When I was a senior in high school, all the cool girls (which at the time felt like the entire grade) dressed in matching Halloween costumes. They’re enshrined in our yearbook, standing with arms draped around one another, laughing at the rest of us. I found out the night before that they had spent all day coordinating. Decades later, I forget what they dressed as, but I still remember the sting of not being asked if I wanted to dress the same.
Being excluded feels bad. It felt bad at 17 and it feels bad at 44. It’s one of those universal life experiences I’m pretty sure makes me more resilient, but I still wish I didn’t have to endure. I believed my collection of “times I felt excluded” would someday serve as valuable life lessons for my children. I’d be able to sprinkle the wisdom I’d gained from years of hurt feelings like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. My kids could click their heels and be saved my pain.
Instead, when my son recently had an incident where he felt excluded, I sensed I was more like the great and powerful Oz. A sham.
The story of what happened to my son came through like a bad cell phone connection –– slowly and in clipped sentences where we both ended up exhausted and annoyed. Teams were picked. His friend has new friends. After lunch. It’s fine.
His silent pout in the back seat screamed he was not fine. I had the urge to fix his hurt feelings. I rattled through the obvious explanations: there’s only a certain number of kids who could be on each team; there will be a next time; there were plenty of other kids left out. But the more I filled the car with desperate excuses, the more we suffocated. No cheery-mom explanation could erase the fact that he wanted to be included and was not.
When I pressed him to talk about it later, he shut down. So I festered. How could I make this better? I wondered if so-and-so was included. I wondered if he talked to his friend X. I wondered if maybe he didn’t really have all the facts. Maybe there was still time for him to join a team.
As I boiled potatoes for dinner, I wondered why I cared so much. He had gone outside to play, but I was still feeling awful. Was it simply empathy? Was it because I felt like if I were better friends with other parents, or had gotten him involved in more activities, he might not have been excluded? Was it because even though I have reached out and have enrolled him in activities, he still was excluded?
I drained my potatoes and started mashing my growing suspicions that I was making this more about me.
As I pounded the tender potatoes into fluff, I felt the same as when he got shots as an infant or scraped his knees or struck out in Little League. He is my heart personified. His hurt is my hurt. Of course I felt the exclusion as if it had happened to me. I didn’t realize how blurred the lines of our identities have always been. I made this person who is so much a part of me and yet, so clearly his own person. We’re connected and separate. We’re bound by a chain link of DNA — invisible and real.
I folded butter into my pot and thought about the layered messages in not getting picked. How, even after you move on, it’s hard to quiet the feelings of being not good enough, funny enough, popular enough, cool enough. How could I assure him that everyone gets excluded at some point? How could I help him see that if he is not enough for certain people, those aren’t his people? How could I take away any negative feelings he might have?
I couldn’t. Unlike with a bad sports game or a problem with school, where I could encourage him to “try again,” “keep practicing,” or “believe in himself,” none of this perennial advice made sense. It doesn’t hurt any less when I try to explain it away. His feelings don’t change just because I say the cool kids don’t get invited sometimes too. These are lessons and feelings he has to learn to navigate.
But I wish I could make it easier.
Because I’m good at catastrophizing, I thought about how much more difficult it will become to let him navigate. There will be phones and girls and high stakes tests. I know I’m supposed to be appalled by the lengths some parents will go to to help their kids, but I can see why someone with the means would do what they could to get their kid into a great school or sports team or erase a mistake. I can see why parents enable and helicopter and engineer their kids’ lives. It hurts when they hurt. We believe their failures (and successes) to be a reflection of parental guidance, as if the choices children and parents make are exclusively and directly correlated. We want what’s best for them. We confuse loving with worshipping.
I watched the milk cascade through the crevices of chunky starch, smoothing potato into velvet. As my child becomes more himself, my role becomes more clear. I can provide advice and help guide, but I’m only meant to watch him take shape. But man, watching my son struggle to find his way is grueling.
And yet, it’s the only way.
There is a moment in sports when a player on the field goes down. Does the player need their coach or just a minute to recover? Everyone holds their breath and waits to see what the player does. Parenting is starting to feel like one long collection of those moments.
I dug a spoon in my mound of mash to taste. Not enough salt. Or pepper. I sprinkled in a little of both. I twirled the spoon around and around –– the rhythm reflected those of my maternal worries. All those hours spent agonizing about spit up or potty training or learning to read, felt silly in the shadows of fourth-grade problems. Objectively, I know this one incident of lunchtime exclusion will become overshadowed.
I heard my son come in from outside, laughing with his brother. He told me about a funny thing that happened at recess. He talked about how he was excited about basketball practice.
He’d gotten up from the field and started playing again. I stopped holding my breath.
He looked in my pot. “Oooh, mashed potatoes!” I don’t know if he smiled because he knew I made his favorite especially for him. But it didn’t matter.
“Wanna taste?” In the flash it took to hand him the spoon, I saw him both as a baby and teen –– a superimposed image of past and future.
“Fine? Just fine? Should I add more butter? Sour cream?”
He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
I was left staring into the pot wondering why his afternoon felt like such a big deal to me.
It’s possible I was projecting my own repressed feelings and insecurities about popularity onto my perfectly well-adjusted son. It’s also possible I was beating myself up because I knew that my first instinct to fix his hurt feelings was misguided.
When he was little, and we seemed parts of the same whole, I was a witness to nearly everything that happened to him. When he fell, I knew if he needed a hug, a bandaid or a reassuring wave of the hand. As he grows more independent, and I am just a part of his whole, guessing what he needs based on only the details he chooses to share feels a bit like cooking without a recipe.
I stepped away from the pot put the butter and salt in the middle of the table and called everyone to eat. Sometimes the only way to know what my kids need is to let them decide for themselves.
Over the next few days, I fought the urge to bring up the incident again –– to check in and see how he was feeling. Instead, I spent those days wrestling with my own emotions on this page.
As so often is the case, when he was ready to talk about it, he did. He had never needed me to help. He just needed to know I was there, watching from the sidelines, waiting with mashed potatoes.
Kathleen Siddell is a writer living in Southern California. You can follow her on Twitter @kathleensiddell.
My shadow has a mind of her own. She’s small—only waist-high. And quite noisy for a shadow.
My shadow has smaller, daintier hands than I, and tiny, dancing feet. These days, my feet shuffle, sometimes lumber. Until my shadow insists I join her in dance. Her hair doesn’t match mine, either—loose curls billow where mine kink tight to my skull. But when she smiles, her cheeks swallow up her eyes, like mine.
Though we’re a pair, we’re not always in sync. Sometimes my shadow is tearful, when I am exasperated. Or exuberant, when I am overwhelmed. And every now and then, if I stop too quickly, my shadow is caught short and runs into my calves with a thump.
Sometimes my shadow’s presence—though small—feels weighty and demanding. I shut myself in the bathroom, breathing deeply, and here she comes to paw at the door, a high-pitched question– “Mommy? In ‘dere?”
I let her in with a pasted-on smile, and she’s glued once more to my leg in a fierce hug. One edge of my mouth quirks up—a genuine smile, now. My shadow is so very sweet.
When I least expect it, my shadow detaches and becomes a cloud. She ascends a stool to rearrange the silverware drawer. She floats up to the top of the kitchen table. The couch becomes a trampoline and launches her into the atmosphere.
I try to pull my cumulonimbus closer to me, on firm ground, but she resists—vapor leaking out of her eyes, cries for freedom rising.
My shadow and I are often at odds. Stood in our corners.
No climbing. No yelling. Don’t run so far!
Other times I’m her marionette: She pulls my strings like a pint-sized puppeteer.
“Open dis? Watch shows? Have dink, Mommy—chocolate milk?”
My shadow needs me most when I’m busy. Busy cooking. Busy cleaning. Busy scrolling on my phone—oops.
When I’m behind on laundry, my shadow helpfully comes in after I’ve left and turns off the washer mid-cycle. She undoes all my doing, dragging socks out of dresser drawers and dropping them back into the hamper. Eventually, I embrace the pandemonium and carry my shadow along. She rides high in the laundry basket, shrieking with glee—quite unexpected for a shadow, but quite adorable too.
On long walks, my shadow stretches further and further away, taking ten skipping steps for each stride of mine. Legs churning, curls lifted by the breeze, my shadow becomes light and air and freedom.
At the park she ascends further, my shadow, now my satellite. She stands for a moment at the top of the slide, catching my eye before scoot-scoot-scooting down, arms outstretched, fingers splayed—joy in motion.
Soon she bobs over and plants a kiss on my knee, then tugs me up and over to the swings. Bounces in anticipation, grinning. I swoop her up and together we spin until—plop!—down into the swing she goes. She floats higher, higher. But always returns, my shadow, my dear one.
I’ve been tired for years, it seems. My shadow though, if you were to ask her, never feels sleepy. She listens to lullabies with velvet eyelids shut as we rock. She cuddles lovies close until I close the nursery door, but once I’m gone, her eyes fly open. She makes secret plans with the giraffe and wraps the baby elephant in swaddling clothes.
No, it’s true, she insists—my shadow never, ever sleeps. Not even at midnight, when I tiptoe into her room and place a hand on her back and whisper a prayer. Feeling grateful, yet somehow bereft without my shadow in the dark.
But each morning, close on the heels of dawn, I gather my little shadow close once more. Her head rests under my chin, hair tickling my nose. Both of us breathe deeply. Both of us at peace here, together.
In my arms, her body is solid and strong and surprisingly warm for a shadow.
My shadow. My toddler. My daughter. My heart.
Chandra Blumberg is a stay-at-home mom of four whirlwind kids. When she isn’t changing diapers or tripping over toys, she writes stories to uplift and encourage other mamas.
At three and half you tell me you don’t like your eyes. Too brown. Not blue. Not enough like a princess. You say they are ugly.
I tried to hide the princesses from you. They found you anyway. Since exposure, I have resolved that it is better to be excited together, so I croon all the songs in the car. Largely due to grand-maternal indulgence, you have about a dozen costume gowns, all sequined and spangled. And of course, lets not forget the plastic tiaras, the medallions rescued from garage sale costume jewelry, and the long satin glittery gloves. To mediate the onslaught with tradition, we return to the classics. We read Grimms and Anderson. I counter the Disney bombardment by emphasizing its most potent take away—the virtue ethic underlying what often, and rightly, makes a princess beautiful—kindness.
We live in a house of books. Our dated television resides in the closet and is pulled out on a rare occasion to view a library DVD, so you supplement your princess time the old-fashioned way. How many times have I caught you standing at the couch with a stack of books, flipping through the pages, pausing to sponge up the pictures? I revel in the hours you spend in concentration. You compare the colors of the cowl the evil queen wears in the different Little Golden Books. In the 1984 edition it is black, while in the 1974 edition, it’s pale green.
The literary critic in me is delighted. You are engrossed in texts, and your knowledge of them is precise and prolific. I can witness the webs of linguistic and imagistic associations you weave—the luminous threads of your connections and your comparative sensibility. Your attention to detail sharpens mine. When you ask questions about specific words, you can always offer the textual reference and identify the context in which your curiosity blossoms. Your citations are bubbling. Superior, in so many ways, to the college freshman I teach to buy our groceries.
I peer at you from behind the pages of my own book. What are you studying about these princesses? What do you see with your big brown eyes? When does a woman first think she isn’t beautiful enough? When does she look in the mirror and see her lack?
I should know, struggling in my late thirties with sensitive skin and the hormonal acne that found me when I became pregnant with your little brother. Despite the eight glasses of water, the vegetarian diet, the reduction of dairy. Still so, this human skin, with its cycles of pimples. When I look in the mirror, I see my imperfections. I have seen them for just about as long as I can remember. I know I shouldn’t. On an intellectual level, I understand that any beauty I possess comes from the quiet compassion I can cultivate in my heart as I sit on meditation cushion in the early morning and close my eyes before the day begins. Still so, I’m haunted and can’t seem to shake my obsession with my lack.
I have been careful to never voice these reproachful thoughts about my body in front of you. The feelings find you anyway. You find them. I quietly subsume responsibility. Do you hear them even if I don’t say them? And how about when I held you in my belly and watched my facial features change, slightly bloating with the fullness of pregnancy? Did you hear my thoughts then? Did they become a part of you? These are age-old questions haunt me. What is innate and what is learned? And in the womb, is what is innate also learned?
It is a late afternoon in mid-February. The sun smashes through the clouds and fills the purple room with fiery light. The harbor receives it too, and passes more of it on to us. We stand, you and I, staring at the looking glass. The light reflects off of the mirror and illuminates our faces. My watery blue eyes. Your big brown pools. We study one another, bathed in late winter’s parade of color. I gaze into your eyes and for the first time today, I don’t see my wrinkles, my dry lips, the new pimple on my chin. I see a child who astounds me with her fierce perception. I see the eyes I first gazed into (at that time, sapphire blue), on that rapturous June afternoon when you were born. My happiest day. You look into my eyes, and you see the big blue you are asking for. The baby blue of Cinderella and the icy blue of Elsa. You see me. I see you. You are my beloved.
I kiss you, as one must when she beholds her beloved, and whisper, “I have never seen such wise and beautiful eyes.”
You smile with your whole body, and you whisper back, “I like them too Mommy.”
Jesse Curran is a poet, essayist, scholar, and educator who lives in Northport, NY. Her creative work has appeared in a number of literary journals including Ruminate, About Place, Spillway, Leaping Clear, Green Humanities, Blueline, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. She is the mother of two bright stars, Leona and Valentine. www.jesseleecurran.com
As I listened to a guitar solo from the hypnotic opening measures of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” the podcast narrator unfurled the legendary entertainer’s humble origin story. Dolly’s birthday was January 19, the exact date I happened to be tuning in to the downloaded program. Was it a 1/365 (actually a 1/366 this leap year) coincidence? Or was this some sort of sign, a way for the universe to wink at me in its unfathomable manner?
I grew up in a home that valued science and logic with just a few nods to the occasional Eastern European superstition. My mother insisted that we not cut off tags from clothing we were wearing unless we bit on a thread while the scissors did its work (perhaps in an attempt to prove we were not corpses being outfitted for burial). You could not step over any of our siblings if they happened to be sitting on the floor (also a bad omen). A significant transgression involved saying something wonderful out loud which would surely tempt the evil eye. A prompt exhortation of “pu pu pu” could push against lurking malicious forces, and this phrase or its Hebrew counterpart, “b’li ayin ha-ra,” was uttered after almost every compliment or statement of good fortune. Life is always unpredictable and often cruel, and my mother was not taking any chances.
Due to the aforementioned evil eye situation, I will not reveal too much about our child who took his first official college tour two days ago. A high school junior, he is exploring a number of universities. A few years ago, our oldest daughter approached the college selection process with a data driven focus. She scrutinized scattergrams and plotted where the little blue dot representing her scores and grades hovered compared with other classmates. We created lists of large and small schools and compared rates of returning sophomores. She visited campuses, expressed “demonstrated interest,” and took notes at information sessions.
This second time around, however, I’m attempting to infuse the process with a bit more intuition and humanity. At an information session filled with parents and students frantically jotting down easily accessed facts about required courses and distribution requirements, I turned my gaze from the speaker and scrutinized the young people surrounding me. Two students in my row and one in front of me bounced and shook their feet. One student wrote notes in microscopic handwriting and clutched her pen in a vice grip. No one taking our tour said hello or smiled at me or my son. Not a single student on the quad waved at our tour guide or us or even made eye contact as we moved around the campus. The representative from the admissions office gave a stern warning about the iron-clad covenant of an early decision promise.
I don’t know how that school’s admission committee might judge my son, but their little blue dot on my imaginary college scattergram just took a nosedive. As a veteran of this process, I’ve realized that no matter how fabulous a college might be and how impressive its sweatshirt might look, a person has to feel at home and happy in one’s surroundings. How many anxious foot rockers can you handle in your small humanities class? Where’s the joy?
I asked my son what he thought of the tour, and although he mentioned a few observations, his opinion was not set. I thought about asking him to consider any “signs” that could give him insight into this school as a potential fit. Sometimes it’s hard to nail down exactly what our thoughts might be. That’s when “signs” might help us gain insight into the inner workings of our own hearts and minds. “Our favorite cookie shop was just a few blocks from the main campus” or “the sun was glowing in spite of the February date on the calendar” might have come to mind as confirmation of a good choice. If he brought up the deceased chipmunk we found on the way home as proof that this might not be the best choice, that would be telling, as well. The sign I noticed was the anxiety provoking sight of so many nervous legs twitching in tandem in the lovely auditorium where the information session took place. Both beautiful and unpleasant events occurred on our visit, and what he perceived as important revealed the inner workings of his decision making process.
Ultimately, a college choice boils down to both hard facts about the school and a subjective hunch that a person could feel at home in this environment. Weighing the data and also looking for a few signs can be a winning combination in this hyped up, stressful process. As for Dolly Parton, her song, “I Will Always Love You,” popped up on my music playlist as soon as I came home from this visit. Dolly may be an American icon, but I didn’t need her to remind me that joy, happiness, and love are what I wish the most for my soon-to-be high school grad, all of my children, and all of the students fortunate enough to be considering this next important step in their lives. If Dolly were Jewish, no doubt she would also respond with a hearty, “Pu pu pu.”
Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon G. Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked in the field of Jewish education for twenty-five years. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter in The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). She has had numerous essays published and posted in Moms and Stories, Kveller, Literary Mama, Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, Lilith.org, The Times of Israel, ReformJudaism.Org, Forth Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, Parent.co/Motherly, Coffee + Crumbs, Better After 50, The Write Launch, and read650.