Vindictive lunch hour tactics. Room temperature shoulders gone cold. Weaponizing the whites of their eyes, rolling them back and back again.
Grade school antics remain unoriginal as ever. But a tiny 9-year-old heart is hurting, and I’ve sounded the alarm.
Her army is deep and menacing. From her father, grandmothers, and aunts and uncles (blood and otherwise) to every ally 30-something mom I know with her similar mama-bear rage, glint of understanding, and beginnings of premature wrinkles. (Wrinkles, I’m sure, we can accredit to this new age of post-pandemic parenting.)
Advice and opinions are endless, but it’s my child who must lead the charge. What a devastating reality—a child standing alone on a battlefield well known, her troops an arm’s length away and unable to do anything.
Despite the thrill of playground freedom, she spends a winter recess on a peeling, wrought-iron bench in puzzling patches of loneliness while surrounded by every kid her age in a three-mile radius. She recognizes total disregard for the school’s presumed mantra: Now kids, if we see a friend sitting alone, what do we do? We ask them to play.
It’s not easy raising daughters. How I wish we, mothers, could stop it from taking shape—the prepubescent vanity and misunderstood longing for attention. Neither are strangers to me, but luckily, my daughter is still immune. They educate her on how to navigate a world filled with problematic personalities, and she continues to thrive. But what, if not the burden of great responsibility, can be the reward for such a triumph?
Only nine years have I been staring into those wide, blue-green-gray eyes, and my daughter must now tuck away the final remnants of her innocence. Without her permission. Without knowledge of her loss at all. Gone soon will be the fairies that come and go in the night, the smell of the earth in her knotted hair, and her conversations with my late father who lives on the moon.
I’ve only ever taught her kindness because how often I’ve worried she’d turn out like me. But this isn’t a clichéd classic from the ’90s. Kindness won’t always work. So what then?
Standing nearly as tall as my collarbone, I pull her safely into my chest, wishing I could keep her there in her Nike shorts and rainbow Crocs. I was a daddy’s girl who made a daddy’s girl. A rough-and-tough athlete who idolizes LeBron James but couldn’t make it through the live-action version of Dumbo because it was “so sad, Mom!” She is a beautiful image of all the things I wish I were at her age with a smattering of striking freckles to boot.
She sees injustices and speaks about them. She is inherently sweet, and that’s by no measure of DNA. She is quirky. She is herself—a thing wildly unknown even to most adults.
I tell her: You are perfect. You are whole. You are strong.
I talk with her at the end of each day more intentionally now as mothers often do. I strive for casual, cool, and light. I echo bits of my own meta-learning into the backseat.
I tell her: If you stand up, they will stand down.
I want her to know they aren’t thinking of how her chest aches at their words and dirty looks. Sometimes they are just lost in their search for themselves. Sometimes they are hurting at home. Sometimes they’re not. And most times, they aren’t mean bone-deep.
I tell her: Stand up, my love. Stand up.