To my oldest child on her 16th birthday:

Sweet Caroline,

I cried today in the grocery store today when the cashier asked me about the birthday decorations I was buying. It has surprised me how this birthday of yours has hit me. I know this emotional reaction to your birthday seems silly to you. You are my least dramatic child. You don’t like anyone to make a fuss over you. After all, there is no tragedy tied to turning 16. Maybe it’s knowing that you’ll be driving on your own soon or maybe it’s that you are our first kid and we learn everything on you. I’m sure that it also has something to do with the political climate right now.

 

You were born on the last day of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I remember this because we watched the inauguration of George W. Bush in our hospital room in Oxford, MS. You turned sixteen on the last day of Obama’s presidency. I like that your birthday week usually includes MLK day and possibly an inauguration. It’s a good reminder that the world still needs warriors like you to show up. For the last few years, I’ve been telling people that you are capable of running a small nation. I don’t expect you to have a career in politics, but I am certain that you will always be a force to be reckoned with. You always have been.

When you were just a few days old, you tried to lift your tiny head off my dad’s shoulder to get a good look at him. My dad said, “Whoa. I’ve never seen a baby do that. Ya’ll better get ready.” We were unprepared for you in all ways: for a baby at all and for you especially. Before you were born, in my arrogance, I thought parenting was all about nurture. I underestimated nature. More than your siblings, you came out as yourself, fully-formed.

 

You were born ready. You haven’t stopped moving since your were an infant. We’ve had to learn to follow your lead into this big world. The adventures you have taken us on have made us all braver and kinder.

 

As much as I’ve learned from watching you compete in various sports, I’ve learned even more from watching you tackle your school challenges. As your mom, one of my biggest regrets is that I missed some things that you were struggling with at school. It wasn’t really that I missed it so much as I wasn’t vocal enough. For years, I would go to your teachers and say, “It’s just not clicking for her. She has to work so hard to read. Her spelling is scary. Reading aloud is her worst nightmare.” What I heard over and over was that your teachers wished “all students were just like Caroline.” You were polite and helpful and hard-working. That did not mean, however, that you were learning like your peers.

 

When you were in 7th grade, we took you to be tested and you were diagnosed with dyslexia. I watched as you worked really hard with a tutor that whole summer to relearn all the things that hadn’t made sense to you in the classroom. It kind of killed me that you had to go all the way back to short and long vowels, but you tackled it with your usual tenacity and scrappiness. I saw that you never gave up.

 

I want you to know that I still see your tenacious spirit. I see you and am so proud of you. I see you making flashcards and highlighting your assignments with various markers to help you memorize facts. I see that you have to take extra steps to learn the same material as your classmates. I see you studying without complaining, even after you’ve been at basketball practice for three hours. I see how hard you work, which is why I never care about your report card. You have the kind of drive that can not be taught.

Unfortunately, your grades probably won’t be the kind that win you accolades or get you inducted into honor societies. I personally think you should get a medal for earning all A’s and B’s, but that’s not how the system works. Colleges might not see your potential. But I want you to know that I see you. Soon enough, professors and coaches, employers and colleagues will know that having Caroline on their team is always a good idea. Your drive and your work ethic are your secret weapons.

 

In these next few years, you’ll become even more independent. You’ll leave and go to college. All of this is good and right. You will be ready and we will celebrate with you. Here’s the thing about the next decade of your life: you are going to make some mistakes. We all make questionable decisions as we try to gain our footing as adults. Some mistakes might even be whoppers. You’ll probably date some jerks. You’ll lose your way a few times. You’ll have regrets. Keep surrounding yourself with trustworthy guides. You’ll need help becoming the woman God intends you to be. We all do.

 

For many years now, I have been in awe of you, even though you haven’t always made complete sense to me. I have had to learn how to be your mom. You and I are pretty different from one another. You don’t like musicals or cities. You run when you are upset. You like order and our messy house makes you crazy. You are scrappy and determined. I saw none of this coming, but I should have. You are so much like your dad. This is fantastic news for you. He’s resilient and kind and tough and loyal.

 

I want you to know that we are always on your side. You have our deep, unconditional love. This is not something you have to earn. You have our deep respect. You have people that you have never even met rooting for you. You will always have family praying for you. You are our pride and our joy.

 

Happy Birthday, sweet girl! Thank you for being our daughter.

 

Love, Mom

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