Letting My Daughter Be Her Own Person Means Letting Go of My Favorite Way to Say 'I Love You'


When I was 8 years old, no one helped me get ready for school. I’d get up, and dressed, and do own my hair. I made myself breakfast by filling a bowl until the cereal swelled to an inch below the rim, then poured milk so it came up and filled the spaces between my Honeycombs or Apple Jacks cereal, but not over them. Packing lunch meant opening Mom’s wallet and taking out one dollar. Next, my friend Danielle would ring the doorbell and we’d walk to the bus stop together. I was self-sufficient and I liked it. At least that’s what I told myself.

Fast-forward 40 years, and I wake up every morning with my daughter and sit by her as she gets ready to take on the day. I watch her pick her clothes and make sure she brushes her hair and teeth. She doesn’t like braids or fancy clips. She prefers to leave her hair down so her soft curls go down her back. I make sure she eats some breakfast, I kiss her on the way out the door, tell her I love her, and I make sure she doesn’t forget the lunch I packed.
I always wanted Mom to pack my lunch. I envied the brown paper bags and the surprises inside them. I imagined how a mother picked out the perfect slices of bread and folded the lunch meat, and the thought it took to cut the sandwiches in triangle halves. Some days my friend’s lunch would be squished from being sat on. Other days a friend would complain about having peanut butter and jelly, again. There were the apples and the odd carrot. Bologna. The unforgivable tuna. No matter what was inside, I envied the time and thought it took to put their lunches together. My mom slept 'til 10 -- she wasn’t even awake when I left for school.
I remember watching my friends unpack their lunches. Most of the boys had crumpled bags; some girls had crisp folds along the top, keeping lunch safe inside. Food was wrapped in tin foil, sandwich bags, and cling wrap. All the little bags of love and time dotted the long tables. And I had a tray. I didn’t want the tray. I wanted a bag. I decided then I’d pack my kids lunch.
I kept my promise and made lunch every day for my daughter for years. But one day she asked if she could buy lunch on pizza day. I said yes. She asked if she could buy on burger day. I made her lunch better. She asked if she could buy on cheese stick day. I was losing the food love battle. I fought harder.
I cut the crust off her ham sandwich. I put a cookie and a note inside her insulated lunch box. I made sure to buy a reusable ice pack so the juice inside would be cold when she drank it. I used a plastic bag for her sandwich. I included ketchup in a small plastic container because she likes to put it on everything. I got good snacks. I did everything I could think of to make her happy. 
She had to know I loved her enough to take the time to make a lunch just for her. That the six-inch-by-nine-inch lunchbox was filled with wonderful flavors of love. I stayed up late at night when I was ready for bed to pack her lunch. But none of it mattered. 
Now she’s nearly 9 and she’d rather buy lunch every day! And I think how ironic it is. All I wanted was a bagged lunch and all she wants is a bought one.
It doesn’t matter that I want to love her with food from home. She doesn’t have the same need I had. She wants my company in the morning but not my food at lunch. She doesn’t need to be loved the way I want to love her. And that’s a great lesson for me to teach her: Don’t give love that you want to receive; ask for what you want.
It doesn’t lessen the love because she expresses what she wants; it makes it easier to love her in the way that makes her feel it. And I want her to feel it. I want her to be independent and know her mind and be loved for who she is.
She prefers having a homemade ham sandwich when she gets home from school. She asks me to make it for her. I cut off the crusts and slice it in half, and I am happy to love her this way.
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