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Growing Away

I wasn't one of those women who loses her heart the moment she gives birth, but when I did fall in love a week later it was utterly without limits. I adored my daughter, and there was no "because" attached to it. What wasn't to love? She was a baby, warm, delicious, mine.

From infancy to preschool to kindergarten, through multiple night wakings, stomach flu, and dramatic tantrums, my ardor never wavered. Whenever I watched Melissa play or held her close, I marveled at her perfection; just seeing her made me smile. Then around the time she started second grade, something changed. Whenever she foundered with her homework, I found myself itching with impatience.

"Look again," I'd say, struggling to subdue a flash of temper as I pointed out sums she'd added when the instructions said to subtract. "How can you say that?" I'd demand when she'd tell me that she hated reading and writing.

The fact that I was looking at my daughter and seeing flaws where I'd once viewed perfection felt awful. That I was actively criticizing was worse  -- to me, being a good mother means unconditional love. But it was the day that Melissa began to weep "I'm sorry, Mommy!" after I'd barked at her about her spelling that I realized I had to stop. And as I thought about when and why I'd been so grumpy, I began to understand what was happening: I was having parental separation anxiety.

It had been easy for me to love infant Melissa; she had been little more than an extension of me, a love object, a blank slate onto which I could project whatever I wished. It had even been easy to love her as a toddler because she'd been exactly what I wanted: happy, affectionate, attractive, precociously verbal, wildly in love with me.

Carol Mithers writes for the Los Angeles Times and O.

Becoming her own person

Now she was turning into someone who was not only separate from me but also different. My old fantasies of motherhood, I realized, had always starred a slight, rather quiet and introverted brunette who loved time alone and lived to read  -- someone just like me.

Instead I had a sturdy, scrappy blonde whose greatest pleasures were physical and social. "Is someone coming to dinner tonight?" she might demand as I cooked, offering a boisterous "Yay!" if the answer was yes. This unhappiness with my daughter, I realized, was rooted in my discomfort with our differences. It wasn't about her, but me.

I know I'm lucky to have recognized that what was going on was a collision between my love for her and my own ego. Not understanding that can produce the quintessential stage mom who can't see a child as an individual and tries to live through him. Or the less clichéd but equally sad scenarios, such as the one a friend of mine speaks of: His dad withdrew his companionship and approval about the time my friend turned 8 and started asserting his own will.

But self-awareness raises as many questions as it answers. When Melissa confuses "were" and "where" for the dozenth time and I feel my stomach tightening, I have to ask myself: Am I annoyed because she's not focusing, or because I was a good speller? Do I insist that she develop great reading and writing skills because that's really necessary for success, or because I want her to share what matters to me? And what if the answer is both?

I suspect there'll never be a moment when I see Melissa as purely and simply separate from me. Instead I'll have to work to make out who she is and help her do what will make her happy. It's good to hear from others who don't have a personal stake in her, like the mom of a classmate who speaks admiringly of Melissa's outgoing nature and sense of humor.

It also helps to remember the things the two of us share, like a love of the outdoors, or the ways she doesn't resemble me that I'm thankful for, like being cheerful and self-confident. And I know that while I can't change her temperament, parts of her are continually changing.

Recently, I was testing her on a required spelling list and when things didn't go well, instead of getting mad I got silly. "Close. Rose. Nose...Is the rose you chose close to your nose?"

She stopped writing. "Mommy, how do you do that?" she asked.

"I like to play with words," I told her. "I always have."

She thought about it. "I don't do that," she finally answered. "I guess I'm not a writer. I guess we're just different." She shrugged and picked up her pencil again.

At that moment, I had to marvel at her, this being who was so much a part of me, and yet not. My old grin came back. My child  -- delicious and unique. What wasn't to love?