Two nights ago, Piper woke me up at 2 am, standing beside my bed with her hand gently shaking my shoulder. As the dreaded 12 hour barf-a-thon norovirus just made its rounds through her school, I sat up straight, ready to bolt for a bowl.
"Mom?" she said in a tiny, anxious voice.
"Nothing's wrong," she took a trembly breath. "I'm just... feeling an inexplicable sadness."
Oh. I lifted the covers of our bed like a protective wing and invited her in.
At eight, nearly nine, she is experiencing the beginnings of the high and low mood swings and sensitive feelings that may be her emotional lot for the next fifty years or so.
I am realizing this is one of my most important parenting jobs right now--helping Piper navigate these feelings, identify who she is, and doing my best to soften the harder edges of the world for her.
So I tucked her into my crook, and listened as she listed all the things that weren't wrong, but tearfully recounted that her heart just felt heavy, and she worried because sometimes these feelings happened in school.
I told her I remembered being super-sensitive in third grade, the feeling of taking on other students' embarassment or discomfort like it was my own. I told her sometimes I would go into the bathroom, and turn the sink on, and plug the drain. I'd fill the bowl with warm water, and put my hands in, imagining I was home in a bath, until I felt like I could go back to class.
I promised her it got easier, but being a sensitive person is part of why I cry when a favorite chicken dies, and pretty much every time we read The Lorax, why it is an emotional commitment for me to read a novel--because I live the characters' experiences viscerally. It is also why I rarely watch anything but the Flyers, the occasional funny movie or the most formulaic HGTV shows.
"But how can I stop feeling things so much?" Piper wailed.
I smoothed the hair off her sweaty forehead and told her I would help her learn some ways to cope, but that she doesn't necessarily want to stop.
"Being someone who feels things deeply is part of your creative, sensitive soul. It will help you be a great artist, a musician, a writer, a lover of animals. It will make you a good, caring friend, a worthy partner, and one day, an excellent mother."
"Nobody is good at all of those things," Piper scoffed.
"Um, have you met me?"
She giggled, which was my hope.
But there is a fine line as mother of girl between projecting healthy self-confidence and setting up unrealistic expectations, so I countered in a more serious tone,
"Well, I'm actually not great at everything."
"Yeah..." she allowed. In the darkness, I imagined she was making a mental list of all my shortcomings, and I started one of my own, creating my family's additions. I am often three to five minutes late for everything from meetings to car pick-up. I have a hard time staying on top of the laundry. I sometimes drop balls when juggling our crazy sports schedule, getting the right kid to the wrong field with half of his brother's gear bag and no water bottle. Dinner is frequently uninspired. I sometimes beg off reading aloud at the end of the night out of exhaustion. When I have a training project, I disappear to the horse barn for hours. I get busy with teaching and writing and work, giving the best of me to the outside world, leaving my family the dregs...
"Yeah," Piper said matter-of-factly, adding on a sleepy yawn, "I imagine you're not very good at badminton."
Badminton? And in those moments, I saw myself through her shining eyes.
"You're right, honey, I am not very good at badminton."
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