I’m not the kind of mother who normally brushes and styles her daughters’ hair. I’ve never been a big fan of personal grooming, and my girls have never been keen on sitting still long enough to receive it. But today I’ve dragged a kitchen stool outside to our patio and sat Saoirse on it. She’s perched high with her eyes closed, skin still moist from the shower, and hair dripping in tangles down her back.
What frightens me most about this phenomenon is that she has become a mini-me.
At first I assume her eyes are closed because of the glare of the sun. But then, as I comb through her knots, I realize she is simply taking in every touch from my hands. It is the last time for a week that our bodies will connect.
There is a point in the life of every lamb on the farm when its mother begins to wean it, kicking her baby away every time it tries to suckle. The lamb is persistent, rushing back at the ewe as she grazes, sneaking up behind her and diving in toward her udder. The ewe sometimes surrenders and allows the nursing. But eventually, she butts it away once more.
On this morning, I feel like a mother ewe, preparing to kick away my lamb. Today we are sending Saoirse away for a week of summer camp.
She never actually asked to go. This was all my idea. She is nearly 12, and recently I’ve observed that, with the lack of peers on this farm, I play the part of her confidant, her teacher, her mother, and increasingly, her best friend.
I have chosen a life that is more isolating than a typical family’s. I am with my children nearly 24 hours each day. But rather than longing for space away from me, Saoirse has become increasingly dependent on my presence. It has become, in my mind, a version of the Stockholm syndrome for home-schoolers.
What frightens me most about this phenomenon is that she has become a mini-me. She pursues my hobbies, my dreams, and, most disturbingly, my opinions. I’ve talked to her about the importance of taking risks in life and the joy of being with kids her age. And that’s why Bob and I pulled together the money for the only summer camp that seemed to grab her imagination: a nearby wilderness camp called Hawk Circle.
After combing and trimming her hair, I part it evenly and slowly twist it into two French braids. I take in her scent and the tactile memory of her fine strands of blonde as they catch around my fingers. I want this to be perfect for her. I pull the braids out several times and start over. She doesn’t complain.
I have sausages smoking on the grill, crispy potatoes in the oven, and a giant bowl of cucumber salad in the fridge. I finish her hair, and we move inside to the table where all four of us join for one last meal together.
After we eat, Grammie and Pop Pop pull in, and we all caravan to Hawk Circle. Once there we get a tour of the grounds and are introduced to her counselors and fellow campers. Saoirse stands by the group of children, holding my hand, horror in her eyes, trying to work up the courage to join a game of soccer.
“I need you for a few more minutes,” she tells me, her grip strong.
I pull away and walk up to a counselor. “Excuse me,” I say loudly. “I’d like to introduce you to my daughter. Maybe you could help her meet a few of these kids.” He comes over to talk to Saoirse, and I kiss on her cheek and then we all disappear before Saoirse realizes we’re gone.
I don’t want to see only myself in my child. I want to start to learn who she is.
It’s not until that drive home that I finally feel it. A piece of my soul has been ripped from my body. I begin to shake. The tears stream down my face. It takes every bit of my strength to keep driving forward. We stop to pick up some groceries, and Bob wrestles the keys from my hands, fearful that I’m in no condition to drive. I try to sleep in the car on the way home, but every slip into slumber dredges up nightmares of all the things that could happen to my child while she is away from me.
When we arrive home I walk inside, and Saoirse’s absence slams into my body like an oncoming truck. I hate myself for doing this to her. Ignoring Ula and Bob, I throw myself into doing paperwork, then stacking firewood, anything to distract myself from the pain.
As I carry logs into the woodshed, I remind myself why I chose this path. I want Saoirse to have a chance to find herself away from my domineering shadow. I don’t want to see only myself in my child. I want to learn who she is. I’ve taught her my morals, my values, my cooking, my thinking. If I don’t play the part of the ewe and kick her away, I fear I’ll never really meet the person who fills my days so fully. Keeping this in mind, I count the hours until I can bring her home.
Later that evening, Mom calls. She wants to know what time we can all drive to pick Saoirse up on Sunday. “We’re not all going,” I tell her. “I’m going alone.”
Mom is offended, but I refuse to budge. When I pick up Saoirse on Sunday I want to be alone with my daughter. I want to take her out to lunch, sit beside her, and hear the first hatchings of her thoughts, her opinions, and her stories without the interruptions of family chaos or the imposition of my opinions.
After 12 years of constant companionship, I want to finally meet my daughter for the first time.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.