When our first snow fell last month, I knew it had been ages since I’d filled a plastic bag with frozen dog turds—those palm-sized anal asteroids that I dig from the flattened, cratered grass with my fingernails. I watched anyway as my kids scrambled outside to make an igloo in two centimeters of snow.
Maybe they’ll avoid the poop patch, I thought, yawning on the couch.
My kids had never looked more like children—tossing themselves around the snowy yard like rag dolls, happily eating the icicles out of their hair as if they’d been granted dessert.
Twelve minutes later, I heard a dink-dink-dink on the patio door. I looked up from my computer. My son held a frozen oak branch over his head like a scythe. My daughter stood behind him, throwing her hips from side to side and bending her elbows like Barbie. She jeered at her own reflection, a robotic parody of all the things I don’t yet want her to know about her body and the word sexy.
Then, together they screeched, “Mom!! We’re covered in dog poop!” and wiggled their soiled backsides at me through the glass.
Thankfully, the Germans make these things called “washing machines” that can handle the mess my kids make when I let them fend for themselves.
When my kids reappeared in the basement, I was waiting, directing them to deposit their outerwear into the washer, stat. My daughter’s underclothes were soaked from a snowball my son had stuffed down her jacket. I took her upstairs to change.
She sat on her bed, ramming her heels into the rug while I rifled through her drawers. She looked down, pulled the flesh from her lean thighs, and let it fall back.
“I’m fat,” she said softly.
I opened my mouth but my throat tightened helplessly.
How did this happen?
I couldn’t overcompensate any lack of supervision with shrill edict or heavy hand here. I wondered angrily which of her school friends had started crooning I’m fat first.
I knelt in front of her and held out a clean pair of pants. She poked her damp feet delicately through the leg holes.
Then, her declaration shifted into a question.
“What is fat?” she continued. “Are you fat?”
“Well,” I said tentatively, “no.”
I told her I was strong. I told her I liked myself the way I am. I did not need to tell her how many years it took me to say those words with confidence.
My little girl, whose body looks so much like mine, legs bent at the knees like crowbars and all, is not actually me.
I could have gone on, but my dog walked into the room and let off a cloud of intestinal smog so oppressive that my shirtless daughter leapt up, pinched her nose, and ran around the room, her body tracing neurotic coils in the air. She yelped vulgar, childish insults at the dog that were wholly accurate.
What she really meant was, let it go, Mom.
Sometimes I teach my kids, sometimes I let them learn, and sometimes I draw a loopy, wandering line in the snow, dallying around until a difficult moment has passed. Occasionally, I interject all kinds of nonsense into the fray in spite of myself. I’m not always getting it just right. But I do know that stepping back is often the best way I can be helpful to my kids. If they unravel and fall into a poop patch anyway, it’ll be okay—they can wash it out and start again.