Emily doesn’t tell me much about her school life. If I ask a question, I get a straightforward answer. There’s very little information shared that isn’t solicited by me. I ask, who she ate lunch with, how specific classes are, if anything interesting is going on, and how soccer practice went. “The usual people, good, nah, good.” She’s good at guarding information but not as good at hiding her emotional well being. It’s in her tone, her eyes, her jaw. The way she looks out the car window or straight ahead. The way she greets the dogs. And the way asks what’s for dinner.
“My soccer coach said he had no idea I was so fast,” she said with a big smile after her game on Nantucket. She was a little bit smelly, a little bit more freckled, and just happy. She came in while I was brushing my teeth. Her eyes sparkled. The stories were plentiful. And I got a hug just because. I went to bed feeling like everything was right in the world. I remind myself of the highs. Because they’re high. And fleeting.
“Uggghhhh, you don’t understand,” Emily says with frustration a night later. I’m telling her that I do understand. That it stinks that she needs braces. But that it will be ok. That they’ll be off quickly. And I have no idea if they will but it sounds reassuring. Her teeth were the one thing that she loved about her appearance. She took great pride in the fact that they were straight and it looked as though there was no need for braces. She’s self-conscious about her hair and asked me if I could help make it thicker by the time she started at the high school, and despite my best efforts, I failed. She’s self-conscious about her size and when I ask her why she’s carrying her around her school bag and her soccer bag all day she says, “Because I can’t reach the locker they assigned me. But do not call anyone.” She’s self-conscious about her hearing aids and hates that her FM system (an amplifier for her hearing aids) draws attention to her in every class when she hands the piece to the teacher. She declares that she doesn’t need to use it anymore because she can hear just fine. Which she can’t. Her teeth were what made her feel pretty and normal.
With her head in her pillow, she says with an edge, “Mom, seriously. You don’t get it.” She is exasperated. And sad. What don’t I get? Help me get it so I can try and fix it. When she was little I could fix anything with whipped cream or Nilla wafers but that doesn’t do it anymore. Trust me, I’ve tried. She picks up her head a little, looks in the other direction and says, “I don’t need anything else for people to stare at….Ok?” And then buries her head in her pillow again.
And she’s right. I don’t get it. Eighth grade was my worst year of school. Thinking about it still makes me feel yucky. I had trouble with friends. My body did weird things. I felt insecure about my ability to do well in classes. I felt like every other girl was happier, skinnier, better liked. And just better. I dreaded every..single..day. I carried none of the stuff Em does, and yet, I felt anything but normal.
I want to say the perfect something to make it all better. To make her feel beautiful. And empowered. To reassure her that she’s so much more than her hair. Her height. Her hearing. Her teeth. I’m about three seconds into a pause. Why aren’t there more books that help moms with responses to stuff like this? There were a million about what to do when she was constipated as a toddler but help with responses to 8th-grade girl issues? Please help! I’m sure there are some suggestions, and I’m sure I’ve read them on some great blogs, but none are coming to me right now because this issue is kinda normal, kinda not normal, 8th-grade girl stuff. She’s looking at me out of the corners of her eyes. And she’s ready. So, I start speaking without thinking. A common practice of mine.
“Em you are so loved. I love you. Dad loves you. Isabelle loves you. The dogs love you. Eighth grade is hard and you’re right I don’t get it. I just know how brave you are. I look at you and think how smart and kind and beautiful you are, and I know that there are so many other people who think that too. And the girls who you think are perfect? They’re not. They have things that they’re really self-conscious about too. You just don’t know what they are.” Her body is still. Her breathing is deep. Her head is heavy. But she’s listening.
“When you’re at school having a bad day or something is making you upset I want you to think two things. Think about something that you love to replace the bad thing that you’re thinking about. Think about the perfect slice of pizza. Or the beach. Or playing with the dogs in the backyard. That might make you feel better for a minute. And then I want you to think about home. Because when you’re home, you are so loved and so safe. From the second you walk in the door, you can just be you. Not everyone has a safe home where they’re loved so much, Em. You have so much love that you can almost feel it when you walk in.”
She stares at me. Puts her head back in her pillow. And I wait. I’m not impressed with how I word the whole thing but I think the message is there. You are loved. Home is safe. I could add a little more but I don't want her to get annoyed and cut me off. I rub her back and I want to cry. But I don’t. Because when our parents tell us something, even if they really don’t know, we tend to believe them because they’re our parents and we think that they do. We want to believe them. We want them to remind us. We are loved. We are safe. Everything will be ok.
I climb in bed with her and just lay there wishing it was five years ago and we were reading a Fancy Nancy book and our biggest concern was where her stuffed animals were sleeping that night.
There’s a reason why people raise their eyebrows when I tell them that I have an 8th-grade girl. The experience is universally hard. No one survives unscathed. Not the girls who seem to have everything going on. And not the girls who have a whole lot of stuff going on. Eighth grade sparks an awareness of the toughest kind. It brings our insecurities, our shortcomings, and our physical attributes and dumps them in the hallway, the lunchroom, and the classroom. Often it's unforgiving. Tragic really. Because these amazing girls go from slaying dragons to desperately wanting to conform to something that cannot be defined. Something that is definitely exclusive and elusive. And it's just hard.
So, to all the 8th-grade girls this year: Be brave. Be kind. Know how much you are loved. Know that you are so much more than this year of your life will try to convince you of. Don’t listen to the whispers. The ones in your head and the ones in the hall. Just keep being brave. And slaying dragons.
* Emily was treated for stage IV high-risk neuroblastoma when she was four years old. She had 6 rounds of chemo to shrink the softball size tumor on her left adrenal gland and then eight hour surgery to remove it. As part of her trial, she had two back-to-back stem cell treatments, 21 rounds of radiation and an experimental anti body therapy. She has a 65% bilateral hearing loss, kidneys that function at 25%, a severely damaged endocrine system, frail hair and is in the 1% for height--all fallout from the toxicity of the treatment.