It’s been almost a year since Summerly was able to attend gymnastics class, thanks to a certain pandemic, but she still practices all manner of calisthenics and prefers to cartwheel across the house rather than walk. For months she worked on learning how to do a handstand bridge kickover, and she finally mastered it this fall, much to her delight and sense of accomplishment. A few weeks later, while she waited for her brothers to finish in the bathroom so we could read books before bed, she was practicing her new skill in our bedroom and realized that she suddenly wasn’t able to do the kickover part anymore. As usually happens at this time of the evening, little issues threaten to turn into big deals because kids are tired and desperate for just that last bit of attention they can wring out of their equally tired parents. On this particular day, all the kids had been home for five of the past six days because Arlo hadn’t been feeling well, so we were waiting for his test results to come back before everyone else could return to school. I had exactly three scraps of patience and parental energy left at this point, but because bedtime can be a cruel and unusual few hours, the disappointed child got extremely upset. “I can’t do it anymore! Why can’t I do it? I’m never going to be able to do it again! I’m not flexible anymore!”, etc. etc. I ran through the usual, “Your body is probably tired. Remember when this happened before with your backbend? We’ll practice tomorrow and you’ll get it back just like last time,” but she wouldn’t be assuaged, responding with a litany of “I’m not flexible anymore!” on repeat.
I tried to catalog all of the advice I’d gotten and techniques I’ve tried to recenter kids when they go off the rails, but I came up completely blank. So I decided to change the subject, suggesting, “Your friends are going to be so excited to see you back at school tomorrow.” Her response was, “But I don’t have PE tomorrow! I missed PE today. And the only time I can see Julie and Elka (her new friends who are in a different homeroom and therefore only allowed to interact infrequently and at a distance) is at PE! So I won’t get to see them until next week. I was really sad about that today.”
AHA! Breakthrough! “I get that that makes you feel sad,” I said. “I’m sorry. This is hard. Can you imagine how much harder it would be if you couldn’t go to school at all, like most kids these days? I know it’s really upsetting to miss out on time with friends, but at least you’ll most likely get to see them in person on Monday. In the meantime, maybe you could write them notes and ask Ms. Scott to give them to their teacher tomorrow, or we can take pictures of the notes and email them to their parents.” I don’t remember if she said anything in response, but what I do know is that she stood up, put her hands above her head, did a handstand into a bridge and then, miraculously, a kickover.
A month or so later, we had another tough evening in which Summerly reacted poorly to Brian speaking strongly to her. She recovered, he recovered, and the rest of the evening was arduous but everyone held it together for the most part. After Liam had gone to his room to play and Arlo was winding down on the third floor with Brian, Summerly came downstairs while I futzed about the kitchen, unable to relax ’til they were all dispatched for the night. Totally unprompted, she lay down on the hardwood floor and said, “You know another reason I didn’t act so well tonight? Today at school Molly said that Julie is rude, but I don’t think she is. I think Molly was upset because she was feeling left out. And I’m also jealous that Arlo got to go on a field trip today.” We talked it through and she went to bed feeling noticeably lighter.
Moments like these–when I watch my daughter name her feelings, express them openly, earnestly, unabashedly, and I witness the effect this process has on her–are stunning. She’s eight and a half years old, and she’s not only self-aware and insightful about her own emotions (usually), but also able to verbalize them as a therapeutic exercise, and I can actually see her body and her brain react in positive ways. One minute she can’t do a kickover, but after unburdening her mind, her body can cooperate again, as if her core is actually strengthened by sharing the source of her sadness. When she’s struggling with confusion or worry or envy, she’ll lock into a parent’s tone of displeasure and spiral into recalcitrance or obstinacy, but once she speaks these feelings out into the air between her and another person who receives them with compassion, she is free. I hope with every atom of my being that she won’t lose this coping mechanism, that she won’t ever keep the turmoil inside. I realize that there may come a day when I am no longer her confidante, but in that case my greatest wish for her is that she has someone to whom she feels safe enough to speak her grievances. This is a gift she is practicing. She has a gift, one she knows how to give herself, a gift so many of us don’t know how to give or have no one to help us learn to give it.
Wise men, keep your gold and frankincense. Bury your myrrh for all it’s worth. No gift is greater than the one people can give unto themselves, and may we all find ways to give it, and give it, and give it.