Sometimes, when I’m peeling beets by my kitchen window, I imagine that if I finish quickly, before the squirrel nibbles that stash of nuts on my patio, the world won’t end in cataclysmic disaster. I take my massive, sludgy uncertainty about everything from my body to the way I’m raising my kids and ball it up into a sloppy clay puppet, if only for a moment.
I had never told anyone that.
But my daughter turned eight years old last week. She waffled around, unsure how to celebrate her day. She’s as confident and bold on the climbing wall as she is on the ski slope, but she didn’t want a party at the rock gym.
“What if some of my friends are better than me?”
She rebuffed other ideas for the same reason. I proposed an after-school tea party instead. Her guest list changed like the school lunch menu, and I worried about some imaginary social fallout from all the picking and choosing. I suggested inviting all the girls in her class.
I should have known better; during her last chaotic birthday party, my daughter retreated to her room, barred the door with stuffed animals, and spent the afternoon curled up with a book.
Somehow, I assumed she’d outgrown her distaste for glucose-gorged anarchy, as if that part of her were a nettlesome nosebleed.
The night before the party, she fell into a funk. She worried about where people would sit. I told her I’d make place cards. She supposed that people would take too much cake. I told her I’d handle the portions.
At the party, after I walked them back from school, the girls circled our dining table and cooed at their place settings, each fixed with my great aunt’s teacups, saucers, and plates.
“These are really special, so you need to be careful, but if they break, it’s okay,” I said.
My daughter looked around the room uneasily.
We poured soap into dolphin molds, sipped lemonade, and devoured a cake that I’d shaped into an ocean-colored narwhal at my daughter’s request. My dog grazed nimbly on the fallen crumbs—kids are fungible with slobs.
“This is the best party ever!” someone said, and it was, until my plans fizzled and the wild, girly rumpus began.
One girl climbed a structural support pole in the basement, bellowing like a howler monkey for the others to follow her lead.
My daughter panicked and went AWOL.
Two days later, she was still a burning mess. At bedtime, she pulled the covers over her head and told me from her muffled face cave that while walking home from school, she’d worried that someone in her family would die if she didn’t get there fast enough.
Then she peeled the sheet back and looked at me with one eye.
I smiled. And that’s when I told her I had thoughts like that all the time.
She yanked the comforter down to her waist.
We giggled in the dark for a moment.
Right then, I wished I had celebrated my daughter’s birthday at the rock gym—just the two of us. I imagined us standing on the mat together, plotting a new route while double-backing our harness straps. She’d have taken on that wall right after me, trusting her instinct and choosing her holds. And both of us would have learned something that day about settling our fears, climbing on, and rising up, in the right direction.