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 …
Saoirse and her team finished up their novice basketball season this weekend. These girls exceeded all of our expectations (Saoirse: “I didn’t think we were going to win one game!” Her dad–her head coach–sheepishly agreed): they were undefeated this season save one loss, and I …
Saoirse and I were sitting on the couch together the other night, reading. Much to her little sister’s dismay, SK gets to stay up later than her younger siblings. Quinlan, in her imagination, thinks we spend this time gorging on cupcakes, or reenacting episodes of American Ninja Warrior, or laughing at some uproarious movie we’re all watching without her. Not so, though–the nights that Saoirse hangs out downstairs, this is what it is: sitting, reading, quietly talking.
(In her defense, Quinlan really wants to just do that, too. She saves the Ninja stuff for other times, like when she’s supposed to be sitting down with us to dinner.)
That evening, I was watching the fish wander around their aquarium in their spot across the room. Our smaller goldfish, R2 (or as I like to call her, Dumb) was quietly moving along, just happy to chase the bubbles around her tiny world. Finn, on the other hand (or as I prefer to call him, Dumber), was attacking the rocks that lay on the bottom of the tank, knocking them this way and that with a terrible goldfish-sized clatter in his desperate search for food–it’s a constant, feverish pursuit on his part that makes him seem so desperate and famished one would never guess he gets a healthy supply of food pellets dropped from tiny child fingers at the exact same time every two days.
I got Saoirse’s attention. “If you were a goldfish–” I nodded in the direction of the aquarium– “would you rather live in a tank like that one, which is safe and clean and lovely, but so small you never actually got to do anything?”
I saw Saoirse’s eyes follow
Dumb R2 and Dumber Finn as they swam around the neon-colored plastic plants in their home. She was thinking.
“Or,” I continued,”if you had to be a goldfish, would you rather be out in the open sea, which is totally a lot more dangerous, but where you could swim and explore and play and go wherever you wanted to go?”
Saoirse didn’t hesitate for a second. “That,” she said. My suburban, rule-following, Catholic-school-attending, sheltered–and smart–kid pointed at the fish tank.
“‘Cause I don’t want to get eaten.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about risk: the difference between brave and foolish, the play between fear and common sense. I always think of myself as someone who lives scared, but I’ve jumped without looking plenty of times, and it’s worked out: almost fifteen years of marriage now to a guy I fell in love with two weeks in. A really good stint as a teacher after I decided to become one during a single meeting with a program coordinator. A solitary plane ticket across the country without knowing what to expect turned out to be an adventure that prompted me to quit a stifling job. I’m better at making decisions at a moment’s notice and pivoting when I have to than I am drawing them out, weighing my options. In my life, I’ve found it best to jump over the fear then try to dance with it. Fear doesn’t have very good rhythm.
Saoirse eyed the fish in the tank warily, then went back to her book. I watched her for a moment before turning to my own. It’s funny how parenthood changes you: we work so hard to get to a place that’s staid and secure so that we can give our kids the freedom to jump, to grow. We think that by locking ourselves into place, we’ll somehow be able to encourage our children to swim out in the open water.
The open water is scary (to some. Quinlan would already be out there swimming with the sharks). Saoirse wants to be a dolphin trainer one day. When she says this she means she’ll work in an amusement park, or in an aquarium, where it’s safe and regulated and known. But I imagine her in a boat out on the ocean, learning as much as she is teaching. I want to see her traveling the world (and taking me with her, right? That’s okay?), jumping and pivoting with the best of them.
Saoirse turned the page of her book, engrossed in the story, and I knew she was hoping to get in one more page, maybe two, before I gently told her it was time to head to bed.
The evenings are often like this. We sit on our old couch, in our secure place in the suburbs.
I guess we’re giving her as good a place as any from which to jump.
She turned seven a couple of weeks ago, our Mighty, and I’ve been thinking about what I’d say about her ever since. Her interests haven’t changed all that much since last year. She still loves butterflies, and horses, and riding her bike. There’s some stuff …
I look back at some of my old posts-the ones I put up way back in the olden days, when my first child was an only and I was tired and overwhelmed and just a little, tiny, eensy bit lost in the strange paradox of mundane and unpredictability that is the life (and in particular, stay-at-home life) of a new parent, and think: oh dear Lord. I have nothing to talk about now. But I do have stuff to talk about. It just seems to be bigger and less funny in its life-i-ness than it used to be.
Saoirse told me this morning that she’d like to get her ears pierced. (I haven’t told David this yet, so whoops: Hey, Dave? SK wants to get her ears pierced! Please don’t faint). She was standing in her room–the room that pretty much just houses her bunk bed and clothes now because she sleeps in Quinlan’s room and why in the world did we move houses if the girls don’t even want their separate spaces?–before she left for school. She was wearing her uniform–short-sleeved white shirt with the Peter Pan collar, jumper, tights–and she had a headband on over her hair even though we hadn’t even properly brushed it yet for the day. She looks so grown-up to me lately. Her face has changed, for sure. Her manner of speaking is more her own rather than just “cute kid,” if that makes sense. She uses words that seem entirely too big for a 7-year-old’s mouth to form. And yet. There she is.
But when she said it: “Mom? I want to get my ears pierced,” my reaction surprised me. I never encouraged the girls to get their ears pierced–quite frankly, the idea of any of our children ruining their perfect little child selves by shoving a needle through from one end of their skin to the other makes me recoil, and then there was my hippie feminism coming through: why do some people need to adorn themselves in such a way to “fit in,” when others do it to stand out? Why IS it normal for a female to mutilate her ear lobes just to hang ornaments from her body like some human Christmas tree? It bugs me, even as someone who once had more ornamental holes in her body than I care to admit out loud. And yet. There it is.
But the thing is, when SK first said that–and you know she was looking at me the entire time to gauge my expression–my first reaction was…dare I say it?…pride. I was actually kind of excited and proud. Why is that? I am the person who did not want the skin-poking. I’m the one who was all “Down with gender conformity!” And I’ve seen this coming: the requests to join the American Girl club at school instead of the Lego one she’d been talking about all summer. The new habit of staring at herself in the mirror after she gets dressed, preening to make sure she looks good. She’s even started talking about how many calories are in her food, a conversation piece she picked up from a classmate at school, who in turn picked it up from her own mother, which terrifies me and David to no end. It’s happening. The aligning herself with type, the bending to fit into the box: it’s happening. And yet. I felt relieved. Not about the calorie part. That’s horrifying. Just the piercing part.
I’m assuming that a good number of you reading this today might think I’m ridiculous and that it’s no big deal, that ear piercing (and American Girl and preening and calorie-counting) are just a part of being a girl. But if you’ve been reading me long enough, or are friends with me in real life, you know how David and I both are. We’re THOSE parents–the ones who tried so, so hard to avoid the girl-v.-boy toys, the pink, the Barbies. It’s simply our value system, and that’s not necessarily right or wrong, but it’s most definitely us. Or at least I thought it was. And yet.
It’s a hard thing, to be a parent, watching your children, wanting to celebrate their uniqueness but also wanting to be assured that they’ll be okay in the world that watches them. I’m thinking of someone close to us who came out as gay to his parents when he was a teenager. The parents had to take a day afterward to do a bit of crying before they shook it off and went back to life as normal: and it wasn’t because they were disappointed or ashamed or any of that stuff. It’s because they were afraid. They knew the battle would be harder for their child. They knew that someone they loved didn’t fit into those black-and-white expectations, and what it might mean for him in the years to come. Geez: I remember wanting an Esprit sweatshirt (so cool!) and leather bomber jacket (worn open and hanging off the shoulders, natch) when I was in the seventh grade because everybody else had them and I knew life would be easier if I just FIT IN. It’s like you want your kids to walk a line: be awesome and unique and themselves, but not ever, ever get, you know, beat up because of it. It sucks.
I’m not sure when we’ll do it. I’m sure we’ll talk about it more, she how she feels, gauge if she’s ready to take care of new skin-holes with our help. It’s strange to me that a child who still believes in the tooth fairy is capable of keeping pierced ears hygienic and cleaned, but it’s where we are. She wants dolphin earrings, please. So she can have fun with them and be excited to wear them, she said (Because you know I casually asked her why she wanted pierced ears and she came back with a 3-point justification for getting them). She’s my first baby girl, talking about her Christmas list for Santa and the meeting she’ll have today with her imaginary friend and how excited she is that someone told her she looks like the mini American Girl she keeps tucked into her backpack for club meetings. She’s still the child I want to keep protected forever. And yet. Maybe celebrating her uniqueness also means celebrating the decisions she makes for herself, too.
I told you it was hard, you guys. Raising our children to be their “truest” selves means we have to be honest, too. Even if the world at large might not always think we fit in.
Saoirse is–how do you say?–a sensitive child. She is funny, and sharp, and doesn’t miss a trick, as my grandmother would’ve said. But she also internalizes most of what she witnesses: interactions between other family members. Body language. The way she is treated in comparison …