Saturday, March 17, 2012

First impressions set aside

I couldn't begin to count the number of reasons that being home is superior to being at school. Though there are arguments on either side, I'd have to say that the pleasure of coming back to California after a few months away is one of the most gratifying feelings in the world. And there are many reasons for that.

But the greatest of all those reasons, I've come to realize, is the loveliness that is getting to see family regularly. And with the newest (and youngest) addition to the group, it has become an even greater treat.

I love this little ticklish kid.
My niece, Sydney, is one of the coolest people in the world, and no mistake. She may only be a toddler, but she already has the personality of a full-fledged kid. She laughs and coos and speaks (a little), she watches TV like it's going out of style (something we have in common) and she has more emotions that some people twenty times her age. But she's also still a baby - still growing. And the more I look at her, the more I start to see just that.

I used to love being the youngest. I was the baby of my family for quite a few years. Before my younger cousins were born - and even when they came to be - I always basked in whatever bit of babyhood I had in me. I loved getting the pampered niece treatment from my aunt and getting to sing a Broadway tune in front of a crowd of amused relatives.

Yet as I grew up I stopped caring so much about being the littlest member of my clan - instead I began to despise it for reasons that were just beginning to surface. While being young may have afforded me toys and playmates in my older cousins (who loved me as a toddler and lost interest as I grew older), being the family munchkin left me with a lot of prejudices to combat. Some that I still face to this day.

It's fun to be fawned over, but the trade-off for me started pretty early on when my family stopped thinking of me as the cute one and more as the annoying one. Since I turned about ten, my adorable Dorothy-dressed and ruby-slippered cuteness subsided and it was replaced by an assumption that I was a spoiled little kid who was more of a terrible brat than a cute little angel.

And the curse followed me throughout my young adult life. Sometimes I still fear interacting with my extended family because in my heart I know they will continue to treat me the way they did when I was a preteen. In their eyes I never grew past being a kid, and therefore I still need to be brought down to earth by their realism and cynicism.

It's fine to be the grandkid that grows out of the youngest kid persona. When your family no longer thinks of you as the little girl who cried because your second cousin was using your brand new bathing suit, then you don't have to fear that they will still treat you as if that antiquated image still applies. But when I am interacting with some members of my family, I can't seem to shake the picture they've pigeonholed me into. In their minds I'm still little and I still cry about stolen bathing suits.

So when I came home to visit my lovely baby niece who is turning one in less than a week, I couldn't help but think that I never want to pin her into the corner of being the same little baby that I know her as now. I never want her to have the same problems I've had.

Every time I hear about her progress as an infant, and especially every time I visit her while on vacation from school, I try to see her as a new - totally unique and revamped - kid. The information I've stored in my mind about her soon becomes obsolete and instead of holding onto vestiges of the past, I think about how I can conform my opinions to fit who she is now.

When I first began babysitting my niece, she still wasn't ticklish. She didn't get excited very much. She didn't play very actively. She was more of an adorable little lump of a baby who I could wield complete control over rather than the very self-aware being that she is now. And I loved her like that. I loved getting to play at her rather than with her. It was fun to choose her activities and figure out ways to make her fall asleep or make her stop crying. At the time it was a pleasure to be so powerful.

Then I came back for spring break after a year of knowing her off-and-on (over several breaks with college in-between), and I started seeing my little baby SySy becoming a real-life person. She was not the little roly poly I knew several months ago who I could put on her back and leave there if I had to run to the kitchen to grab something. If I left her alone, she'd be halfway across the living room by the time I got back.

The changes are crazy, but so exciting.

As the months have gone on, I've tried to not hold onto what I thought of my niece in the past. If I knew ways to quiet her down, or ways to make her smile, I brought them to California with me in my back pocket, but I never forced them onto her as if they were still current and useful. It's because even after very short breaks from seeing the little one, I am well aware that she can change into something completely different from my initial perceptions.

It's a perspective I hope to carry with me through the rest of her childhood (and adult) development. Because unlike me, I hope my niece can be raised without false pretenses of remaining a static personality that doesn't change through time.

Even if I started off think of her as a little pooping monster who cried and wouldn't let me put her to bed, I can see now that Sydney has become more compliant and easy-going (albeit, with an all new set of obstacles). And I know that a few months down the road, the way she is now will have probably taken a 180 degree turn, making her an entirely new baby that is worlds away from the SySy I know at this moment.

I've struggled through most of my life being the victim of first impressions and prejudices within my family. If I was emotionally vulnerable as a preteen, then it's assumed that I'm still the kid that I was back then - still unable to handle myself in company and still taking advantage of my overactive tear ducts to make everyone feel badly for me (for the record, I don't cry on cue and I've never done so to elicit a response from anyone).

But unlike those who have made me feel inferior throughout my life, I never want to see the little baby who am watching grow up before my eyes put in the same position I was. Because no one deserves to be labeled in some way before they have the chance to prove it wrong. We all have the right to be who we are and be judged accordingly. But not until we become who we are.

I cannot wait to see my niece become who she is. And in the interim, I'm enjoying every moment of watching her on the path to growing into the awesome girl that she is already showing herself to be.

So I write today to my family, to my new niece and to everyone else to say that first impressions may be telling, but they can also change. As do we all. So keep them in your back pocket, but also realize that sometimes it's better to leave them there.

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