Yesterday afternoon my 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, returned from three days of wilderness camp with the 5th-grade. She perched on the Tiffany-blue stool in my bathroom as I sprawled on the floor, tools in hand, replacing the guts of my toilet tank. I expected a play-by-play rundown about camp, but she answered my questions obliquely and distractedly.
And then it was revealed that something else entirely was on her mind.
Turns out my little girl arrived at her dad’s a week ago to discover that a boy she likes, whom we’ll call “Justin,” had called a day or two earlier to ask her to play tennis. They take tennis lessons together each week and have known each other distantly since they were toddlers. Since she’d been at my house that week and her dad was clueless that this boy was anything special, he’d simply asked Jay to call back another time. Which he didn’t. And poor Sabrina was beside herself today, a week later, when she returned to my house. I struggled with the wrench as Sabrina laid out for me her worries.
Sabrina: Mom, what if he doesn’t really like me and he was just bored? And what if, since I didn’t call him back, he asked the new girl in our class to play instead and now he likes her?! (She is kinda pretty….) Or what if he does like me but he thinks I don’t like him because I didn’t call back right away and so he’s given up on me? Ugh!!!
Poor Sabrina is in the throes of her first real crush. We talked about Jay and what it is that she likes about him (“he’s smart and goofy and funny”), and what she wants with him (“just to hang out with him and be his friend and maybe later when we’re older, he can be my boyfriend”).
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her rocking back and forth on the stool, face anxious, brow furrowed. And I was struck by how our wants and our fears never really change. No matter the age, we basically just want to be near that person — to share space with them and know more about them and feel the warmth of their attention on us. And we worry about the unknowns — Does he love me? Does he love someone else more? Will he love me tomorrow? Does he know I love him?
So we tackled her concerns one at a time: 1) He wouldn’t have called to spend time with her if he didn’t like her; 5th grade boys don’t spend time with girls that they don’t like. 2) When we really like someone, we don’t change our mind in the span of a week, even at that age, and even if he did play tennis with the new girl, he might not end up liking her nearly as much as he likes Sabrina, because finding someone we really like is never easy. 3) He probably does think that she’s not particularly interested in seeing him outside of tennis class, and I explained that it was her turn to call him back, acknowledge his phone call and see if he’d still like to play. She visibly blanched at the idea, but I reminded her that she wasn’t having to ask him cold — he’d already taken the first step toward her and indicated that he’d like to be her friend. She hesitantly agreed to the logic of that. And then —
S — Maybe I should just ask him if he likes me.
Me — No, you won’t have to. If he likes you, he’ll want to keep spending time with you. You’ll know soon enough. What he tells you won’t reveal nearly as much as how he behaves. He might not even know how to answer that. He’s only 11.
S — But I just. want. to. know.now!
Me — <sighing> I know sweetie. Boy, do I know.
I withheld the obligatory and unhelpful lecture about how that feeling never changes and how she will be saddled with those uncertainties for the duration of her dating career, but I couldn’t help but wonder at how many variations on this precise conversation I’ve probably had in my life. How much effort and energy do we expend toward trying to figure out the heart of another?
I also found that I was providing her with the same advice that I give myself (with varying degrees of success): You can’t worry about that other girl or how he sees her; you can only be the best version of you and if he can’t see how amazing that is, or if it’s not what he wants, then that’s only his problem. She received this advice with the same skepticism I sometimes feel when staring into the black hole of insecurity. In fact, as she rolled her eyes, I couldn’t help but sympathize.
In the end, we agreed to obtain Jay’s phone number from her dad’s tennis club directory and Sabrina will call him for a friendly game of tennis. I promised her I would help script her proposal so that she wouldn’t flub it. She seemed satisfied with that resolution, but I could tell that it still sat heavily with her through dinner.
And she wasn’t alone. I felt the heaviness of a different kind: the realization that we had crossed yet another threshold on this journey to adulthood. Somewhere in our shared future, she will revel in the soaring, overwhelming buoyancy of first love and the stunning, scintillating experience of sex. She will discover new facets to herself and see her strengths and failings reflected back in the eyes of someone she wants to think her perfect. And she will also suffer rejection and a broken heart and the disillusionment of the end of a fairytale. All of these things are inevitable. All of these things are life.
At this point, I am grateful that she so freely confides in me and allows me some entry into the affairs of her small, innocent heart. I hope that this is always the case, but I know that in all likelihood, it will not be. For now, though, I will do my very best to guide her, and protect her, and catch her, as she moves headlong toward the discovery of why crushes are called crushes.