I was 20 weeks pregnant the second time around when we got the official word that this time we were having a girl. I wept. I had been 100% sure she was a boy (thanks for nothing, online sex-predictor quizzes), and I was already firmly in love with the image I had painted in my head of this new little brother. Also, all of our crib bedding was blue.

But more important than all that was my fear–sexist, narcissistic, and huge–that having a girl meant having a smaller version of myself. And I would have wished being any version of me on no one, especially a little teeny thing I had a sworn duty to protect.

And then she was born, and of course I forgot all that instantly, thrown head over heels with that (little, skinny, wrinkled-up, and totally bald) baby girl. She was nothing like her brother either in temperament or in appearance, but I also couldn’t see very much of myself in her, even though I tried, or her father even. At first she mostly resembled an alien, and I would hold her protectively to my chest and say things like, “It’s fine. Looks are not what matters. We will teach her to be kind.”

But slowly, without us even realizing, she grew into the kind of baby that people would stop us on the streets just to gaze upon–gasping when they saw her porcelain skin and rosy cheeks and the translucent glow of her bright blue eyes. And I worried if maybe that was worse, this beauty, because I still believed kindness was more important and yet I knew we were going to someday send her out into a world that hadn’t yet come to that communal understanding, and beauty is a fickle stroke of luck that people can often (and usually to their own detriment) confuse with a skill.

Every morning when I would get up with her and get her dressed, I would pull out the pink dresses and rompers and pretty shoes and headbands, trying to decide which outfit would be the most perfect. And then inevitably I would look down at myself, standing there in my bleach stained yoga pants and my tee shirt I had borrowed from my husband because it would have been cruel to stuff my newly nursing boobs and my deflated inner tube of a pregnant belly remnant into a normal sized shirt. Logic would win, and I would put her fancy clothes back into her drawer with a sigh and dig out a stained comfy sleeper that had already been thoroughly loved through her brother’s babyhood before her. It just didn’t seem fair to sass her all up in scratchy tulle when our only plans for the day involved eating, pooping, and hopefully napping.

Most of those frilly things ended up sitting untouched in her drawers until I donated them to braver babies than my own, and today, a decade later anyway, she still pulls her clothes from her brother’s drawer just as often as she pulls them from her own. I’m biased, I know, but she’s also still the kind of pretty that makes people stare, including me, and I do – stealing glances at her while she sits next to me recently in the car.

I have been doing this with her for years, stealing glances, because she is also the kind of quiet-shy that makes it painful for her sometimes to make direct eye contact. So it surprised me there in the car to find her watching me back. After some serious thought–and checking a few times to make sure I didn’t have anything gross stuck in my teeth– I realized why she was watching me.

I think she’s trying to figure out how to do this. How to grow up. How to survive. How to become a woman.

Because I am a mature role model for young ladies everywhere, my immediate reaction to this was to hyperventilate. I mean, talk about pressure! See also: insecurity, terror, and deep-seeded Mom issues of my own. There in the car, hurtling down the Mass Pike (“Mommy, why do they call it a Pike?”), I had myself a little panic attack. Who am I to teach anyone about womanhood? I’m not even sure what that means. I don’t own a single frilly thing, I’ve only had one (relatively) successful romantic relationship, and I think underwire is the devil incarnate. When my own body started to change towards womanhood eons ago, I responded by starving it back into pre-pubescence. Clearly, I am no one’s role model.

Then I forced myself to breathe. Let’s be logical here, I thought. Remember the tulle? Women don’t need frilly things (although they might WANT them, and that’s okay too). One successful romantic relationship has proven itself to really be all that I ever needed, and if her body is anything like mine she won’t even need the underwire.

And I remembered how there is this parenthood realization that comes a few years into the mess when you have learned enough about what you are doing to swim up to the surface and look around at how gorgeous the water is. It happens like this, in this order:

“Oh my God, I made that,” and then quickly, on the heels of that, “and it’s going to leave me someday.” It’s the two sides of the coin of motherhood, and maybe of life itself, the drawing in and holding close and the pushing forth and letting go. Both sides can be beautiful or brutal both in the same moment, and the only way to survive when one feels like it is going to crush you is to remember the other

Like when the years are short but the days are long, and there is nary a moment of rest or Netflix and the coffee has long gone cold again in the microwave, you have to remember that they will not always be here, holding onto our legs as we drag them through the kitchen, putting away more groceries than we can afford and rewashing the same dish for the tenth time that day.

And when they are sitting next to you in the car, asking you questions about your life or your hair or can they please for the love of God change the radio station to something cooler and then they go silent and gaze out the window and you feel the tug on your heart that means they are, little by little, pulling away; you remember that soft alien body that fit so easily in the crook of your neck when you tucked your chin down slightly, just enough to smell their smell and cover their bald scalp with kisses and said, “I hope this lasts forever.” Even though it won’t, it couldn’t, and it wouldn’t be even half as magical if it did.

Maybe this will be okay, I reasoned. After all, she’s still a kid. What she needs right now is me in the car next to her, hands at ten and two, available. So I told her what the Pike in Mass Pike was short for (I think it’s a fish, maybe?), and I did my best to answer every other question she asked: about oceans and periods and sex and cookies and swimming and nail polish and “please tell me more about what you were like growing up, Mommy?” (Quiet-shy with curls down my back, baby. Kind of like you.)

I made a vow right there and then that I would always answer, I would always tell the closest version of the truth that I could, and I would do my best not to scare the crap out of her. It was fun, even, talking with her and having her really listen. There’s a power in that, I quickly saw, a responsibility not to get drunk on the idea of shaping this little girl into ME 2.0, the newer and more improved model who doesn’t make mistakes like dropping out of an Ivy League school or piecing her own nose–twice–with a block of ice and a dirty needle. If I’m not careful, I could steer her in the direction of my thwarted ballerina/medical school/organic farmer dreams, so subtly that neither of us realized I was doing it until her resentment of me was so big that we couldn’t truly see each other any more around it.

So for her, I listened too to talk of baseball, although it sounds like a foreign language to me, and I gave her my phone to google the answers to those questions when I haven’t the faintest clue about stats or scores. “Maybe you should also look up why they call it a Pike, honey,” I said too, because admitting you don’t know the answer is sometimes more of a lesson that the answer itself ever could have been.

And eventually she zoned out and looked back out the window and I went back to stealing glances. I made that, I thought. And she’s going to leave me.

Liz Petrone

Liz is a mama, yogi, writer, warrior, wanderer, dreamer, doubter, and hot mess. She lives in a creaky old house in Central New York with her ever-patient husband, their four babies, and an excitable dog named Boss, and shares her stories on lizpetrone.com. She can also be found on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.