Parenting has a way of bringing up experiences long-forgotten in the past. Yesterday I took my eldest daughter to an all-day rehearsal for her orchestra. We stopped on the way to pick up another child, arrived at the high school where the rehearsal was taking place, and went in. Immediately the girl we carpooled with walked over to a group of friends and started to chat and laugh animatedly. In contrast, my daughter stood at my side, hefting her backpack, instrument and music stand. She looked around uncertainly, and I stood beside her, not sure when I should leave.
“Mummy,” she said, as she looked up at me, “I don’t have any friends in orchestra.” She began to tell me about the other children in her section: how the other girls stuck together and didn’t include her, and how she doesn’t really want to play with the boys.
With a pang I remembered all of the times in school when I was the child who sat on the wall and watched the other girls play. There were unspoken rules about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out.’ I recalled the other children who, along with me, who were also on the outside: Sean, who cried every day on the bus when the bigger boys bullied him… Tanya with the mousy brown hair and clothes that were several sizes too large…. I could never figure out why I was ‘uncool,’ but I was, and I longed for someone who could be my special friend.
Snapping back from these memories I instantly began to grapple with feelings of helplessness. What could I do to make it all better for my daughter? In my impotence I wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her that it would all be okay. But it’s not that simple any more. As my children grow older, parenting them becomes so much more complicated. I laugh now to think that I ever found it a challenge to care for a newborn. Oh, how easily met are their needs! Oh, how wonderful it is to hold a baby close and know that no one else can harm her or reject her because all she needs is this warm embrace.
Now that my daughter is nine her problems are more complex, and while holding her close to me is comforting, it doesn’t ‘solve’ the problem. In a way, the lioness in me wanted to find a way to make all those other children understand what they’re missing when they treat my daughter with a sort of xenophobic disdain. Like giving her a sandwich board to carry around all day or putting a blinking neon sign above her head, I wanted to somehow say to those children, “This child is wonderful, special, talented and sensitive. She is intelligent and a joy to be around. She will bring light to your world if you befriend her because she is loyal and fun and creative.”
Of course I could do none of this. However much I want to solve her problems, not only is it not my job, it is also impossible. Rather, my role is to continue to love and support her as she confronts her problems independently. This is one of my greatest parenting challenges. So I returned to the one thing that came naturally: I hugged her. And as I held her I told her that it had happened to me too, and that maybe when she’s alone she could look around her. And maybe she would see that there is another little girl sitting alone. And if she’s very brave she could go over and befriend her.
I let her go and saw that her expression of uncertainty and fear hadn’t changed. Maybe what I’d said wasn’t good enough. Here was my beloved daughter, cast adrift in a sea full of children, and I, her mother, who should be her beacon of safety in this world, was unable to help her.
As we stood together, all of the other children laughed and talked and got their instruments ready. The conductor walked past and indicated that it was time for parents to leave. “I’d better go now. Will you be ok?” I said. “Yes,” she said, “I’ll be fine Mummy.”
And as I walked away I turned around to look at her. In that moment, it was like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. I saw myself at nine years old, hitching up a heavy backpack and feeling alone in a room full of acquaintances, not friends. I remembered the feeling of being utterly alone. I remembered that even though my parents believed in my worthiness and goodness, somehow the rejection of my peers was more painful than anything I had previously experienced. I remembered how hard it was. And as I walked back to the car the tears came. Not just for my daughter, but for myself as well.
Photo credit: Christina Matheson, 1 April 2006, Wikimedia Commons.