She looked forward to the birthday party all week. When her nanny asked what she would do at the party she shrugged and said “probably read some books”.
She counted down the days, but when we arrived she wouldn’t leave my side. She ventured out to greet the birthday girl, but shied away from the other kids. I encouraged her to play, but each time she was joined by another child she came back to me. I asked her if anything was the matter and she climbed into my lap pressing her mouth to my ear.
“I feel nervous, Mom.”
She’s so sweet, this girl. So shy and so lovely. So adept at identifying her own feelings. So much better at it at 3, than I am at 32. But still I wonder if it’s my fault, this quiet and reserved behavior. I blame myself, as mothers tend to do, and watch as she picks up a ball that’s rolled away from the crowd.
Across the play area, kids are squealing and climbing up a platform to jump down into foam blocks below. The same blocks my girl is now purposefully stacking around herself to build “a castle”.
I wonder at what she needs inside those walls. Why she’s nervous and what I must be doing wrong.
Another parent comes over to chat. My daughter has moved on to another solitary activity and the woman watches her walk unsteadily along a balance beam a few inches above the floor. She shakes her head and I feel judged.
“She’s so well-behaved and polite. How do you do that?”
Before I can stumble through a lame self-deprecating response, another little girl slams into the woman.
“Did you see me? I jumped off backwards!” she shouts and over her head her mother rolls her eyes at me. ‘Kids’ the eye roll says and she allows herself to be dragged back across the padded floor.
My daughter watched the entire interaction from the balance beam. She feels my eyes on her and smiles at me, before returning her focus to her steps.
When the “teacher” calls all the party guests to sit on their spots my daughter is the first to listen. She sits still and follows the directions, giving the requested thumbs up when the children are asked if they understand.
She sits quietly at the table as the birthday girl opens presents. Clapping after each gift is revealed. She waits patiently for cake and ice cream and thanks the mother who hands them to her. She eats while observing the children interacting around her and like the foam blocks she stacked around herself earlier, I can almost see the wall between the other kids and her.
As the party winds down, I find an empty spot on the bench beside to her. She smiles at me and asks if I remember her pink cake from her birthday. That is something she does, now. Constantly bringing up shared experiences to ask if I remember. If I ever suffer from dementia she’ll be the very first to know. I assure her I do and I tell her it’s time to go.
She thanks the birthday girl for the party invitation and she hugs all the people who ask for one. She slips her hand into mine as we walk to our car.
“Did you have fun?” I ask, a little afraid of her answer.
“Yes, Mom,” she says, her focus on the rocks beneath her feet.
I watch her in the rearview mirror on the drive home and again I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Where does my brave and talkative girl go when there are so many other children around? Perhaps, this is what caused the trouble at school. The uncontrolled crying. Had I left her there too long? Was the damage done?
I glance back, again, to see her looking out the window.
“A bird!” she exclaims.
“I saw it too,” I say and she smiles. Another few moments pass before I look back at her again. She’s so beautiful it hurts, sometimes. She watches the trees and buildings as we pass and I bring my eyes back to the road.
“I’m happy, Mom,” she says and I laugh, the worry subsiding.
Because I know her and because she is. None of the things I’m carrying are hers. The responsibilities I’ve saddled myself with are extraneous and overwrought.
This lovely girl is how she’s meant to be. Her favorite color is black, and last week she suggested we ask a crying baby in its shopping cart at Target if it needed some help. She personally thanks the vacuum for cleaning the carpet in her room, and a few nights ago over dinner explained to her father that we are all made of blood and bones, before bragging that she kept hers on the inside all day long. A month ago, she cried unconsolably when I asked her to stop jumping over our sleeping dog and only stopped after she gave him a card covered in Easter egg stickers because they are his favorite. Less than twenty four hours ago, while praying she thanked Jesus especially for The Home Depot.
My little thinker, my explorer, my weirdo, my sweet, sweet girl — I don’t need to give her my stuff. If she’s anything like me, and she is, one day she’ll have her own.
I think about the tendency all parents have to compare their children. The measuring sticks we hold at their sides. This is where we mess up, where parenting goes wrong. When we fail to see our kids wholly and as individuals—we just plain fail.
I thought again about the mother from the birthday party. My daughter will never be hers…
…because she is mine.
She belongs to a used-to-be little girl who cried for hours because she thought she’d stolen a library book, but school was just on Christmas break. She belongs to the girl who wrote her first screenplay at 11 and tried to start a business selling sock puppets at 9. The girl who cried through kindergarten lunch and recess at her private school because she realized that Puff the Magic Dragon was so sad because his friend never came back. She belongs to the same girl it took 20 more years to realize that song was also kind of about drugs.
This kid is mine. Her cautious nature and her quirks. Her big heart and wandering mind. She is different, because I am different. Or maybe God made me different, so I’d know all the things that she’d need.
I unfasten her carseat and breathe her in. I can’t help myself and my mind runs back to the party. To my little girl building walls around herself. To her sitting alone waiting for everyone else to show up and I pull her close. This life may be hard for her and I’m scared.
I carry her to the porch and put her down to grab my keys.
“Do you remember my castle, Mom?” she asks and I tell her that I do.
“It had a door.”
“What are doors for?” I ask, as I put my key in our own.
“So my friends can come inside.”
I keep my back to her, so she can’t see the tears coming and I think about my friends. The people who listen to me and love me despite all the neurosis. The ones who laugh at my ridiculous jokes and always call to check in even when I forget. The ones who came early and the ones who came late. The ones who found me in my castle.
“That sounds like a great idea,” I say and I open the door.
She scurries around me and inside. I take a moment to wipe my eyes and gather my thoughts. I cannot protect her forever, but I know she’ll build walls when she needs to. I did, and in every sense she is better than me.
I worried that she’d made a prison, a cell out of foam, but a cell doesn’t have a door. Not one that opens, not one that hopes for
A small castle is still a castle.
“Mom, are you coming in?” she asks already kicking off her shoes.
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