I started this post two weeks ago, but could not finish it. It felt too unsettled and raw. I didn’t know how to conclude my observations honestly while still leaving the possibility to move forward in a positive direction. Well, I think I am starting to see that way, but I am leaving the beginning as I started it, because it is honest and hopefully witnesses to the important lesson I have learned. I hope the resulting narrative is coherent enough to make a good read…
Well, school has started. If I were to judge by Facebook posts from other stay-at-home moms, or advertising targeted at the same audience, I should be in a state of delirious bliss. For the first time, both of my babies donned school uniforms and backpacks and set of on the adventure of formal education. This leaves me with that previously elusive commodity; free time. Time to walk the city without a stroller or diaper bag; time to exercise; time to read non-picture books; time to engage in activities because I find them personally enriching (with no offense intended to the Itsy bitsy spider or Giro giro tondo).
While all of these things are a blessed luxury that I know I am incredibly privileged to have, I do not find myself luxuriating in the promised relaxation. Rather, I am feeling anxious. Anxious because of the one thing I am not free to do. I am not free to help my children deal with the stress that comes from being some of the few foreign children in an environment of Italian children; children who all share a common language and culture which creates unintended barriers to friendship.
Despite the fact that Princess Imagination has already spent nearly a year and a half attending their English-language school in Milan, the challenge for her of being a shy, American child has come home to me in a new way this year. Perhaps this is because I myself have begun to feel more comfortable here. I know the routines of the school schedule; I know the other parents in her class; I am even her class’s parent representative to the Parents Advisory Board, with some share of responsibility for welcoming new families. With this is mind, I sat my Princess down a few days before the start of school to have “the talk.” I was inspired by a wonderful entry on the momastery blog (see: http://momastery.com/blog/2012/08/23/the-talk/), although I simplified it down to be appropriate for a newly five-year-old. In essence, “the talk” is the exhortation to one’s children to be aware of other children in the class that are excluded, and to be intentional about including them. It is a wonderful lesson to teach children from a young age, and I am very committed to teaching it to our children. I also know that it may be a challenging lesson for Princess Imagination, given her shyness. Nevertheless, I talked about this responsibility to Princess Imagination. I reminded her how it felt to be the new kid in her class when we first arrived in Milan it February 2011. We talked about her first friend here (a sweet, Milan-born, British girl who has since moved to Australia), and what a difference this friend’s welcoming smile made in her first months at school. I encouraged her to be actively looking for any children in her class who were having a hard time fitting in, and to make a point of being a friend to them. We talked about all these things, she agreed, and I felt very good about my parenting.
Then I picked her up from school the first day. When I entered the classroom the children were busy talking and playing together. Or I should say, almost all of them were. My sweet Princess was sitting alone on the little reading couch looking around at all the other children with a sad little look on her face. When she saw me she ran up for a big hug and was suddenly all smiles, but that look of loneliness had struck at my heart.
On the walk home we talked about her day. She liked her teacher. She liked being back at school where she could engage in focused learning activities. She liked the praise she received from her teachers for her good behavior and academic work. They had a music lesson that she really enjoyed. Then I asked about garden time (“recess” for my American readers).
Me: “How was garden time?”
P.I.: “Ummm, OK.”
Me: “Who did you play with?”
P.I.: “No one.”
Me: “Why not?”
P.I: “They were all playing with their friends from last year.”
Me: “But you have friends from last year.”
P.I.: “Um, not really.”
Just 16 words, but they hit me like a wrecking ball impacting somewhere in the region of my solar plexus. Emotions went spinning off from the point of impact in a variety of directions. I was devastated at the thought of my sweet little girl wandering around that play yard looking for a friend and not finding one – for an hour! I was overcome with the awareness of just how much I loved her and longed for her happiness. I could sense my mother bear instincts let out an internal roar, and I felt an instinctual impulse to protect her from anyone and everyone who hurt her with this rejection. I wanted to cry, and hug her, and tell her that she was the most amazing, kind, fun, lovable girl in the world and that anyone who did not recognize what a privilege it was to know her was blind.
Then another thought supplanted all of these emotions with a new fear: that I had made this experience worse before it even happened. Suddenly “the talk” we had a few days earlier sounded much different when I considered how it may have sounded to her little ears. I had initiated “the talk” based on the blithe assumption that my daughter would be in a position to offer inclusion to any excluded child. But how would my encouragement to include others sounds to a little girl who felt excluded? Would it sound like an irrelevant instruction that was outside her control? Would it sound like a judgment of the other children, with whom she nevertheless wanted to be friends? Would it sound like a declaration of her failure to be included?
I had to do something, both to help her overcome this difficult experience and to manage my own swirling emotions. So I started to game plan with her. I identified children she should approach at playtime (based on friendships from last year and facility with English). I coached her on strategies to coax others to include her. I reassured her that the first few weeks of school it was hard for the Italian children to get back into the habit of speaking English. And I, perhaps belatedly, reminded her that she was a wonderful friend and that she did in fact have friends from last year who knew this.
My sweet, patient, little Princess accepted all of this well-intentioned Mommy interference with more grace than it deserved, and faithfully implemented most of my advise in the coming days. Each day after school I would ask about her day, and (I blush to admit), would quiz her about her social interactions when the information was not forthcoming. Some days the reports were good: she had played with a friend, she was getting to know the new girl in class, she wanted me to invite this or that friend over for a play date. Other days, she reported solitary garden time “just walking around”, or replayed an interaction where she sought inclusion and was rebuffed.
As we engaged in this daily report three things slowly began to dawn on me that have both humbled me and made me incredibly proud. First, I began to realize the intensity of my own reactions to her reports. When she talked about time spent with a friend I was elated. When she reported difficulties I was crushed. All mothers, of course, are invested in their children’s well-being and want them to experience acceptance and friendship, but I started to feel that perhaps I was taking this too far. Perhaps I wasn’t entirely reacting to Princess Imagination’s feelings of happiness or loneliness, but was rather projecting my own past experiences onto hers. As a shy child myself, who often felt excluded and longed for inclusion and friendship, perhaps I was responding more to my own unresolved insecurities than to her current feelings. As I confronted this possibility I made my second discovery: that Princess Imagination’s reports did, in fact, lack the emotional intensity of my responses. There were shades of sadness in descriptions of “not being able to find a friend to play with,” but no desperate loneliness or self-loathing. There was some happiness in reports that she had played with a given friend, or been included in another group, but not elation. In fact, Princess Imagination was generally taking whatever came as it came, and not making a big deal out of it. And this led to my third, most humbling realization: my own anxiety was creating a much bigger crisis for my daughter than would have otherwise existed. She was now required to report each day on her success or failure in a task that she found challenging. She had to process my emotions and insecurities as well as her own, and mine were substantially more volatile. She had to implement my strategies and solutions to improve her social standing, because if she did not she would certainly face questions about this failure. I had turned the understandable social awkwardness of an introverted American 5-year old in a class comprised almost entirely of Italian children into a problem that had to be solved.
I have recently been reading Dorothy Sayers’s amazing book The Mind of the Maker in the later pages of which she lays out a very detailed and cogent argument for why the habit of approaching life as a series of “problems” to be “solved” is both irrational and dangerous. I can now add my response to Princess Imaginations lonely garden time as another illustration of her point. When I approached it as a problem, with whose solution I was obsessed, I lost sight of the life that was experiencing this challenge and I forgot the truth that each day of her life is a part of her story that is building her character and providing her with the opportunity to grow into a strong and creative young woman who can cope when life is imperfect. A young woman who can even cope, with amazing tolerance and love, with an interfering, anxiety-ridden mother trying to re-write her own past through my daughter’s present.
As I said, this past few weeks has been very humbling. But it has also been a blessing. I am blessed to have a new vision of my daughter’s strength and wisdom as she takes a challenging experience she never asked for and makes the most of it. I am blessed with the knowledge that my mistakes are not irrevocable because she can forbear them and find some nuggets of helpful advice mixed with the garbage. And I am blessed with another reminder of just why I am not relying on my own goodness to perfect my soul, but instead resting in the grace of my Savior.
I have heard it said that parenting is the hardest job you will ever love. I would add that it is also among the most humbling experiences that will ever make your spirit soar.