Seven Years Ago: The Two Things I Promised My Girl

My sweet baby Jane came into the world 7 years (and 4 days) ago. I had some pretty naive ideas about motherhood then. I thought she’d never wear pink. (By day 4 she had on her first pink outfit. She hasn’t turned back since.) I strongly opposed princesses and damsels-being-rescued in any format. (Jane’s 4th birthday party was a princess party.) And I swore she’d eschew gender roles entirely. (She threw me a bone on this one: she has a doll named Simon, who is a boy, that proudly wore dresses for many years, although now he’s much more gender-traditional in his choice of doll clothes.) It was laughable how little I knew about the hair-raising, hilarious task that is raising a child.

Jane made her way into the world via C-section. She stuck her little fist out first, proclaiming her grand entrance. She surprised the doctor, who thought her perhaps a bit bossy as he folded her arm back in to allow her to make a safer, if less dramatic, entrance into the delivery room. When she and I finally got a minute alone, after all the family had come and gone, after her Bobby had drifted off to sleep and was snoring (sort of) quietly in the corner, I looked at her and I knew 2 things: 1) I loved her wholly and deeply, and that 2) I would never try to protect her from the beauty and the tragedy that is life.

All my life, my parents have tried to shield me from hurt and disappointment. They did this because they loved me, as much as I love Jane. Of that I am sure. But I never learned to handle my own sadness and pain. Before I got sober, I was not resilient in any way. (Hence the having to get sober…) So, it was very important to me that I love Jane through her pain, when she ultimately faced it. I learned this from a very good therapist who also informed me that Jane was not mine; she was simply on lend to me. It was my job, from the moment she was born, to begin the long, slow process of letting her go, so she could become the person she was meant to be. (And, really, who am I to hold Jane back?)

I lived this philosophy out in small ways. When she was 6 weeks old, I left her in the church nursery for the first time. It was excruciating. I ached for her. But I did it again the next week. Because I knew that it was right. I lived it out in bigger ways. When she encountered her first frenemy in preschool, I did not intervene–even though I watched this heart-breaking friend triangle play out again and again. I let the teachers manage it. I did not rescue her. (Remember, I don’t believe in damsels-being-rescued) And she came out of the whole situation just fine (just like the teachers promised she would). And then there was the really big year–the one where her Bobby transitioned and we moved from Florida to Atlanta. Yeah, that one was a doozy. But we did those things because they were what her Bobby and I needed to be whole, happy, healthy people. So, we trusted she’d not only be fine but that she’d thrive. And so she has.

This week, some turmoil unfolded in Jane’s school community. It looked like rezoning may be imminent. At first, I said nothing to her. But I know Jane. And she doesn’t like to be surprised by things. I also know that part of my job is to teach her that she can do hard things. So, I told her that not all of the kids at her school may be able to stay there. I explained what I believe to be truth: our school is too crowded, two other schools not full enough. So some kids may need to go those other schools, to make things more fair. When she heard the news, she cried. She is seven after all. Her entire class cried earlier in the year when some of their classmates were moved into a new class. A new class right down the hall. Change is hard. She asked me if she’d need to change schools. I told her I didn’t know. But that no one was going anywhere right now.

She took this in, dried her eyes and said, “Okay.” I promised her I’d go look at the other school, just to check it out.

I found this other school to be pretty amazing and came home and told her so. I told her that it has two floors (she’s OBSESSED with stairs, so a two-story school is mind-blowing in her world). I described the nifty classrooms and the bright colored squares on the linoleum floors in the hallways. I told her the school felt both happy and calm. She took all this in and asked a few questions. Then she bounced out of the room to play with her dolls. As you do, if you’re seven.

The next day, as she was making her lunch before school. Suddenly she stopped spreading the mayonnaise and turned to face me.  “Mommy,” she said, “if I need to change schools, I want to go to that school you told me about. That sounds like a really, really nice school.”

And, just like that, it was done for her. She’s happy at her school now. She’ll be happy at this other school, if that’s where she needs to go. She can do hard things. Because she is resilient. And because she is Jane.

I love her so, and I could not be more proud.

Resilience

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“We are going to move away from the only home you’ve ever really known,” we said.

“Okay,” she said.

“We know that you’re leaving behind friends and family. It’s okay to miss them, and its okay to cry.”

“But I will get to live in the same place as my best friends. And their moms. And we love them so much. So, it’ll be okay,” she said.

We said goodbye. To the house. To family. To friends. To our house.

“I am sometimes sad saying goodbye,” she said. Then she cried broken sobs that shattered my heart. I held her until she was done. She dried her eyes, looked up at me and said, “But it’ll be okay.”

We made the long trek from Tampa to Atlanta and arrived in our new (temporary) home after 11p.m. Nothing of hers had made it here yet, except a few favorite toys.

“I love sleeping in my sleeping bag next to you, Mommy. It’ll be okay,” she said.

The next morning we got up bright and early; the three of us walked to one of the most stellar breakfast spots in Atlanta. She ate a pancake, which she declared the best she’d ever had.

We set out to walk home and she burst into tears. “I miss everyone,” she sobbed. Her Bobby held her until she was done. “It’ll be okay,” she said, “as long as I can ride on your shoulders home.” So she did.

We sent her off to spend time with her best friends and their moms, the ones she loves so very much. She declared that definitely much better than okay.

We explored this big, beautiful city, and her eyes grew wide with wonder. “This isn’t like Tampa,” she said. “But I think I like it okay.”

We found our new YMCA, and I signed her up for camp. She cried before we left he apartment on her first day—something she has never, ever done. She didn’t want to go. I sympathized. I cajoled. And then I finally insisted she go. She looked so small when I dropped her off, there in this new place with new people she didn’t know. When I picked her up, she got in the car and yelled, “Today was the best day ever!” So, I guess that means it’s okay.

She is 5. She’s full of enthusiasm, optimism and a flair for the dramatic. And she’s not afraid to feel things. Not sadness. Not joy. Not even fear. She names her feelings for what they are, feels them, and then lets them go. She is amazing. Adaptable. Resilient.

She is making Atlanta her home, day by day. She has friends at camp. She can’t wait for Kindergarten (just another week and a half!). And she loves the friends she already had here. She is joyous and aglow when she is with them. And I am so grateful to have a child that does not shrink from living her life.

And she is definitely okay.

 

 

You Don’t Like the Buzzer?

IMG_2051When I signed Jane up to play basketball this winter, I had no idea how much I’d learn. And my learning had little to do with the game itself and much more to do with resilience and joy and kicking perfectionism in the ass.

Our family belongs to the YMCA. Consequently, at the tender age of 5, Jane has already played soccer (multiple times) and tee ball. She’s taken swimming lessons, done gymnastics on and off since she was a wee tot. Our theory falls into the try-everything-and-see-what-sticks method of choosing a sport. So, when I signed her up for basketball, it was just something else we could see if she liked.

Oh, sweet baby Jesus, she was awful at it.

The first practice, she had no idea how to dribble. Which I thought would be fine. In the other sports she’d tried, no prior skill was necessary at all. Hell, a decent percentage of the kids ended up playing in the dirt or chasing bugs during the soccer and tee ball games. But what I’d failed to consider is that this wasn’t the “baby league” anymore. This was the 5 & 6 year old league–and they were serious.

She had two practices before her first game, during which she kinda-sorta learned to dribble once or twice before the ball would simply hug the ground. The first game left her completely bewildered. She was supposed to defend (which she’d never heard of before), to dribble (which she couldn’t do), and make a shot on a rebound (what?!?). She basically stood still in the middle of the court, halfheartedly followed her team around, and tried to look like she was part of the action while staying entirely away from the action.

And then it happened–the buzzer went off to signify the end of the period. Sweet girl was lucky she didn’t pee her pants, it scared her so bad.

I was sure she’d want to quit after the first game. Jane is a known perfectionist. If she isn’t sure she can totally rock something, she usually loses all desire to participate. But not so in basketball. In fact, she loved it. She constantly asked to go outside to practice her budding dribbling skills. She loved practice, and stayed more engaged than I thought was possible given her lack of basketball skills.

She loved something she was awful at.

I’d love to say I fully embraced her enthusiasm. But my ego was a bit wounded watching her look constantly confused on the court, seeing her struggle to pick up the skills that seemed to come easily to the other kids. And I was afraid–afraid the other kids would make fun of her, that they wouldn’t want her on the team. I was terrified they’d be mean to her and crush her spirit.

So, instead, I almost beat them to the punch by constantly offering “helpful” suggestions, by insisting she focus, by criticizing her efforts when she was already giving it all she had.

And then one day at practice, I noticed how much fun she was having. How she continued to try, even though she couldn’t execute the drills perfectly. My perfectionist kid wasn’t perfect–and she was okay with it. In fact, she seemed oblivious to it. And I realized I was watching her develop resilience–which is arguably a more important skill than dribbling.

Her basketball picture reminds me of joy and resilience in the face of imperfection. And it gives me so much hope for the woman that she will one day become, a woman who doesn’t have to be perfect to live life wholeheartedly and with great joy.

Finding Balance

She waits for her turn on the balance beam. My heart clenches. She’s only four years old; the beam stands as tall as her head, and she is afraid of heights. In fact, she asked to quit gymnastics because of this very beam. 

She waits for her turn on the balance beam. My heart clenches. She’s only four years old; the beam stands as tall as her head, and she is afraid of heights. In fact, she asked to quit gymnastics because of this very beam. 

As I watch my daughter standing in line, waiting her turn, I realize that I spend a lot of time hoping that she isn’t like me.

Maybe I should amend that to read: I spend a lot of time hoping my daughter isn’t like original me.

When people find out I am in recovery, they often start poking around in my childhood trying to figure out what drove me to look for my solutions at the bottom of a Miller Lite can. Truth is, there isn’t a lot to find. What they really want to know is what my parents DID to make me this way. While their investigations used to be a sort of morbid curiosity about my sordid descent, now there is a desperation to the questioning… because now most of my friends have kids. They want to know how to spare their kids from the complete demoralization of addiction… and who can blame them? Addiction destroys. And they want their kids to live fully. I get it.

But here’s the rub: my parents didn’t DO anything to send me running to hide in the buzzy bliss of a drink. They loved me, provided for me, encouraged me, and cared for me. They were not abusive, neglectful or cruel. But I did somehow manage to grow up devoid of any coping mechanisms. I never really grew out of the egocentric stage—not in that I thought that everything should be mine, but I believed the world was always thinking about me, always laughing at me, always rejecting me on some level. I was constantly on stage, naked and ashamed, a dream I could never quite shake. These thoughts consumed me to the point that I could not find room for compassion, empathy, and big, radical love for the world. Instead, my love was always a tight, clenching love that craved constant approval, approbation, attention. This constant striving and reaching created original me: an overly sensitive kid, prone to anxiety and hopelessness. It created the perfect internal environment to brew an alcoholic.

So, yeah, I kinda don’t want my kid to be like that. Before she arrived in this world, I had these intense hopes that she’d be born with an adventurous spirit, kind but not too sensitive, with a deep desire to simply be her own person. In short, I wanted her to be exactly the kid I was not. But, either way, I knew my partner and I held a secret parenting weapon: we could teach our daughter to practice the principles of AA without ever having to learn them in a meeting. This is a perk no one tells you about when you walk into the rooms; but it has incredible value in the topsy-turvy world of parenting.

We talk to our daughter often about trying her best. In the preschool world of always wanting to run the fastest, to be first in line, to win the game, we try to remind her that her best is all she can give. That she isn’t defined by her successes or failures. That kindness and bravery count more than a perfect soccer kick. Just trying is sometimes the biggest win.

She climbs up on the beam. She teeters a bit. I can see her arms shake as she holds them out from her sides to balance. Then she takes one step. And another. And unlike last session, she doesn’t freeze and wait for an adult to help her. She talks halting steps … all the way across the beam.

She breaks into a huge grin, waving like a maniac at me. Her mother. Who did nothing more than encourage her to let go of her fear and to really live.

And she owned that beam.