After spending your entire professional life amongst young children and their parents, you could probably be forgiven for having once considered yourself well-equipped for parenthood. Sure, you hadn’t seen it all, but you’d seen an awful lot. From a medical point of view, for example, you knew what to expect. You knew the sorts of things that sent first-time parents into an unnecessary panic. And you’d seen so many kids and so many different parent/child dynamics, you felt you had a good sense of where to begin with being a good mom.
To a point, you were right. For some things, you were completely fine. But only to that point. Beyond it, there have been so many things for which you were completely unprepared.
For example, you could never have predicted how hard it would be to see elements yourself reflected in your child. For every adorable instance of Mommy-let’s-play-doctor, there are ten or twelve moments of crippling anxiety.
There is nothing quite like the helplessness of seeing your daughter trapped by the very things that make her who she is.
It’s a feeling you know all too well.
“I don’t want to go,” sobs Charlotte. “Please, Mommy, my stomach really hurts. Please!”
She clings to your shoulders, cries into your neck, and your heart breaks.
She’s never exactly been a social butterfly. This has never worried you before. You‘ve even felt a touch of pride in it from time to time. She’s independent, you thought. Just like me.
Except you know the warning signs. You know that independent can become lonely all too easily.
And lonely can become easy target.
Charlotte picks at her meat loaf. You watch out of the corner of your eye, keeping an inward tally of how many bites she’s had. (Less than three. It’s been ten minutes.)
She was with you at the store yesterday, the day you bought this particular meal. You ran into Sandra Morris by the frozen food aisle, and had a brief conversation while you felt Charlotte slowly conceal herself behind your back. Sandra’s daughter watched, a smirk hovering around the corner of her mouth. (You’ve never met this kid before, but you feel like you have. There are versions of that girl in every elementary school, every college campus, every workplace on Earth. You know this better than anyone.)
Charlotte eats a single pea.
You’re not the same person you used to be.
You’ve suffered under the thumb of enough jerks. You’ve learnt how to survive without falling apart. When you look at Charlotte and her growing timidity, a younger version of yourself stares back.
It took an awfully long time to build yourself into the person you’ve become. You know how and when to grit your teeth and bear things. You know how and when to put your foot down and say declare that enough is enough. You’re not too scared to be this person anymore, and you can’t shake the nagging feeling that you should be teaching your daughter to be strong and unshakeable.
(But how can you teach her something that, after all these years, you still haven’t perfected?
It’s a lot to ask of a seven-year-old.)
You’re not, and you can’t quite bring yourself to answer.
“Hey.” He tugs gently at the ends of your hair. “What’s up?”
You bite your bottom lip.
You click your pen three or four times.
He takes it off you. “You’re worried about Charlotte.”
He rubs his chin. “Something definitely bugging her. She’s gone silent. Used to be hard to shut her up long enough to get some dinner into her.”
“You read to her tonight, right? Did she say anything?”
You sigh. “I’ve asked her a few times, but I keep getting nothing. Not even a hint.”
“Women,” he teases. If you still had your pen, you’d throw it at him. You content yourself with a half-hearted glare and a “James.”
You’re both on autopilot during the evening routine: loading the dishwasher; flicking off the lights; checking on Charlotte. Even asleep, her face looks pale and drawn. So, you make a decision.
The last thing you do before bed is write CALL SCHOOL on a post-it and stick it to the bathroom mirror. Whatever is going on with your daughter, it has to be fixed. And you’re positive that it has something to do with school.
(You’re kind of dreading this. You secretly love parent-teacher conferences where you hear nothing but praise of your little girl’s brilliance. Anything else seems strangely foreign. But, you have to do what you have to do.)
“Hey. Jules.” He kisses your shoulder. “Coming to bed?”
You smile, just a little. “Yeah. Coming.”