As every parent knows, transitions are hard. We learn pretty quickly from our newborns that small humans do not like change. Oh no, they like structure and predictability and safety. But, later, some of them grow into risk-takers, adrenaline-junkies who push the envelope and seek the kinds of challenges that make a mother’s heart stop beating for a few seconds. Those children face change straight-on, with gusto, even.
My 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, is not one of those children.
Sabrina has always resisted change of any sort. Even good change is not good change to Sabrina. My former mother-in-law likes to tell the story of how she offered to buy my daughters a new playhouse to replace the decrepit hand-me-down one in backyard at the time. My then-husband’s only pre-requisite: that the existing playhouse would have to go to make room for the new one. The new playhouse was amazing — big enough for all their friends and with lots of bells and whistles — while the old playhouse was small and faded and broken-down. Bryn, Sabrina’s younger sister, was on-board immediately. But not Sabrina. She dug her heels in and refused. She absolutely did not want to replace the old playhouse, even though she rarely played in it because she was already getting too tall to stand comfortably. But she did not want it changed out. No siree. Not happening. No way. No how. And the old playhouse still sits there, more than 4 years later.
So, when Sabrina went off to middle school last week, I braced myself. This was a huge change. She wouldn’t have anyone she knew in her classes, would be riding her bike to school, and would have to navigate all the daunting aspects of middle school — lockers, switching classes, changing for gym class — all on her own. I wondered what would happen, what emotional drama would ensue, how badly this change would set back her fragile self-confidence.
Instead, my little girl has faced her challenges with a grace I had not known she possessed.
Middle school is, almost by definition, an in-between, back-and-forth, mixed-up, confusing place. Throw in a brainy young girl who prefers books to most people and it becomes positively cringe-worthy. Sabrina is tall and awkward, and very, very aware of her awkwardness, especially by comparison to the “popular girls” she has quickly identified and is giving wide berth to. And with only 8 days of school under her belt, she has already suffered one of the worst nightmares imaginable to a girl her age: her Spanish teacher asked the children to pair up for an assignment. My sweet Sabrina asked three kids to be her partner, and they each declined, including the one who chose to work alone. When she told me the story, it took everything I had not to cry for her, and the mean part of me hated those children for hurting her that way. I felt broken, but she, amazingly, persevered.
Sabrina is negotiating the treacherous world of Girl Politics, managing her much longer homework list, and making tentative forays to things outside her comfort zone. She is genuinely trying to proactively command her own destiny, in her shy but determined manner, and she is positively in love with her new teachers, her new classes, and her new routine. She is bubbly and glowing and excited about everything. Somehow, someway, my quiet, cautious, sensitive little girl is heady with the thrill of her latest adventure. She has even found her way to shrugging ruefully about her Spanish class mortification, and today she set off for school an hour early to try out for an elite girls’ choir that she stands little chance of making as 6th-grader. But she is putting herself out there and trying and testing her personal boundaries. And in between waves of feeling so grateful I could cry, I’m astonished.
Sabrina has been on a roll, actually. She shocked me a couple of weeks ago, when we attended her first private voice lesson. Her dad and I insist that the girls do a sport and an art or music activity. After a few years of flute, Sabrina gave it up, claiming she was bored. All last year, she resisted taking up another instrument, until finally, reluctantly, agreeing to play the guitar. Then, just as I was shopping for a guitar for her, she hesitantly asked me if voice lessons would count towards music. Assured that they would, she was then adamant: voice or nothing. Her dad and I were skeptical. True, Sabrina had done well enough with flute, but neither of us had ever heard Sabrina really sing.
But again, she surprised us.
Who knew that my daughter has nearly perfect pitch and the ability to sight-read music? Who knew that she possessed such a lovely, clear, strong singing voice? Who knew that her range was so broad?
Sabrina bounces out of her voice lessons as if she has springs in her sneakers. “I love, love, LOVE voice lessons, Mommy!” she sings to me. She is so visibly elated and pleased with herself that I can’t help but laugh out loud. This is my child who so often stands in the shadow of her charismatic and out-going sister, my sweet girl who struggles with self-esteem and self-identity, my precious baby who clings to all that is safe and known.
One of the things that I love about parenting is how often it kicks my butt and shows me how much I don’t know. No matter how certain I may be that I understand my children, can predict their behaviors, know all their talents and short-comings, they always seem to be able to surprise me. Nothing pulls me up short more than to discover something new and unexpected in my children. Sometimes it’s a delightful discovery, like Bryn’s writing ability, while other times it’s discouraging, like Sabrina’s capacity for lying. But no matter what it is, I’m always left a little dumbfounded, wondering how the hell I hadn’t known this about someone that I literally manufactured from my own cells.
Watching Sabrina blossom over the last month has reminded me that none of us truly knows how much we are capable of or what we might accomplish if we only try. We can never be fully known because there are always new pieces to discover, new aspects to explore. Even at 11, Sabrina had begun to define herself in static and not often flattering terms, and yet she has surprised all of us, including herself, again and again this month. And she has faced her setbacks with grace and determination, which is all that any of us can hope.
I have often found myself in awe of my children, wondering at their talents that I do not possess, admiring their attributes that I would do well to emulate. I am overjoyed to watch my little Sabrina bloom into the fine young woman she is becoming, and so very grateful to be along for the ride.