Honestly, sometimes I think parenting is God’s biggest antidote to conceit. Just when you’ve put one crisis to bed, congratulated yourself on navigating yet another challenge, and have the foolish temerity to think you’ll get a little break from the endless rollercoaster, Life shows up to say, “Oh wait! Did I forget to mention this one little thing? Yes, you’ll need to attend to this now, and be sure to do it well, lest you forever ruin this small person I’ve entrusted to you.” And so, with a sigh, you put on your battle gear again and wade into the guerilla warfare that is Parenting.
I’ve written a bit about Sabrina’s struggles as she’s transitioned to middle school from elementary school this year. She is at a school of her selection (with our agreement, after a pretty exhausting consideration of possible schools), but not the one most of her elementary school friends and acquaintances attend. She loves her school, her teachers, and the academic successes she has worked hard for and achieved. But middle school these days is, for young girls at least, a snake pit of vipers clothed in Forever 21. I think it might possibly be even harder to navigate than I remember from my own experiences at her age. Sabrina is a quiet girl who is very reserved unless she is around those she knows well, socially awkward and emotionally immature — a bookworm who still prefers her American Girl dolls to chasing boys. Needless to say, the social soup of middle school has not been kind to her.
One night recently, as I was tucking Sabrina into bed and only a few hours after telling a friend how peaceful things currently were with my kids (can you say, “WHAMMY!”?), Sabrina broke down crying. She confided in me that her social situation at school had become so bad that she’d been reduced to eating by herself at a solitary table during lunch. Lonely and rock-solid certain that every child in the cafeteria noticed her alienation, her pain was capped off when a teacher approached and asked if Sabrina would like help finding a table of other kids to sit with. Well-intentioned, for sure, but also concrete evidence in Sabrina’s mind that her social deficiencies were obvious to all.
I was at a loss. I don’t remember this part of middle school; I’m not sure I ever experienced it. I held her while she cried and soothed her with sincere words of reassurance that she is a brilliant, special, amazing girl that the other children have simply not discovered yet. She pulled away from me, stared at me skeptically and with disappointment, and said, “No, Mom. They just see me as that lonely girl with no friends.”
I sucked my breath in and fought tears of panic. I saw very clearly the danger in what she had just done — she had just labeled herself with a powerful, negative, demoralizing label, and, if she embraced it for very long, it would surely damage her, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy with enormous ramifications for all kinds of relationships she might have, or not have.
As adults, we can see the harm inflicted by negative labels — both those we place on ourselves, and those we place on others. We see it in young girls who decide they are simply “bad at math” and therefore give up on it, and in adult women who sell themselves short because they can’t see that they deserve more than they have. I knew immediately that, while the lunch table issue was temporally painful, it was the label that could emotionally cripple my sweet girl over the longer term. And it scared me to death.
I often acknowledge that I see parenting as a series of hits and misses — sometimes we are solidly on our game, and hit the ball straight out of the park; but other times we swing and swing, failing to connect with the ball at all, impotent in our attempts to meet the challenges tossed at us. That night with Sabrina, I was striking out, and I could feel it clearly. I could see it in her eyes and feel it in her pain. My inadequacy to address the problem was palpable.
I finally left her upstairs, returning to the living room, where I deposited the whole mess in James’ lap. He listened, acknowledged that my words would have been empty to her — how many of us believe our mothers when they tell us how wonderful and special we are? — and then set off upstairs to talk to her himself.
For the second time that night, my breath caught in my throat. Should I stop him? This was my child, after all. What if he said something wrong? But I did not stop him, and many minutes later he returned, having given her a pep talk I could not have, and in doing so, taught me a lesson as well.
James told Sabrina that she is a truly beautiful girl with a good heart and a sweet nature. He told her it was perfectly okay to be exactly who she is right now; that she is not less than the other kids, maybe just a little different. And then he told her that when he was a teenager — handsome and athletic and popular — he’d done what boys like him did and dated the pretty, popular girls, but it was the girls like her — the quietly beautiful, smart, and sweet ones that he’d always noticed and wondered about. And that he’d always wished he’d have had the courage to approach them, get to know them, ask them out on a date. This last part, coming from the person who is currently Sabrina’s masculine ideal of a man, was gratifying in a way that nothing that I could have said ever would have been. In short, he said exactly what she needed to hear.
The next morning, Sabrina came downstairs after James had already left for work. She was a different girl from the night before — smiling and chattering about what was on tap at school that day. I asked about James’ pep talk, and she beamed, rattling off what he’d said about her, blushing and squirming with delight.
I was enormously grateful to James that morning. Not just for the precious words he gave to my struggling daughter, but for reminding me that parenting is, if you’re lucky, a team sport. So, even if you’re having a off-day and can’t seem to score, your teammate can step up to the plate and save the day. In the years since my divorce, I had missed and then nearly forgotten the sweet benefit of having a teammate — someone with whom to talk over these things, share these little burdens, help you find the right strategy when you’re stuck.
It’s a cliche that parenting is the hardest job in the world, and the most gratifying. But it’s also a great opportunity to help one another make better decisions and tackle the hard stuff and ultimately make the world a better place by leaving behind better people. Especially if you work as a team.