A lifetime of letters is easier than it sounds.
I had a very happy childhood. I had play dates with friends, tried dance and cello and lots of other things that required lessons, got attention when I needed it, and knew that I was loved. Bonus, I turned out to be a pretty normal, well-adjusted, smart-enough person. But, as a mother of two boys that are eight and six, I have started to realize that I have no idea how my parents did it.
I was an only child of divorced parents who both worked full-time. I don’t know what I ate for dinner. I don’t know what I did all day during the summers, because I was too young to remember it. I don’t know what it was like to shuttle me back and forth after work each day because they shared custody. I don’t know how they came up with a fair way to handle holidays. I don’t know what it felt like for them on nights they had me, and nights they didn’t. And, until I became a parent too, I was too unaware to consider all of it from their perspective.
The struggles I go through every day in navigating parenthood astound me. My ultimate goal is to give them a happy childhood, and raise intelligent, kind, and light-hearted kids. I never considered that my parents wanted to do this for me too. But, I have more of the story than most and it came from letters from my dad.
The story is told.
When I was first born, he decided that he would write me a letter each year. When I turned 18, he would start to give me the letters, one year at a time. Each letter talks a little bit about what I’m doing, how I’ve grown, what’s going on in my life. Unexpectedly to him, they also convey what it was like in his own life as well. He would sit down and dash off one short letter at the end of the year. It wasn’t more than a couple pages from his day planner (does that date me? ;) ). He would write what stuck out to him and his tone conveyed more than the words alone. It gave me a window into his life as a single dad. Sure, he could tell me the stories now, but feelings fade over time and memories get hazy. Days that were gut-wrenching then, might seem not-so-bad twenty years later.
It wasn’t easy reading through the divorce years. For me, the divorce happened before I was walking so they’d just always been that way. His bitterness and frustration was palpable. It hurt my heart to think of my two favorite people suffering through finding out their love wasn’t as strong as they’d hoped. For me, they’ve always been so different, I never thought it strange it didn’t work between them. But, they were young and starry-eyed, and maybe hadn’t really learned who they were yet. It was a perspective I couldn’t have ever gotten without my letters.
Then when he met my stepmother, his soulmate, the tone of the letters changed to hope. Then my sisters were born and it changed again. It’s been such a wonderful journey to experience. Your own life from the perspective of your parent, and in turn what their experiences were too.
The past teaches us in the present.
The letters have given me, as an adult, insight into how his life was when I was growing up, not just mine. It’s something most kids don’t ever get the opportunity to learn, because their kids never think to ask them how they did it. Or, maybe that’s just a resource that I failed to recognize and everyone else already knows! Regardless, each year around Christmas, he gives my sisters and I our letters and we sit around and read them aloud. It’s even better with three separate letters because they all give different pictures, and they all intersect. It’s a bit of a time capsule for him. He gets to remember what his life was like 20 years before that year. I get to hear what my life is like in ways that I had not ever thought of. What started as a little note to tell me my milestones became a family history record for all of us.
A tradition continues.
And because I love and cherish the letters so much, I started them for my sons as well. I mean to write them every January, but they generally don’t actually get done until March. And I think I probably joke about that every year in each letter. I like to think of mine as “letters 2.0” because I’ve learned from his experience. Mine tend to be a little longer than my dad’s because instead of just trying to remember at the end of the year and sum up, I keep little reminders in a note in my phone. When they do something funny, or great, or bad, or they have a new trick or friend that I think is noteworthy, I put it in the letter. I tell them what they did for their birthday party, who their best friend was, what lessons they took, and what TV shows they like.
But, then I give them a narrative about what their father and I are doing, too; What we’re doing in our careers, how we feel we’re doing as parents, major life decisions we’re facing, things like that. It’s cathartic for me and I’m sure someday it will be very special to read… for all of us.
I also write a little bit about what’s going on in the world; whether it’s a radical new president or my concern about the future of our environment. I think those will be some of the more interesting things to read, because by then they’ll know what became of what’s happening now.
Make it your own.
There are easier ways to do it. You can set up an email account for your kids and just shoot off emails in the moment. Then someday you give them the login and the password and they can read through all of them. I think that’s a fun idea, too. But, for me being a lover of the lost art of paper, I like having our way. I found a little envelope binder for each of my sons. Each envelope is labeled with the year. They will unwrap each letter one year at a time. And have them all in one keepsake. I like that it gives you time to digest and something to look forward to each year.
At the age of 35, I am sad that I am almost out of letters because I’m fairly certain when he was when I was 18, he quit writing them. These simple little notes have given me insight into my parents’ lives, as much as my own, and both have been infinitely valuable to me. It helps me know that being a parent has never been easy. And, even with ups and downs, if you love your kids – and they know it – all the little stuff won’t really matter.
For a kid, these letters will be a great reminder of how it was. As a parent, it’s easy to keep your head down and just muscle through. You can forget all the little things. This is a great way to hold on to a few and remember them years later. And an even better way to show your kids how to be parents someday too.