After school on Friday, my nine-year-old daughter opened the car door, crawled onto my lap, and began crying–slow, mournful sobs that reeked of inadequacy and failure, and sent my heart to my stomach. In her sweaty hand, folded into a small square, was her report card. The math grade was the only mar among the As, despite the fact that she and her father had put in many long evenings struggling over the intricacies of long division.
“Dad will be so mad,” she sobbed, burying her head in my shoulder.
I knew it wouldn’t occur to her father to be angry over a report card, but there was no reasoning with her. When we got home, her younger sister and I lay on her bed, one of us on either side, and doused her with love while she cried. Rubbing her back, I told her it only mattered that she tried her best, that a report card was just a piece of paper with letters on it and not a reflection of who she was or even what she had learned. Clara offered up her best stuffed frog and her special striped blanket.
As I tried to calm Emma, my head began to buzz with a thousand teeny tiny thoughts that bit at my conscience like insects. Had I done this to her? Did we unintentionally load her back with too much pressure? Where these my perfectionism gene rearing their ugly head? Soon I was picking at old scabs as I reviewed the past decade of mothering Emma. After all, this was the child we Ferberized at three months after we both were nearly dead from exhaustion because she would only sleep if being held. For two solid weeks we listened nightly as she howled in her crib, each passing minute tugging us into tighter knots of tension and eventually leading to frantic phone calls to our pediatrician who assured us we were doing the right thing. Did our early abandonment cause her to develop a need to please us so great that a grade less than an A could send her into orbit?
It is an occupational hazard of parenting to feel responsible for every happiness and unhappiness that passes through our children’s lives. Even though we know intellectually that we cannot control our kids’ happiness, it is a difficult reality to accept, because there is nothing that cuts deeper than seeing your own child struggle. Martha Beck writes in Expecting Adam, her memoir about the birth of her son who has Down Syndrome, “The hardest lesson I have ever had to learn is that I will never know the meaning of my children’s pain, and that I have neither the capacity nor the right to take it away from them.” The math grade was Emma’s pain to swallow and digest. It was not mine to take away or even understand. All I could do was rub her back while she struggled.
It is ironic that earlier in the week, I’d shared this very quote with another mother. At morning drop off, my friend emerged from her vehicle in a cloud of fury.
As her daughter scuttled past me on the way into school I asked, “How’s it going?”
“Not so good,” she answered pitifully.
I took my friend’s arm and led her away from the parking lot so she could explode, just as she has done for me many times before.
“It is just such a battle every morning,” she fumed as she strode along on her long legs. “It’s ridiculous and I am so tired of it.” I struggled to keep up with her.
“I understand,” I said breathlessly. And I honesty did, because her daughter was a year younger than my Emma and in third grade. Last year, I was the absolute bane of Emma’s existence. Everything I did caused her to sigh, sneer, or roll her eyes until I was afraid they were going to pop right out of her head. My sweet-hearted girl seemed to hate me, and we were locked in a constant battle of wills. I would have been completely knocked off my pins by her personality change if my friend Corrie Kate, who has a daughter a year older than mine, hadn’t enlightened me.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “My oldest HATED me when she was in third grade. She ran away about twenty times, her rolling backpack making a clickity clackity sound down the front walk.” I laugh at Corrie’s imitation of the noisy getaways. “It was so frustrating,” she continued, “but finally a mom at ballet told me that her daughter had been like that in third grade also. It’s a developmental thing.”
She recommended some books and I ordered them that day. Louise Bates Ames writes in Your Eight-Year-Old that “while Eight is hard on himself, he is also hard on others. He can be quarrelsome and aggressive toward people, particularly Mother.” No kidding.
To cheer me up, Corrie Kate concluded with the encouraging news that Emma would like me again by the next year.
I tell this to my friend as we charge along. “Fourth grade will be better,” I reassure her.
“If we make it that long,” she mutters.
This, too, I understand. It is a difficult dance to find the perfect balance between giving our children room to move through a developmental stage and to not let their behavior become a habit of character. In all actuality, it is more like a log roll, and when you slip up and fall in, the water is so cold it takes your breath away.
A woman I hardly know recently told me that when her daughter refused to do her schoolwork, she was given a choice to finish the work or sit in her room for the entire day and do nothing. The daughter chose the latter, but confessed at the end of the day that schoolwork was better than just sitting. The woman looked away and ended her story with a phrase I have heard many times and uttered myself, “You probably think I am a horrible mother.”
Truth be told, I thought no such thing of this intelligent, hard-working woman. In regards to parenting, I’d been slapped by the karma monkey enough to have learned that no good comes from judging another’s parenting skills. (Early on, when I was pregnant with Emma, a friend mentioned that her sister’s kids had lost 30 pairs of socks in the first two months of school. I clucked my tongue and rubbed my big round belly. “How hard it is to keep track of kids’ socks?” I asked. Before the words were even out of my mouth I knew I had tripped myself up. These days I spent a ridiculous amount of money on socks and have a drawer full of singles that are patiently waiting for their mates to return from the unknown.)
We all have our parenting moments that are less than impressive–times we can’t keep up with our spinning log. My husband’s aunt, who laughs often and rides life’s bumps with amazing ease and resilience, once confessed that her children, when they were little, had occasionally driven her into such a blind rage that she had to leave the room so she didn’t physically harm them. My youngest is a dawdler and I have spent her entire life trying to hurry her along, beginning with an I.V. of Pitocin to jump-start her stalled labor. When she was in preschool, and making us late once again because of her slowness, my frustration burst the dam. In one of my worst parenting moments, I loaded Emma into the car and drove down our long driveway, leaving Clara sobbing on the front step holding one shoe. A panicked Emma kept repeating, “We aren’t really leaving her, are we, Mommy?” I, of course, didn’t leave her. I stopped at the mailbox, yanked the car in reverse, and backed up the driveway, sickened and ashamed of what I had done, but still furious. The girls occasionally refer to “the time Mom left Clara.” This past New Year, Clara told me that her resolution was to worry less because she worries all the time. My heart sank, and my feet began to slip and slide on the log, made all the more difficult by the swarm of thoughts beginning to buzz and stab. What did a seven-year-old have to worry about that wasn’t planted there by me?
Although I read every page of the mindful parenting manual Everyday Blessings by meditation advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wife Myla, I am embarrassed to say I have forgotten all of their wise advice. What I do remember is the description of Myla losing her temper one evening and slapping her daughter. Whoa, I thought. If someone as centered and peaceful as Myla Kabat-Zinn can’t hold it together, who am I to be perfect?
Because early on, I thought I could do it perfectly. And, I believed that if I did it perfectly my children would be happy and I wouldn’t have to watch them struggle or, better yet, be responsible for their struggles. Seemed logical at the time. So I read all the cutting-edge parenting books, I attached, I carried them in the Baby Bjorn until my back ached, I bought the wooden toys without toxic paint, I made baby food from organic fruits and vegetables. I pitched a fit when my mother bought red suckers after I strictly forbid Red Dye #40. When Emma was just a baby, we stopped at a bookstore and I let her play on the floor before I realized how dirty it was. I fussed over her filthy playsuit and wiped muddy streaks from around her mouth wondering what kind of nasty matter she had inhaled. The owner rolled her eyes and said, “Oh. You’re one of THOSE mothers.”
The truth was, I didn’t want to be one of THOSE mothers, but I didn’t think I could bear the alternative. Besides, I didn’t know how to let go and just let my kids find their own way. Luckily, my second child came along and threw me into the water so to speak. There was just too much I couldn’t control with two small children, and I realized over time, that I, like Myla Kabat-Zinn and every other mother on earth, was not going to get it right all the time. Someone once told me that in parenting there are no 100 percent right answers. They suggested that the best I should shoot for was 60 percent. Needless to say, this is a difficult policy for me to swallow. Sixty percent would be a D on a report card, but I guess a D is better than failing. And a grade is just a letter on a sheet of paper that doesn’t reflect what you know or how much you have learned.
My friend Jillene’s children are grown, two beautiful and successful women with families of their own. A few years ago she and I floated at the local pool, my girls bobbing around us like seals while we talked. She shared with me the best parenting advice she’d ever been given.
“Children are like caterpillars in a cocoon. When they first go into the cocoon,” and she gestured to my two girls who were just past toddlerhood at the time, “they need you to keep the cocoon safe and protect them. But as they get older and metamorphose into butterflies, they will need to beat their wings against the walls of the cocoon to gain strength.” She gave me a sympathetic smile, “That’s when it gets tricky. You have to hold the walls of the cocoon firmly as they grow even though they seem like they are struggling and in pain. If you let them out early they die. There is no real way to help them except by being there. You just have to watch them go through it.”
She fell silent. I mulled over what she said. “And then what?” I asked.
She smiled again. “And then,” she said, “when they are ready, you have to let them go. Let them fly away.” My heart seized. “I know,” she whispered. “It’s awful.”
I got an email from my friend saying that she and her daughter are doing better, and that the subsequent mornings were more successful. She’d found her balance again, even though she complained that her leg muscles were sore from our hour-long trot.
Over the weekend, Emma made cinnamon rolls by herself, while I sat at the kitchen table and talked her through it. I gripped a cup of coffee tightly and resisted the urge to get up and speed the process along. (I do confess that I pointed out, before she assembled the rolls, that she’d used cumin instead of cinnamon in the cinnamon/sugar mixture.) When the rolls where finally ready, she was blooming with pride as she presented them to us, the report card angst chased away by her newest accomplishment.
Clara and I have constructed a plan to help her fulfill her resolution of worrying less. Each night we write in a joint gratitude journal, the page split by a wiggly line, dividing her list from mine. We decided that if we focus on the good things in our day, we don’t have time to worry. Gratitude a giant fly swatter to chase the swarm of insects from our minds. Her gratitude list consists of things such as “ham,” “playing with Emma,” and “frogs.” She seems less stressed as she goes to sleep each night, holding her stuffed bear, Mr. Happy, tightly against her heart.
The other night, after we recorded our daily gratitude and before I turned off the light, I asked if she had any other goals for the new year.
“Oh, yes,” said Clara happily, arranging her striped blanket round her. “I have one more.”
I braced myself.
“I want to go to Hawaii.”
I laughed with relief and turned off her light. As I did, I added two more resolutions to my own list: Stock up on insect repellent and keep working on my balance.