Struggling, for the Win

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“I feel awful!” my nine-year old daughter wailed, throwing herself on the kitchen floor like a dishrag.

“Please don’t make me go to school!”

Her ailments grew more elaborate each morning that week.

“I’m like a woodland spring in a drought!”

“I’m a fairy stuck in a flower that won’t bloom!”

Then, I found a notice from her teacher floating on the kitchen table among the crumpled backpack trash that appears at the end of each school day.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh. That,” she scowled, her arms crossed as if she had just closed for business, but I knew that we finally had a start.

In fourth grade, for the first time, the Student Council representative from each class is chosen by popular vote rather than at random. Candidates are required to write and deliver a speech to their class. My daughter was terrified. She had been debating running for class representative for days, her anxiety bubbling over right before school when she knew she would be faced with her murmuring peers: Who is running? Who will you vote for?

I wanted to encourage her to run, but we’d been here before. She wants to be the best soccer player on the team, but she hides in her closet with a book when it’s time to go to practice. It’s the same with piano and dance. She’s not certain that she will accomplish what her creative mind sets forth when she first fantasizes some level of achievement, so she ends up assuming the worst: that her fantastic fears of failure will come true instead.

One small part of me wanted to take the notice about the class election and bury it in the recycling bin along with all the shiny holiday catalogs and their promises of joy and splendor. But when my daughter brought it up again the next day, I knew we were already halfway around the track. I had to help her quiet her anxiety, temper her fears, and live through her own process. Rather than spit, moan, and make faces at the difficulty ahead like she was doing, I needed an actual strategy. But how do you encourage a child who isn’t certain that she has what it takes to fulfill her goals?

“What if I don’t win?” she wondered aloud, “what if I come in dead last?”

That’s when I nabbed an idea from some random quote in my Facebook feed.

“Well,” I began, “you might not win—that’s true. But you definitely won’t win if you don’t try.”

Turns out, it was just the thing. She grew quiet, chewing on her lip.

That evening, we made a list of her leadership qualities and I let her type them out in sentences on my computer. Seeing the very best of herself on display gave her confidence to add her own flair.

“I’m creative and good with colors!” she wrote.

Then, I listened to her read her speech aloud in what we call her quiet voice. I want to call it her nothing voice, but I don’t say that, because it is something. It’s the voice she uses to get a running start. I have to let her talk to me in that voice even if it makes me feel uncomfortable—it’s the voice in which she appears small, anxious, and unsure. If not at home with me, then where else does she get to use it?

It was raining on the day the speeches were to be given, so I drove my kids to school. As I dropped them off, I turned to my daughter. I told her that she is the bravest girl I know, and that I really love that about her. She had tucked her speech into her backpack that morning, and I trusted that she’d know which voice to use when she read it aloud.

The next day, the election winner would be announced at school after lunch. I took my dog for a morning walk in the woods where my daughter’s class happened to be on a field trip. I walked along the trail for a few minutes before seeing some of her classmates.

“Hello Mrs. Shanley!” They called to me. “What’s your dogs name again?” someone asked.

Children seem so cheerful most of the time.

I stood surrounded by her classmates when my daughter ran up and wrapped her arms around me. She kissed me before leaning over to nuzzle the dog. I realized then that one of her strengths, the kind that’s both hard to put on paper and to say out loud, is this: she can stop and feel the weight of every emotion, yet still move through her day with a full, clear heart.

As I walked out of the woods, I saw her teacher, who caught my eye and waved me over.

“I have to tell you…she was elected,” she said quietly, smiling. My eyes welled up and I reached for her arm.

After school that day, I met my daughter outside on the steps.

“Congratulations!” I said. I wanted to ask her how she’d found out—was she excited? Surprised? But the relief on her face told me all I needed to know.

“Thanks,” she said happily.

We didn’t tease out her emotions or inspect them as we do so often together when something is not right; the process was over, the outcome joyful. I hugged her, I held her for a moment, and I told her I was proud of her. Then we piled into the car with her little brothers, the dog, and a pile of overdue library books, and went out for ice cream.




On the Eve of My Sister’s Wedding

181753_1720023092919_1213413_nYou’ll hear a lot about my sister this summer; after all, for several weeks, we’re living together with our children, embracing the village life temporarily. (To read the rest of the series, written for Washington Post’s On Parenting this summer, see The Village Life, Part IVillage Life, Part II: Specializing by MomentVillage Life, Part III: Sending My Daughter to Camp, and Packing Up the Village, Saying Goodbye)

Here’s a little more history to the story of us as mothers:
When Sisters Become Mothers

Finally, below is what I read to her (and a barn full of people she loves) on the eve of her wedding, nearly five years ago.
(Photo Credit: Our lovely cousin Sara McPherson)


I’m not sure I ever really figured out how to be a good older sister. I think I always assumed that Joanna needed me for something, though I couldn’t possibly have articulated what that was. “Joanna and me” was something of an experiment; my own private after-school special that I made up while posturing in front of my bedroom mirror, making up songs for imaginary Suave shampoo commercials, in which Joanna was the back-up singer, or whatever supporting role I happened to assign to her. She was happy to roll along with me—I don’t think she pouted, sulked, or slammed a door with real meaning in her life. My parents will tell you that Joanna and I complimented each other in that way.

She doesn’t know this, but up until a few years ago (maybe a few days—I’ll never tell) I really and truly thought Joanna was mine. I mean this in the same way that my nose is mine, my arm is mine, and my Joanna was mine. I talked to my friends about how beautiful she was—even with her headgear on—how smart she was, how talented. She was like my beloved pet. I think I hoped that if she really was mine, she would somehow make me shine a little brighter. Some of you know exactly what I mean. She was more organized, more gentle, more forgiving, more willing to try new things than I was, and she was mine.

In the role that I thought she played, and we all know she plays them well, she witnessed some of my most tortuous moments. After those moments were over, even when she was only 9 years old, she always managed to provide some sort of adult-like perspective that of course I hadn’t thought of myself. Most importantly, she always loved me anyway. She was steady and strong. You couldn’t shake her. It was so annoying. It was also the best.

We choose people whom we admire as our friends. We choose people who remind us of the very things we want to love in ourselves, the things we aspire to be. We rarely get to say that if we could have done so, we would have chosen our families, and yet I get to say that. I would have chosen my sister.

And, for the record, I chose her husband (I’ll call him Matt here).

For the past five years, every time I’ve seen them together I’ve wanted so much to say “I told you so,” if only because in those words I could contain my excitement, conceal my joy—I won’t say relief— and make light of the fact that to me, in life, it was real love that trumped all other semi-important matters.

I engineered this pair when I was pregnant with my first baby. I was brilliantly happy with my own situation and wanted more than anything to rearrange the universe so that my dear sister would some day know exactly how I felt then. I did my best, but Matt got the hint and took over faster than I could say “Soccer Mom!”

Matt was funny, he was quirky, he was attentive, he was interested in everything, and he was real. He was perfect, a bit like my own brilliant little sister star, though I think he’d agree that nothing really compares. It was no matter to Matt that shortly after they met, Joanna took off for Kentucky, or Mexico, or Chile, Argentina, or wherever. He was sold.

Apropos of nothing, he also liked to eat. Ice cream, peanut butter, chocolate chip scones. We once had a cookie war: I baked him a dozen or so of my best efforts and asked him to take them to work the next day, knowing they’d be gone before he’d finished the five-minute drive home. This was my form of torture. He countered the attack by dropping at my back door his latest shipment of baked goodies from Kansas, still in the cardboard box. I ate all of them. I’ll remind you that I was pregnant; Matt didn’t have any excuse for the insatiable hunger that apparently drove him to consume three gallons of frozen cookies and cream while he was dog sitting for a day and a half. I realize that Matt has gone on to compete in triathlons, while I continue to compete with my dog for who can eat the most off the countertop at once, but still, if you give a Matt a cookie, chances are he’ll ask for more.

I sometimes imagine that if I could check Matt’s Google cache, or browsing history, I could discover all the particular, peculiar things he’s been interested in. Things, I imagine, like the underside of tree lichen, the composition of bear scat, the exact muscular fibrocity or fibrociousness of bat testicles. That he’s had his arm all the way up a cow’s insides is part of what makes this man so awesome, so genuine, so willing to engage in life, so good.

I am not saying that I myself fell in love with Matt, but I knew that I had found, for the first time in my life, someone who I thought was worthy, and very much so, of my sister. If I am the only one who thinks my own opinion on this matter is important, I’m okay with that.

It wasn’t until later, when we’d grown at least halfway into the women we are today, that I really understood, in the same way you allow yourself to accept a certain sweet loss, that Joanna didn’t need me as much as I thought or hoped she did, and that she would find her own way, in her own time, with her own heart. That she would find this way with tremendous compassion and grace is no surprise, but stunning nonetheless. I love every piece of you. Congratulations.

My Daughter Takes the Lead, Again

FullSizeRender (8)“Mom, do you like my recital costume?” my daughter asked, offering a wadded-up ball of tulle for me to admire.

We both held our breath hopefully.

I unraveled the ensemble from my daughter’s arms and found a neon green leotard attached to a flouncy zebra-print mini skirt. A matching backless halter vest, belted with a silver buckle the size of a smart phone, tumbled to the kitchen floor.

Each year around this time, my daughter’s beloved hip-hop class goes bonkers over their recital costume. This is part of dance class culture: I’m pretty sure a group of girls would fawn over a baggy Ronald McDonald suit if it were made from shiny polyester and came with floppy red shoes. But the girls’ costumes aren’t just fun and flouncy anymore—they’re actually sexy. My husband maintains that last year’s getup, a mini-skirted schoolgirl uniform, had been pilfered from the set of a 1990s Aerosmith video.

If my Facebook news feed is to be trusted, I know that our school’s costume selections are not that unusual in the world of dance recitals. Still, I want to be able to watch my daughter dance without feeling like I’m tossing her into a public ring and celebrating her budding sexuality: dance recitals are not country fairs, and my daughter is not a ripening goat.

With my daughter anxiously awaiting my verdict, I waffled. Rather than feigning approval over yet another pile of saucy dance garb, it seemed more important to tell my daughter how awful it was that she was encouraged to doll up for an evening as some hyper-sexualized version of herself.

“Honestly?” I replied, thinking we could start a discussion right then and there about what the word “sexy” means and why it has no place in her life, yet.

When she looked at me, crestfallen, I backed down. Above all else, subjecting my daughter to further disempowerment would be ridiculous.

“I want to know what you think,” I asked instead.

She shrugged, still unsure.

What neither of us had realized was that this year, halfway between my daughter’s ninth and tenth birthdays, things had changed for her. The costumes she once categorically loved for their end-of-year flair now made her feel uncomfortable.

On the day of her dress rehearsal, I helped her get ready.

“I hate tights! They show everyone my butt. They’re itchy.”

She stretched the leotard up around her torso.

“Did I take home someone else’s costume by mistake? This feels too small!” She tugged on the straps, snapped them back onto her shoulders disdainfully, and then yelped in pain.

I read off the list of make-up requirements: blush, mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick. I know—these things make faces stand out on a stage. But with my two younger children in tow, we never arrive at the performance in time to sit close enough to the stage to see my daughter’s face anyway. Also, she’s nine.

“Do you want any of that stuff?” I asked her.

“Can we just do a light blush application? This is ridiculous!” she moaned as I brushed her cheeks from a small tin.

“Argh. Mom, it’s getting in my mouth. So is my hair. Do you have any hairspray?” she asked.

I pulled her hair into a ponytail with my fingers and grabbed a travel-size can of hairspray. I sprayed it awkwardly around the perimeter of her face, as if fending off a swarm of mosquitos. She stood with her eyes shut, and imagined the following scenario out loud:

“If a big man squeezed into my costume, it would take a thousand people just to button it up.”

Then she held up a six-inch zebra-print bow and squeezed her cheeks into a smile. “Look at this fancy bow I have to wear!” she cooed sarcastically. We both giggled.

“It says you’re supposed to have a ponytail with curls,” I explained.

The last time I borrowed a curling iron for a recital, I scorched my daughter’s hand and sent a friend running out at intermission to buy a bag of frozen peas to cool the burn.

“No curls,” my daughter said sternly, pulling on a pair of black fishnet gloves that extended up to her elbows. “These gloves are the best part of the costume,” she decided.

When she was ready, she looked at herself in the mirror, one hand on her square hip, and stuck out her tongue.

I thought back to the day one week earlier when I’d been catching up with a friend whose daughter is in the same dance class.

“What am I going to do?” I asked my friend, bemoaning our yearly costume dilemma.

“You’re going to put her in that hideous thing and get her to the stage on time,” she said.

Of course, my friend was right. But next year, if my daughter would rather not go through it again, I’ll tell her to opt out of the spring recital. Instead, we’ll clear the living room furniture and set up a stage. She can dance on the coffee table for all I care. Afterwards, we’ll have cake.

Chasing Fear with Magic, for Now

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My daughter woke me at night because she had a stomachache. I knew what that meant.

I placed a bucket at her bedside. I gave her a glass of water. She leaned back into her pillow.

“Mom, I think that made it worse,” she croaked.

Suddenly, and comically to my surprise, out of her mouth burst the awful surge, sputtering like a water pump priming air from its pipes.

Following the indignity of vomiting, things once shrouded in doubt became perfectly clear.

“The tooth fairy is definitely not coming tonight, mom,” she said sadly, leaning over the bucket, retching.

I was crushed. I had watched that stony little tooth dangling from her gum line for days, and I still forgot to play the fairy. Despite her nauseated misery, she had checked her pillow before waking me, just to be sure.

My daughter has lost six teeth and my son just one, but the tooth fairy has never showed up on time. I scramble to avoid my children’s disappointment each morning after a tooth is lost, wondering aloud if they ought to look harder, perhaps after breakfast. My forgetfulness hadn’t mattered much before—my daughter still wanted to believe.

I think I understand why.

I recently took her to a specialist in town to try and get a handle on her childhood fears, of which there are many. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything potentially destructive.

“What kinds of things are you afraid of?” the woman asked my daughter, who sat curled up in a chair, resting her lips on her knees.

I listened to my eight year-old girl casually rattle off a list of some twenty-five worries—everything from the house burning down to her family not loving her. She even used the word tsunami. Each of these fears seemed as familiar to her as the menagerie of stuffed animals circling her bed. Some were also familiar to me. My throat swelled with a voiceless moan as I reached for her hand.

Even now, it takes effort for me to shut down unlikely, irrational thoughts. I have a lot of practice, of course—thirty-something years of playing Whack-a-Mole with a fretful imagination makes for a quick hand.

As a girl, I believed in tooth fairy magic long after I knew it wasn’t rational. That the tooth fairy was real meant that other kinds of magic could be real, which eased my escape from what were often vivid worries.

The girls’ bathroom across the hall from my third-grade class smelled like rust and the walls were always damp with old building sweat. When I started overthinking a social interaction, say, or a math concept I didn’t yet understand, I retreated to that bathroom. There, I pretended I could push a button on the side of the stall, so that whatever I wanted would appear out of an imaginary trap door. I usually requested ice cream cones, though once I asked for a mechanical puppy to replace one that I’d ruined in the mud.

Mine were wishes without staged outcomes, but they kept me tethered, helping me regain control over my emotions.

I have a friend who gags at the thought of telling her kids there’s such thing as the tooth fairy. I’m a progressive parent myself most of the time—my six-year old would be glad to tell you exactly how babies are made over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as long as you promise not to laugh at the part where the seed comes “shooting out like a rocket” (his addition).

But leaving open the possibility of magic gives my daughter some control over her creative well, and distraction when she needs it. I have watched her settle her completely bonkers, totally unruly fear of spiders by supposing that her two-year old brother is her magical protector.

When she no longer needs that strategy, she’ll let me know.

After my daughter threw up and finally fell back asleep, I walked downstairs through my quiet, darkened house and sat at my desk. It wasn’t morning yet. I scratched out a hand-written note and paired it with a five-dollar bill, rolling the two into a tight column the size of a Q-tip. I tied the tiny parcel with a hot-pink ribbon and returned to my daughter’s room, where I slipped it under her pillow.

In the morning, she wandered weakly into our room and snuggled up between my husband and me. She raised her cupped hand into the air between us and lifted her fingers, smiling at her prize. She untied the ribbon and gasped.

“I’ve always wanted a five-dollar bill!”

I know I’m letting her wonder just a little longer, but to me, that’s reason enough.

Practice Makes Better

Practice of any kind—writing, teaching, or exercising—can be so mentally excruciating for me that at times, I feel I simply cannot.

I’m much better at being lazy. I’d grab a bottle of wine and treat a glob of taleggio like a salt lick until my face is sweating rather than go to bed early just so I can wake up for a pre-dawn training run. I’d skip a night I’ve set aside for writing to watch a show about lusty vampires instead—all you’d have to do is ask.

But the effects of my self-indulgence, delightful as they are, are only temporary.

When I discover my daughter holed up in her room making potions out of stickers, feathers, beads, and glitter, I see a bit of myself in there. Rather than practicing the piano or completing the subtraction problems that I have to double check for her by counting on my fingers, she’s holding steady with something effortless.

So it’s become part of my job to push her gently through the gloomy I-cannot-will-nots that, like me, she chants in surround sound when setting off to try something new.

This winter, she asked me to take her ice skating. It was only her third time.

We’d been holding hands for nearly an hour, circling the ice in our rental skates. The pair I’d chosen was so ill fitting that the skates clamped down on my big toes like the jaws of two rabid dogs. I was in agony, but my daughter didn’t want to quit. Not exactly, anyway.

Instead, she channeled that old, lazy, sandbagging inner man that I’m pretty familiar with myself:

“I’m horrible. I’ll never be able to. I can’t DO THIS! I’m…I’m…I’m…” she trailed off, her sweet lips warped like the mouth of Elvis.

“You’re doing it,” I said, giddy.

She laughed.

Then she crashed into the wall.

“I’m terr-i-ble,” she moaned.

Some part of me felt triumphant, but my patience was waning.

Then, like a sign from god, over the loudspeaker came a buzzer signal so loud that my daughter nearly jumped over the wall in fright.

“Blood on the ice,” a man nearby explained.

Someone had gotten a nosebleed.

My daughter was still clinging to the wall like a child-sized batch of flubber, so I peeled her off and skated toward the bleachers.

We watched as a surly young woman in a pink crochet hat trudged onto the rink and scraped the soiled ice with a garden hoe, muttering expletives. She stomped off and reappeared on top of a Zamboni machine.

“ZAMBONI!!” I squealed, and my daughter looked at me skeptically.

“Just wait,” I promised her.

We watched the Zamboni wetting the ice, its rubber flap trolling around the rink, filling in the tracks and divots, smoothing the surface, its guttural Om soothing us back into balance. My daughter turned to me.

“It’s making perfect ovals,” she said in the same breathy monotone she normally reserves for phrases like, “whipped cream” or “chocolate frosting.”

“Told you,” I smiled.

I figured she’d had her fill of the rink, so I suggested we ditch our skates and head out to dinner. But she yanked on my sleeve and wobbled back onto the ice before anyone said it was okay.

“Come on, Mom!” she yelled over her shoulder, as though I’d been doing the wrong thing for all of time.

My daughter is nothing if not determined and gutsy.

I followed her onto the ice and she motioned for me to go ahead.

“I’ll skate to you,” she said, finally smiling. And she did, again and again.