t meant to be in a cage.”
While she must have known this answer was inevitable, it didn’t mean she had to like it. Brow furrowed, she gave me a parting look of disappointment before running back outside.
As I watched her playing in the backyard, already absorbed in a new game, I stopped and thought about what I had said.
This particular child is a butterfly in every sense of the word. She is a carbon copy of me at that age, and boy is it terrifying to be on the parent side this time around. She is incredibly smart with an imagination that creates new worlds and scenarios by the minute. She is fearless, climbing way too high into trees and jumping into the pool with no regard for its depth nor her emerging swimming skills. She is artistic and makes a glorious mess as her creations take shape. She is a nonstop blur, active and athletic. She loves to be in motion and never seems to get tired.
And yet, I spend a lot of time trying to force my butterfly into a cage.
I expect this butterfly to live and thrive within my expectations and hopes and dreams for her. I am disappointed when she does something I deem too messy or too loud or too immature for her age. I get angry when she defies me or doesn’t help me like the “good” first child I often need her to be.
I forget she is a creature just emerged from the chrysalis of young childhood. She is making her way through the daunting world of second grade, trying to navigate friendships and gain confidence in the hundreds of choices she makes every day. She is caught somewhere between being a little girl and (to the shock of my heart) a young woman. I also forget while she is becoming her own person, with a personality full of strengths and weaknesses, she still needs me. She needs me to guide her, to teach her, and to love her. The structure I give her should not be a cage, but the trellis she gradually climbs to one day fully spread her wings and begin her own adventure.
Sometimes she and I stumble on that trellis, finding ourselves in a tangle of feelings. Our communication breaks down, there are external stressors that make us clash, or priorities get misaligned. Sometimes we are able to work it out. Sometimes we just need space. On those rough days, I peek into her room to see my butterfly peacefully sleeping and remember what a beautiful creation she is. Because that’s what we all are, right? All of us are in a constant state of creation.
We are always transforming. And to be honest, it’s risky.
There’s a lot of unknown. There’s a lot of hope and faith that we are making the right choice, and that it will be for our benefit and growth. Caterpillars know they can’t stay caterpillars forever, yet I’m sure the idea of creating a chrysalis is terrifying. Likewise, I know my butterfly can’t stay little and dependent on me. While safe, I wouldn’t define it as “thriving.”
So we continue working our way up our trellis. Through the transformations, through the good and bad days, through the self-doubt that always lingers in a mother’s heart. I know one day we will reach the top, and there will be another gut-wrenching transition.
I can’t tame this butterfly because more than anything, I want to watch her fly.
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