I left my daughter’s room in tears. Again. There are so many reasons for this to happen. Most often it’s because we’ve had a tender moment together, and it made me see the sand through the hour glass, so I’m leaving with a happy but heavy heart. Tonight it was just heavy.
Here’s what she said to me. And this is for real, except for a substituted name for her friend in there. This came out of the mouth of my not yet four year old.
“Mom, how can I turn into Jenny?”
“Well, you can’t. You’re you.”
“But I want to!”
“Baby, you can’t turn into another person. Why do you want to do that?”
“Because. Because I don’t like to be me. I have the wrong face. I look like a boy. (lip quivering)”
What? What?! There is more there than I know what to do with. There’s the soul-crushing image of one of her peers telling her this. And it isn’t the first time it’s come up. She’s been telling me that she has the “wrong face,” the “wrong voice,” or the “wrong laugh” every couple weeks for a few months. I can’t quite place the source and I don’t exactly want to. I don’t think that there is a little friend out there who is trying to be awful, I don’t. I think there is a little friend who is imitating unkindness that he or she has heard, and is testing it out. Sadly, though, an imitation of mean still feels real to the recipient. And sadder still is the thought that my kiddo could internalize this and pass it on any further. So I don’t really want to know who said it, because I don’t want to give it any more power and I don’t want to feel a totally irrational anger toward a child.
Further on down my litany of sads is the whole boy versus girl thing. The week before my daughter started preschool she wore robot shirts, loved baby dolls and dinosaurs, and her favorite color was silver. She was just Edie. Days after she started, I pulled out a blue shirt for her to wear and she crumpled to the ground, and after guessing what words she was trying to make through her sobs I finally discerned that she was saying “That’s a BOY shirt!” Well, ok then. Wear what you want. It’s not a thing. Marking Edie as a girl has never been a priority. I have been, arguably, concerned with not being concerned about emphasizing gender with my kids. And until Edie was with a big group of kids and lovely female teachers, she never showed me a preference. So when she did, and so very quickly and stereotypically, I was thrown. But I also know that the need to make sense of the world and to fit in is as natural as it is strong. So I may not have run out to buy up her weight in tulle, but I packed up the clothes that made her cry, stocked up on dresses and leggings since she expressed a clear and intense preference for wearing them over anything else, and generally tried to keep neutral on pink versus blue but stay positive about Edie. So it’s not that I dislike her obsession. I understand and accept it, or at least I strive to. And I think I do all right. But this has all set the stage for her being the type of kid who cares so so much about this. About being right. About not having the “wrong” anything. It may exhaust me temporarily when she drones on about wanting fancier shoes. But I’d take that any day from hearing that her fragile preschooler sense of self was being shaken.
But none of that is the worst of it. The worst is the part of it was what she hadn’t said before. Namely, I don’t like to be me. Baby girl. To even put words to that at this age. Ever, I know. But already? Before Edie came into my life, had I been presented with this scenario, I think I would have planned to redirect. To refuse to engage in what is objectively an insane notion that she’s wrong. But having her in front of me, asking me in earnest how to be someone else, because she doesn’t want to be her? All I could do was squeeze her chubby cheeks and make her look at me and say “You are Perfect.”
Man, I love this kid, but she shatters me. We have been struggling lately, as we have in the past, going through some transitions. It seems like it comes in fits and spurts. Her awareness and understanding will just shift, and it causes behavior that I don’t understand and inevitably react poorly too. Then there is friction. But once I can get on board with who she has become, we work it out. We always do. But these moments are difficult. Now I am left with hoping I have some quiet times over the holidays to give this some thought, and to give her some more of me.
Not wanting to focus on girliness may have felt like it was about me wanting her to be true to herself, and to choose whatever she wants and likes without hang ups. And that’s still a good and noble intention. But I’m seeing more how it’s also about my own pain. How I wanted to erase that for her, all the insecurity and self-loathing I’ve inflicted on myself for not being enough of this or that. For being the “wrong” kind of girl. Hearing her say those words hit a deeper part of me than she has before. And this child has hit me where it hurts in the past. Parts of me that are still healing, I guess.
So now I try to own this? Yeah. I think so. Here goes. Edie, you are not me. You don’t own my pain and I can’t prevent you from feeling pain. I am here for you, but I know you are on your own path. But, honey, for what it’s worth, I really do think you are perfect.
Deep breaths. And I promise I will keep trying to work hard at not trying so hard.