Little Women

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Since the birth of our fourth daughter, several people have made the comparison between the four Gong Girls and the four March sisters — protagonists of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women. It happens that our daughters are familiar with Little Women (in the form of an abridged version by Usborne Books), and the comparison is not lost on them. “Which one is Georgia?” they’ll ask whenever I read it to them, “Which one am I?”

Louisa May Alcott divided the March sisters into easily identifiable types; the types you might expect based on the conventional wisdom of birth order. Meg, the oldest, is responsible and steady, with a weakness for fashion. Second-born Jo is the tomboy, a temperamental writer. Beth is sweet, sickly, self-sacrificing, and prefers quietly playing her piano. The youngest, Amy, is a spoiled, petulant, artistic type.

In families with multiple children, each sibling tends to carve out a distinct role. But when we read Little Women and they ask, “Which one am I?” the most honest response would be: “Not the one you think!”

Our girls don’t conform to the sisterly types created by Louisa May Alcott. Sure, the Gong girls are still in the process of becoming, and Abigail’s still an unknown quantity, but I’m fairly confident that our family has no sweet, quiet, sickly Beth. Most days it feels like we have four Jo-Amy hybrids: independent, temperamental, outspoken bundles of energy.

The thing is: None of my girls is turning out to be whom I thought she’d be.

Like most parents, I brought certain expectations to the table based on my own upbringing, the birth order archetypes I’d learned in college psychology classes, and sibling characters like those in Little Women. But I’m finding that one of the most fun and rewarding parts of parenting is setting those expectations aside and watching as my children are gradually revealed to me. I know that some parents never let go of their expectations and force their children into molds of their own making. To me, parenting feels more like archaeology: My children came to me already themselves, like fossils embedded in rock, and it’s my delight to gently chip and brush away the extraneous dirt to uncover who they really are. (And hopefully instill some manners along the way).

Take my first- and second-borns, for instance. Fiona: a sweet people-pleaser with a strong dramatic streak and a love of all things pink and princess-y; I’d pegged her for the shy, girly girl who’d gravitate towards dance and theater. And Campbell, who’s always been a little bit of a rebel, who loves yellow and lions and seemed tougher than her older sister; I assumed she’d be the outgoing, sporty one.

It looks like, in both of these cases, my first assumptions were totally wrong. Fiona is definitely the classic firstborn responsible people-pleaser, but she’s not particularly shy. And she’s not interested in dance or theater; her love is sports, something I never saw coming. She’s already a solid swimmer, she’s proud of her fast running and will race anything that moves, and she’s looking forward to playing soccer next year (although apparently, despite never having picked up a racket, she’s “mostly interested in tennis.”)

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Campbell has little interest in sports. She’s certainly independent and “tough,” in the sense that she doesn’t care what others think of her. But she’s also the most introverted of all my daughters.  She loves animals and nature: She’s happiest playing ponies by herself, or picking a bouquet of flowers. and her career plans at the moment vary between veterinarian, florist, artist, and mountaineer.

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And then there’s Georgia. It’s hilarious that Georgia is the one in the “sweet third daughter” position, because she bears absolutely zero resemblance to Louisa May Alcott’s Beth. Georgia is a fireball: She’s outgoing, never stops talking, fiercely independent, afraid of nothing, and she loves to eat. She’s only two, so it’s still hard to separate the essential Georgia from the terrible two-ness, but she seems inclined to grab life by the neck and throttle it. (Or maybe the frequency with which she bites her sisters is really an indication that she wants to take a big bite out of life).

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The poet Sylvia Plath wrote in “Morning Song:” “I’m no more your mother than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand.” I used to think Plath had a detached view of motherhood because she was depressed, but now I understand that line differently. I don’t know where these kids came from. Sure, there are certain aspects of their personalities that I recognize as coming from me or Erick, but there are other, HUGE parts of who they are that I can’t even relate to. One of Fiona’s favorite parts of kindergarten is P.E., which was exactly what I dreaded for my entire school career. Where did THAT come from???

Of course, my girls are still very young, and all of the things I’ve just written about them are subject to change in the coming years. The essential point remains, and here’s an illustration: Now that Campbell and Fiona are attending separate schools, Campbell is emerging from her big sister’s shadow and into her own. This mostly means horrible fights, but the other day when Fiona was getting a little too bossy, Campbell looked at her and said: “I am NOT you! I am A DIFFERENT PERSON!”

And that’s just the thing about parenting: Our children are, and always have been, different people. That’s either scary or exciting. At the moment, I’m choosing to focus on the exciting.

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Too early to tell who this one’ll be….

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