Note: I’ve been struggling a lot with writing about my kids as they get older. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to post something similar to what I’ve written below only to cringe and delete the whole thing because…well, I don’t want to violate their privacy. It’s one of the big reasons for my long periods of silence here: I want to document these moments in our lives–but in a way that means my kids will still be speaking to me when they eventually read them. So please bear with me as I navigate this tricky new part of the road.
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Saoirse stopped me the other night as I was saying goodnight before bedtime.
“Mom?” she said. “When you were in fourth or fifth grade, did you ever feel lonely or left out?”
She looked like she was going to cry. I’d spent the day with her on a class field trip, and was able to watch her–quiet, reserved–sitting with or talking with just one friend at a time, maybe two. The girls she talks with are good kids, kind and friendly. They’re young. But I also noticed another group, a bigger group of older-seeming girls, led by one cheerful child when altogether, and when separated, each girl clinging to one other in happy, comfortable pairs. I’d seen Saoirse watching them, too.
I thought back to my own experience in fourth or fifth grade. No, I didn’t feel lonely or left out back then. That came later: middle school, for sure. College, when I was trying to figure out where I belonged. In my twenties, when I’d moved to two new cities in five years, and never quite knew how to make good friends outside of the ones I saw everyday in my workplace or apartment building. The feelings of “left out” never quite go away entirely. Gosh–watch me any day I arrive late to the school parking lot for pick-up, when all the chatting groups have already been established and I’m just hanging off by myself wondering what I should do with my arms, and you’ll know I feel it now, too.
I looked at my little girl, tucked under her pink comforter, and tried to figure out how to address an issue I’d never quite answered for myself.
“Yes, sweetheart,” I finally said. “Of course I did.” Her eyes lit up with surprise when I said it. I’m not sure why: I still feel like I carry the aura of the nerdy kid in class–the one who was worried most about getting an A on the spelling test. The one who’d rather pull out a book in between classes than gossip with the others. The one who wanted to fit in more but never really cared enough to try.
Talk about not knowing what to do with your arms.
I think Saoirse wanted me to tell her how to become popular. I think she was looking for the magical key to the lock she’s been trying to pick since she started elementary school. I’d told her before that she doesn’t want to peak in elementary (or middle, or high) school. But try telling that to a tween who wonders why the other kids have it so easy.
I looked at her, still floundering for the right words. In some ways, I know David and I are “holding her back.” I say that in quotes, because there’s stuff that’s not going to change. We’re not getting her a phone–she can use mine to talk, and we’ll soon activate an old one we have as a household/kid texting phone, but she won’t have one of her own for a long time. I didn’t think that was so weird until her field trip, when during a presentation on cyber bullying, I found out that about half of her classmates have social media accounts. After doing a little research at home, I learned that most teenagers with social media had their accounts by fifth grade.
You guys. There is no way in hell I’m letting my 10-year-old near social media. And yet I had absolutely no idea that David and I are some of the last hold-outs of our daughter’s peers’ parents.
So, yes: in a lot of ways–and because of us–Saoirse is left out. Does she do the sports and activities and see her friends and go to birthday parties and all of that? Of course she does. But she’s not one of the super-grown-up ones. She’s not a part of the clique. And she so very much wants to be.
I was talking to David about this at lunch today, and he shook his head. “She doesn’t realize that she is popular. She doesn’t see that not being a part of a clique gives more kids a chance to be friends with her, and that they want to. I watched it when I was coaching basketball. Saoirse is popular.”
He was quiet for a second.
“Just not in the way she wants to be.”
Saoirse is an overthinker. She’s in her head a lot, concocting stories about her life and doing a lot of wondering and worrying. I’m a bit nervous for her: I was the same way, and while it led me toward a life as a writer, it also led me toward a life as a writer.
All kidding aside, part of me does sort of wish that she was the leader of the pack. Would it make her more confident? Would she be happier? Would she spend less time worrying?
But even as I type that, I know it’s not true. No one wants to peak in elementary school.
Everyone has always been telling me that the parenting gets tougher as the kids get older–the conversations are trickier, there’s less you can control, the issues are bigger. I know that. But how do you tell a kid to hang on? That it gets so much better? That when you’re a grown-up, and standing by yourself wondering what to do with your arms, you’ll finally realize it’s okay if they sort of hang there because everybody’s arms hang there, and that’s what they’re supposed to do? And that just when you think that everybody else is having SO MUCH MORE FUN with other people than you are, a friend who still loves you even though you’re a weirdo writer who thinks too much will text you and ask you to get together and you’ll say, Gee. It’s good to have grown up.
I don’t know how to tell Saoirse that, because she has to get there herself. But I see this child: this smart, lovely, so, so good child and wonder how she can’t see it. I wonder how to help her knock away those bad thoughts and focus on what’s in front of her. I told her yesterday that while she was watching those other girls during that field trip, I was watching the people around her: the girl who jumped at the chance to sit on the bus with her. The girl who reached out to talk to her from her spot three people deep in line. The group of children who called out her name because they’d noticed she’d had what a presenter needed.
We will never notice the good in ourselves if we’re busy staring at other people.
I probably failed last night. I probably didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, what only she needed to hear. I looked at her little face, and could only think: nope, you won’t have social media and your dad and I won’t let you grow up too fast, and Saoirse, it might take you a little while longer to realize that you are a star, too, with SO MANY planets in your orbit, but you’ll get there. You’ll get there. Maybe just not when you’re ten.
Yes, I felt lonely in school. And yes, I still often do. But just like I did, Saoirse will realize, some day, that she’s not the only one. That she’s surrounded by the same. That one day, one day soon, she’ll see somebody else who doesn’t know what to do with her arms and go up to her and whisper, “It’s okay to let them hang there. It’s what they’re supposed to do.”
We both have to hold on until she’s ready to do so.