Parental Elastic

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Fifth grade.  It’s impossible to watch my daughter grow and not remember myself at her age.  Fifth grade was a turning point.  Fourth grade was rotten.  Third grade was unremarkable.  Second grade was amazing, but little kid amazing.  I remember finally feeling like I was growing into myself in fifth grade.  Watching my daughter start to navigate this school year I am struck that there is something more than a new year and a new teacher going on.  For the first time, I can really see her starting to become the adult she will be someday – not in flashes, but in persistent displays of adult. Grown up.  Not little kid.

The first day of fifth grade, my husband and I walked her up to school, like we had every single day of daycare, preschool, and elementary school.  Then the ultimatum: we could walk her to the gate, but no farther.  Most of the other kids’ parents didn’t drop them off at school, even in third or fourth grade, she explained, so it was time for us to stop too.

Last year this announcement might have stung.  Two years ago, my feelings would have been hurt.  Three years ago, I would have talked her out of her decision.  Now?  It was okay.  I had been feeling the awkwardness myself.  Watched the dwindling parents. Noticed the kids didn’t come and say “Hi Coach Johanna” anymore.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure they remembered I was their second-grade soccer coach.  In some ways it was a relief.  Dropping her off a block from school gave me a chance to get to work on time and avoid the yoga-mom chit-chat after the bell rang.

Two weeks in, a new development.  Her friend approached her about biking to school together.  So, our routine shifted.  My husband or I ride her to her friend’s house, then ride home while Afthead Junior and her buddy head to school.  Now I’m out the door to work before school even starts, with a little bit of exercise under my belt, and the girls ride their bikes home alone every day.

I remember the freedom of walking home from school.  I remember the fear when a new route creeped me out for some reason, and the joy of taking my time during a nice day or when there was a friend to walk with.  I remember watching for mean dogs, like the one in the Ramona Quimby book.  When my daughter comes home five minutes later than normal with a big grin on her face I’m happy for her freedom, for her exploration, for her independence.  Sometimes she tells me why she’s late, and sometimes she doesn’t.  It’s a step toward a more grown up relationship where she shares what she wants, not just because I’m her mom and she’s supposed to.

Heading out for our annual Labor Day camping trip I grabbed my favorite “won’t wash my hair for three days” headband.  I pulled it on and heard the little elastic strings woven into the headband fabric snap.  The band fell down.  In the past year, while I wasn’t paying attention, the elastic had passed on into the land of non-stretchiness.

With my hair askew and my useless headband around my neck it hit me.  There are no apron strings between parent and child.  At least not in my situation.  There is an elastic band holding us together.  In the beginning it was tight tight tight.  It held her inside me as she grew into a baby.  It held her to me when she was an infant and couldn’t walk.  The first snappings happened as she toddled away screaming “I can do it.”  She needed more space.  The band got less and less restrictive as she went off to preschool, kindergarten, elementary school.  It was strong enough so that when her friends were mean, her coach yelled, or she failed at school the energy in the elastic always pulled her to me: back to safety and momma.

But now I can feel the elastic slipping.  There are less stretchy bits left than non-stretchy bits.  What will happen when all the elastic is gone?  Will we toss it like a cheap pair of underwear?  Like a swimsuit gone see-through and obscene?  Will I store it away in some box where it will sit next to baby teeth going to dust, pulling it out occasionally to caress the rotting fabric and reminisce of days when our relationship was simultaneously simpler and more complicated.  When I always stood between her and the dangers of the world.  Will I brandish it at her when she doesn’t call or doesn’t come home for the holidays demanding she remember what I did for her?  Or, will we keep it and use it when we need it?  When her boyfriend (or girlfriend) dumps her, will she pull it out and wrap it around us?  When her own baby is born will she stretch it around me and her own new elastic band providing an extra layer of support to a new precious life?  When I’m infirm and heading to the rat-infested nursing home will she give it to me, so I can clutch desperately to the fragile ties between us?  Whatever happens, these long-term connections are a choice, not a given as they were when she was tiny and wee.

Apron strings can be knotted, ripped open, re-typed, or left dangling at will.  Our bond has more of an air of inevitability about it.  Someday it will not be needed, but I hope it will be wanted.  I hope there will always be days when she chooses to ask my advice, spend time with me, or just snuggle up next to me because she finds me a comfort.  And I hope I’m brave enough and wise enough to give her the space she needs, letting the elastic continue to stretch to fit our ever-changing relationship.

Last week an early morning rush to band left her frazzled.  The week of soccer, running, homework, early mornings, and late nights caught up with her.  We’d barely seen each other between our non-coincident commitments.  She gathered her trumpet and her backpack and then asked, just outside of school in view of any other early arrival, “Mom, can I have a hug?”  I got out and held her while she cried.  Then I opened the car door and told her, “Get in.  You can practice trumpet at home.”  We sat together in the basement, annoying her sleeping dad, while she played for me and pretended to be her band teacher: giving herself corrections and praise.  An hour later I dropped her off at school and she ran in with her normal quick hug and “Love you mom.”  I watched her turn the corner then drove off to start my own day.

The Third Day of Third Grade

I watch you.  I watch you watch them.  The pair labeled your “best friends”and the other one.  They laugh and touch and a little girl gravitational force pulls them together as it repels you.

I watch you.  I watch the jealousy and anger coil up inside you and I hope that it finds release before you snap inappropriately.  You stare unblinkingly with your ice blue eyes and the look is pure hurt because you are left out.

I watch you.  I watch as your new friend, “Well maybe friend,” you’ve said, “but not yet” walks up to you and you don’t even acknowledge her presence.  I talk to her and compliment her sweatshirt and make pleasantries, which you should be doing, but you don’t because you can’t stop staring across the blacktop as your best friends and the other laugh at something.  They are too far away, so we cannot hear what they laugh at, but we can see they are having fun without you.

I watch you.  I watch as the second maybe new friend walks up and you ignore her too.  Opportunities surround you but you can’t see them because you want to be over there with them in their class.  You want the comfort of last year.  You want familiar.  You want to be inside the threesome again and not stuck outside looking in.  The two maybe new friends stand silently ignored and you continue fester until you turn and say, “I told you I’m not popular anymore.”

I want to hurl idiotic phrases at you.  You catch more flies with honey.  Life isn’t fair.  Make new friends, but keep the old.  I want to stop your stare and refocus it on the sweet kids around you.  I want to plaster over your hurt and wounded heart and tell you it will be okay, but I don’t do any of that.  It might not be okay.  You might lash out at your old friends and miss the opportunity for new friends.  You might lose them all.  I wish for a tree to sprout between your class’s line and the other class’s line so that you don’t have to see them having fun without you.  I know it might be a long and lonely year.

I think of Rachel and Stacy 34 years ago on my playground.  I remember wishing for what they had: for the heads close together and the whispers and hand games and true friendship and wondering, “How do they do that?”  I remember longing for what they had, but never finding it.  I watch you and hope the hurt of my third grade isn’t repeated in the next generation with a different pain of loss instead of longing.

I watch you and feel the agony of a mother’s anguish.  I watch you and hope it will be okay.

The bell rings and the pain of everything makes reach for a hug and kiss, needing to be loved too much to remember I’m embarrassing.  I pour my heart into you, because you are loved and you are amazing and you can do this, and then we part.  I watch you.  I watch you walk away alone.

 

 

A Letter to my Daughter

Today your world is amazing.  You are in the middle of your three friends, not on the outside.  Our two tiny foster kittens are thriving and run to you when you enter a room.  Twenty little boys in your soccer skills class picked you as the best soccer player and literally bowed to you saying “I am not worthy.”  You are at a marvelous age where this embarrasses you a little, but mostly makes you proud and joyful.  I thought you would float off the field last night, and you want to share your story with everyone.  School just makes sense right now, and you are recognized by your teacher for excelling.  Again, this praise is welcome and soul building.  Mean kids haven’t learned how to belittle your accomplishment and turn it against you.

I sit on the sideline of your life and I want to bottle this day.  I want to take how you feel and how I feel and keep it safe, because these perfect times are fleeting.  There will be days when you are on the edge, don’t get picked for the team, or don’t get invited to the dance.  There will be days of sickness and fear and loss.  There will be days when all of these bad things happen at once, and I want to offer you a sip from today and heal whatever hurts you have.  I want to be able to take a sip from today to remind myself of how amazing you can be.

Today I try to weave a bottle of words hoping our eyes can sip when we need a reminder later.