Last month, my ex and I got our 7-year-old daughter a puppy. It’s her dog, not a “family dog,” and she and the puppy are now engaged in a full-on mutual love affair.
When I told people we were getting a 7-year-old her own dog, the standard reaction was, “Are you crazy?!” or something slightly less frank. Mostly I just told people that she had proven herself to be very responsible and so deserved it. But that’s only part of the truth.
The whole truth starts many years ago, when my daughter was toddler. And a terror. Every kid has the terrible twos, but this child was exhausting. She challenged everything, complained about everything, and broke rules with the nonchalance of a rebel 10 times her age. She seemed chronically grumpy and mad; her happiness was always qualified. Getting an “I love you” out of her was like pulling teeth. Needless to say, making friends and keeping them was a bit of a challenge for her. Those who knew her best saw the amazing parts of her that she kept tucked away, but for most people, she was distant and cranky.
Her attitude and behavior was a definite strain on me and on my marriage. My husband implied that I simply didn’t understand her and so didn’t parent her properly, but I felt sure that something was off with her, that this behavior wasn’t normal.
When I announced to my husband that I was leaving, the one thing we did right was rally around our children and commit ourselves to helping them through this transition with every tool at our disposal. I managed to get them in to see arguably the best child psychologist in town, and for a few weeks they spent an afternoon with her while she poked and prodded and snooped around their psyches.
Finally, she called us into her office and floored us with her pronouncement: our older daughter — the emotional, dramatic one — was fine. She was sad, but processing the news in a healthy and appropriate way. Our younger daughter was not fine. In fact, she told us that our younger daughter had problems that surpassed the impending divorce, that if we didn’t address them soon, we’d be looking at much bigger problems 10 years from now. She told us our daughter had very low self-esteem, a lot of anger, and an unusual fear of being happy or trusting anyone. For a kid with a really stable, loving family life, this was unfathomable to us, and the therapist acknowledged that it probably had nothing to do with anything we had done exactly. But, she warned us, this is precisely the kind of kid that is at-risk for all kinds of worrisome behaviors later on.
Even though we were barely speaking to each other at that time, my ex and I had a heartfelt talk about our daughter. We were both scared for her, and worried that we weren’t good enough parents to help her through this alone. My ex, who isn’t exactly generous with money, agreed to pay to keep her in therapy for as long as it took. And so, my sweet-faced little 5-year-old girl began weekly therapy sessions.
At first I was dubious that it was having any effect. If anything, she seemed more angry than ever. But every week she went, and if she missed a week, she was grumpy about it. Her therapist reported to us that she was working hard — whatever THAT means with a first-grader — and slowly… very slowly…..she started opening up. And then the changes snowballed.
I still remember the first time she told me she loved me with a big smile on her face, unprompted and without reservation. I watched in awe as she developed an emotional vocabulary and courageousness that surpassed most adults I know, myself included. Her alteration was so pronounced, extended family and friends commented on it. And this little girl who had struggled to make friends was suddenly very much in demand for playdates and parties.
Gone is the sour, complaining child with the permanently furrowed brow. In her place is a joyful, smart, witty, playful creature who lights up a room everytime she enters it. Her strong will and sassy nature are still present, but instead of making everything an argument, she seems to approach life as an adventure to embark on and a puzzle to figure out. My respect and admiration for her are immeasurable.
Therapy, when done right, is no easy task for most of us. It can be gut-wrenching and grueling and really, really uncomfortable. And that’s just for grown-ups. What must it be like to be a child, without the words or experiences to provide context or explanation for your feelings and frustrations? To lack the intellectual knowledge to understand and reference the most basic of psychological terms, like projection, and repression, and depression?
My ex-husband and I have talked at length about her progress and how proud we are of her. We know that, other than the thousands of dollars in checks he’s written, we had almost nothing to do with her success in this endeavor. It is hers alone, really. For no one, child or adult, can be forced down the road of personal growth. Each of us has to venture there of our will, fortified with our desire to be better and feel better. And each time it gets hard, it is up to us and us alone to decide to press forward, or turn back.
My daughter got her puppy because she has persevered at one of the most difficult personal tasks she or anyone can face. We explained to her that we were getting her the puppy because we were so proud of her for her hard work with her therapist, and because we want her to understand how important that work is, throughout her life. We explained to her that when you strive to be a better version of yourself — to truly be the best person you can be — life will reward you, in unexpected and wonderful ways.
When we told her these things, she beamed. I mean, she positively glowed. She is enormously proud of who she has become and the hard work it took to get here. And this little ball of fur, who would have loved her even when she was sour and grouchy, is the embodiment of that success, and the constant reminder of its value.