I try to protect my daughter’s privacy a little more here now. Part of it is that she’s getting older, but some of it is also that a few people who know us “in real life” are aware of my writing here. As I’ve learned from other pieces I’ve written, I cannot control the way things might be interpreted or used, so I try to be more careful when it comes to her life. One can never, ever get the full picture from just one essay or blog post, but some try to and then it leads to unfair assumptions and prejudices. It’s one thing for me to take that on, but I’m not willing to do that to her.
So without getting into the specifics, the other day she came to me after she’d been playing by herself for a while. Something was definitely on her mind, so I asked her what she was thinking about. Tears immediately flowed. She was feeling very alone about something (which she and I talked about) and wished she’d had a girl friend to talk about it with, not just me. She wanted someone to be comfortable with and not be judged. Don’t get me wrong. She has a few friends and classmates that she plays with regularly who are all equally sweet and kind children. But what she was looking for was a trustworthy confidant to share something very personal that she’s been thinking about a lot lately, and it is a topic that is certainly provocative for many.
After a long, long chat with her on the stairs, she seemed to perk up a bit. She seems hopeful that the specific kind of friend she is seeking is out there, and one day they will cross paths. That is the best kind of outcome for a parent when you know you can’t fix things for them, and that they have to find their way. You have to at least guide them to the path of hope, but then they must take the journey. She went on to play, almost as if nothing had been wrong to begin with. That’s what makes children so awesome–their ability to let go, move on, and live in optimism.
But after she left my side, I was struck with how inept I feel about talking about the subject of friendships with her, primarily because I have struggled for so long to find the particular kind of depth that I know she seeks (at least in her seven year old way). In a nutshell, I don’t have that in the way that I’d like. I am (I think) friendly and have the tools to teach her those kind of social skills. I have friends, yes, even a few good friends. But a deep, soul bearing confidant (that is not my husband)? No. I do not.
This year in particular that has weighed me down quite a bit. In fact, I wrote a deeply cathartic and personal, if not shame inducing, piece about it all just weeks after I turned 40 earlier this year (it was declined for publication–and hence my post from last week about what to do with those kinds of pieces; I’ve shared that piece with two people but I am not sure about anyone else at this point). In a word, I feel like a fraud. I feel alone and lonely much of the time because of this, and, as a result, I am not entirely convinced that that kind of friendship is actually achievable for every single person. So when she comes to me, I feel like I’m selling her a bill of goods. I wonder if that kind of friendship as an ideal—despite how much I’d like it—is one that I can adequately sell anymore. Yet, if I am her role model and teacher for so much of these things, am I supposed to fake it? I’m wondering. But sooner or later, she’s going to see the gaps in my own life that I am trying to help her fill in hers.
I realize that this might all sound hopeless and pathetic, but the truth is that this year has also been a year when I have mostly made peace with what is my life in this particular regard. And that, I hope, is the other message that I can ultimately convey to her: that your solitude can be its own source of strength too.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I often wonder what it is that my daughter will remember about me when I am long gone or when she raises her own children (if she so chooses).
Will it be the way my hair smells or the texture of my sweaters (cotton, always)? Will it be the sight of me with my nose in a book (or, too often perhaps, my phone), legs tucked up under me on the couch? Will it be the very basic but very reliable dinners that I serve? Will it be the way I gather her hair into a ponytail most mornings? Will it be the triple nose tap that we have for each other when we say “I love you” from afar? Will it be the weight of my body in her bed as we read books each night?
Or maybe it will simply be the invitation to always be the one to lick the honey spoon after I’m done with it.
Is there a distinct memory about your parent(s) that you have from childhood? If you have children, what do you think they will remember about you?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Seven year olds are great. Of course, I seem to say that about every age for the past two or three years. But I’m in the sweet spot when it comes to childhood. I was not my best self as the parent of a baby and toddler. I didn’t take a lot of it in stride, at least not as much as I had hoped I could. That just might be my nature though, at any age.
But seven? So lovely. They carry on conversations at length and ask the deep questions. They are silly and hold hands with you. They can go off on their own at a large family party and you pretty much know they are not going to eat marbles while holding a lit candle or run into traffic. They are pressedupthisclosetoyou and suddenly go “missing” for an hour or two, absorbed in some other world, all in the same day. They want to read on their own and want you to read to them. They leave their socks lying around but then leave little “I love you” notes on your pillow. They know what they like, know what they don’t, and yet can still be persuaded to try new things.
At the same time, it also feels like the age where the door to the outside world—the stuff that you’ve worked so hard to keep from their view—is now permanently ajar, even if it’s just a crack. I knew it was coming and yet I didn’t quite expect some of it so soon. Hearing about things like cancer, illicit drug use, or September 11th for the first time ever. Coming to understand that some people she meets might express themselves in ways that she might not understand or be comfortable with at first. Being able to understand, or at least register for later contemplation, off-handed and unfriendly comments by friends and family about body image, race, or sexual preferences. Detecting differences, big and small, in the current and historical treatment between and of males and females.
These little glimpses into the wider world leave me stumbling some of the time. How do I reconcile being honest with her without scaring or discouraging her? How do I temper something that I fundamentally disagree with that was said by someone she loves or admires, all without necessarily skewing her ability to form her own opinion (either about the issue or the person who said it)? How do I protect the innocence that I think that seven year olds (and beyond) should still be able to have, even if the rest of the world is not as protective of it as I am? How do I allow her to become literate and confident in the social, technological, and cultural world without showing her too much too soon? Do I even know where that line is anymore?
Many of the speed bumps that we encounter in the early part of their lives are driven by forces that are not beyond the child or home itself. Though they might be challenging, they are generally manageable because they don’t result in the finer chiseling of the individual or her understanding of the rest of the world. At that stage, we are giving general shape to the individual we hope they become, whether it be kind-heartedness, respect for others, or learning to say “excuse me” at the dinner table.
But now? There are certainly some “outside” influences getting in, and being digested by her (somewhat), that I stumble sometimes. I’m not sure if she senses it yet. While we (as her parents) still do and should give the lion’s share of guidance in helping her understand the world, she has to also be aware of some of the world in order to have some context, and also so she can develop preferences for and positions about things in due course. It’s the chicken and egg conundrum. How much should I be proactive about and control the information (at least before her peers chime in), and how much do I deal with reactively?
A perfect example happened last month on September 11th. Her teacher read a book to the class (this one) that only very subtly dealt with the terrible acts that occurred on that day. Before this book (and the brief discussion that took place after it was read), the importance of this day was completely off of her radar. She had absolutely no knowledge of it. When I picked her up from school, she seemed a bit melancholy and had a hundred questions about the Twin Towers, most importantly, about why they were knocked down. The range of emotions that flew threw me in that car ride home left me in tears by the time we got to the driveway just three minutes later. Had I failed as a parent by not bringing up this subject beforehand? Why didn’t I think that this might come up at school, if not by the teacher then at least perhaps some of the older students? But, wait a minute, why did the teacher even go down this road? They are six and seven these children. “Bad men did this” doesn’t seem to cover it (and certainly not with my probing daughter) and yet getting into the fine detail of radical religiously-focused terrorists doesn’t either. Where’s the line? If September 11th is fair game for a first-grader, then why not all of the other tragedies? Do I need to tell her about all the wars in history as we get close to Veterans’ Day? Was she thinking about her grandfather who was flying here that very same day?
This is a mere glimpse of my thought process in the hours after she told me about the book. This is the kind of thought process I have as the mother of a seven year old. I’m stumbling and fumbling. Though aren’t we all?
I know that it’s OK to tell her when I do not know something (which I do all the time), but I struggle with what about when I do? That seems to be where I get tripped up. I imagine it will eventually get easier when she has the capacity to rationalize and process some of the things we continue to keep at bay, but in the interim? I expect to be falling down a little more than usual.
And so that I can end on a silly note, in honor of my seven year old’s very nature, here is what had her in stitches last night. STITCHES. I give you the P-mate (scroll down for video link).
What age made it hard for you to know whether to spill the beans or bite your tongue? Does it get easier as the child gets older, or do the problems and issues just become more complex? What topics have you deliberately held off discussing for as long as possible?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
She caught my eye immediately. With chunky, dimpled thighs that shook when she walked, she held her father’s hand and tried to keep up as they looked for an empty chair near the pool. She couldn’t have been older than three years old. Her hot pink ruffled bathing suit fluttered with each step as she cautiously eyed the water, now bustling with many noisy children enjoying a post-dinner, pre-bedtime swim. She stayed very close to her father. She was wary, and maybe a bit worried too. But her older sister, maybe eleven or twelve, was already jumping into the pool. She clearly did not need her father anymore. My gaze went back to the little one. I was reminded of how M was that age when we started visiting this special place every year. I was jolted by the knowledge of how far we’ve come since then.
That was the scene in the clubhouse pool where we were on vacation two weeks ago. My husband, M, and I were already swimming when I took this all in. My mind drifted, as it has a tendency to do when in a room full of people I do not know. It dawned on me that, when in a place with other families with children of various ages, my eye always drifts towards the children who are younger than my own daughter (who’s just two months shy of seven). I almost never seem to watch the children who are immersed in the tween and teenage years.
Why is that?, I wondered.
It’s not baby lust. No, I settled that account long ago.
I’ve pondered this over the past few nights. I think it’s because it gives me some perspective, if not relief, to see how far we’ve come from those truly challenging first years. There’s no doubt that there’s now less of a physical toll taken each day, what with all the lifting and carrying that must be done at the start. The unexpected, unpredictable pendulum swings of emotion have largely evened out, for both her and me. I can see that we’ve survived so much, and intact at that. If raising a child were like being in Girl Scouts, I feel like I would have earned the lion’s share of patches by now. There really aren’t too many patches left, though they are arguably going to be the most difficult to endure and acquire.
But it’s more than these things. By looking at our past through the lens of other younger children, I feel like I can appreciate the now of where we are this very moment. I appreciate that she still sidles up next to me for a snuggle or a book, though her body much leaner, more limber now. I appreciate that she still wants to hold my hand but doesn’t have to run to keep up. I appreciate that she sometimes needs help sorting through the tangled knots of understanding friendships or fractions but has enough confidence in herself to figure it out alone much of the time now. I appreciate that her silly, pumpkin smile flashes often and without abandon.
Above all, I feel like I appreciate the relative slowness of time passing right this very moment. It’s much like the hazy, humid days of summer, when you’ve got your feet in the kiddie pool and a lemonade in your hand. You don’t have to move. Everything you need is right in front of you, and the day takes forever to pass. That’s what this age feels like to me. It’s calm and balmy. The air is sticky and sweet. It’s not stormy and unpredictable like the toddler and teenage years.
I think that’s why I am almost fearful of looking at the children older than my daughter. I don’t want to see the blank stares and shoulder shrugs they give their parents. I don’t want to see the almost total lack of physical contact or desire for affection on the part of those children. I don’t want to see the failed attempts at understanding one another. I don’t want to see tempo of time tick faster as it seems to do after children reach a certain age.
Is this turning a blind eye my denial that these years are coming? Perhaps a little bit. But more than that I think it’s an overwhelming appreciation for right now. How good it is right this very moment with a child who can do so much independently and yet who still needs . . . no, wants . . . my guidance, wisdom, and insight. How good it is with a child who is comfortable in her own skin, whether she’s by my side or not.
I’m standing in a very magical place right now, and I know it. A lovely, long plateau—I think, I hope—if you will. There is a sweetness and innocence in the air around me. The light is beautiful from where I stand. I can see clearly in all directions, both from where I’ve come and where I’m likely to go. But for me, I realize that the view at my feet and of the footsteps behind me allow for so much gratitude, perhaps more than the uncharted trails ahead.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Today is M’s last day of Kindergarten, and a half day at that. The school year has been in wind down mode since about two weeks ago, what with a class walk to the ice cream shop and lots of outdoor time to pass the days and all. You can sense the anticipation of summer break among the children, their teachers, and the parents. We are more than ready.
I could talk about the things she learned in the classroom this year, like how to read or add and subtract numbers. I could talk about the physical changes that she underwent over the past 9+ months, like losing eight teeth in the span of five weeks (oh my, that was rough!) or growing almost three inches and one shoe size. I still can’t believe I have a child that weighs 50 pounds. I could talk about the new territory of budding (and flailing) friendships or socializing with many more kinds of kids than she’s ever had to prior to Kindergarten.
Yes, Kindergarten and being six years old offers much time for exposure, experience, and excitement. But those are actually not the important takeaways, at least for me, from this year of Kindergarten life.
No, the most important, impressive thing I’ve seen took place on the monkey bars.
I’ve watched this little girl go from barely being confident enough to leave my side to stride over to the monkey bars—where there is a lot of movement and noise generated by dozens of children every morning, some of them much bigger and older than her—to now being able to swing along the entire length of bars.
She first started out trying on the younger children’s playground at school.
But soon scrapped that plan to aim for the bigger set on the other playground.
These aren’t your stationary monkey bars, mind you. The bars swing from chains, giving them an added dimension of complexity. Once in a great while the older, taller children like to push them so that they swing while a (usually) younger child is approaching. For someone who does not like crowds, noise, or high action surroundings, this was certainly not her ideal set up. But, for some reason, she wanted to give them a go.
It took her many, many months to work her way from only just reaching out to grab the first, elusive bar to feeling confident enough to let go and reach for the second. She worked on it every morning, save for the days of inclement weather when the children were inside before school. She only had about ten to fifteen minutes to practice until the whistle rang, but that’s what she chose to do. She wasn’t interested in playing chase or talking with her friends. She wanted to master this feat.
There were a lot of falls to the ground. There was a sea of children, the same age/grade as her, who could do the entire length (and back!) without any effort it seemed. She was the only one who could do just two bars. One, two, drop. One, two, drop. Weeks and weeks of only that. Sure, many other children probably cannot do any of the bars, but they simply weren’t over there trying, and so it looked like she was the lone child who couldn’t master this childhood rite of passage. I am envious of her inborn set of blinders.
It didn’t matter to her. She didn’t give up.
She was determined and focused in a way that, quite frankly, took me aback. At least considering the anxious, tentative child that she was (and still sometimes is) in the years before this one. She learned how to tell the older children blocking the bars with their game of tag to move out of her way. She found her voice to tell the bigger children that it is not OK to cut the line. She learned how to fall, and pick herself back up, with grace and resolve.
And then, one day late this spring, after a weekend trip down to the schoolyard to show her how to get the body momentum needed to reach the third, she did it. She wasn’t just reaching, grabbing, and then dropping. She was actually climbing. Then more success followed during school day mornings and lunchtime recess. She reached the fourth. Then the fifth and sixth.
And, finally, the elusive last bar. Number seven. She did it. Just days before the final week of school, but she did it, and was already turning herself around to start working on her return trip.
While we were camping over Father’s Day weekend, she showed me her hands. They have callouses forming on them now. They are the physical manifestation of confidence, determination, strength, and perseverance. They are badges of courage for putting herself out there, not knowing if she will really ever achieve her goals or if someone might laugh when she falls. They are little pads of protection for the future challenges that lie ahead.
These, to me, are the most important things for her to learn right now, and I’m so glad she did.
I have learned a similar lesson myself this year, at least when it comes to my endeavors of writing, which are still very nascent. I’ve had to learn how to tune out the noise around me of those who seemingly have more success than I do. I’ve had to pick myself up after many, many rejections and falls. I’ve had to keep at it and persevere with a determination that, thankfully, seems to be unassailable when it comes to this drive to write. I’ve had to learn how to do this in the face of others not understanding or caring much about this path I’ve started down.
I’ve had to wait for callouses to form on my own hands, so to speak.
It’s starting to pay off, all this effort. I was proud to have a piece published on the NYT Motherlode earlier this month. And today, you’ll find me with another piece on Literary Mama, writing about some of what my life as a secular/atheist parent has been like so far.
Maybe these kinds of writing accomplishments will be short-lived. Maybe it is all pure dumb luck. Maybe it’s my fifteen minutes of fame and nothing more. Whatever it is, I’ll take it as it comes.
But, just like my daughter, I’m going to keep reaching for that last bar until I get there.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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