Photo by annakraynova
I can still see my daughter’s toddler face at the window of her Montessori school, tiny light blue bow-clip in her baby hair, face full of grief and chubby hands pressed against the glass. Tears were streaming down her face. It wasn’t every day that she cried at the window at drop-off, but some days, it was nearly unbearable for me to walk away.
Then there was the summer day camp after her kindergarten year. It was hard to drop her off and walk away. I would come pick her up at the end of the day, and she would be sitting alone in the book corner of the room while kids played all around her, reading yet another book to pass the time until I came to get her after work.
The first time she went to sleepaway camp she was almost eight years old, just six nights away in a primitive cabin an hour away from home. She went with her two best friends and loved it, but when her dad and I drove up to get her on that Saturday morning, we found her sitting on her trunk alone, reading a book, ready to come home.
At her toddler teacher's conference in that very classroom, the one where her face was pressed against the glass in grief, I was told that she loved being at school, she had great friends, and she spent part of the day having full-paragraph conversations with the teachers.
At the summer day camp, she told me stories of swimming with new friends, making art projects, and going on field trips. And at sleepaway camp, I saw photos of her delighted to be playing in the lake, riding horses, making new friends, and proudly wearing her costume at the dance.
When my daughter was born, she stared at all of us with the most intense newborn expression you’ve ever seen. She was observing us, checking us out, calmly noting that these were her people, for better or worse. She’s always been described as an old soul, and my good friend said once when she was young that she “would survive adolescence because she already knows who she is.”
At the same time, this was a child who didn’t want to walk into a group setting alone. She didn’t want to do a camp -- dance, sleepaway, art, creating writing -- without a friend. Sports teams without a known teammate were stressful. Even walking alone into a party was not easy for her at that stage in her life.
The point of this article is this. Those walk-aways were terrible for me as a mom. Her toddler teachers reassured me that her watching me walk away from the daycare was a good thing, but I wasn’t convinced back then. They said it taught her that mom is going to work, and mom will be back to get her in the afternoon.
The stability of that rhythm, day after day, instilled in her and my boys that we are here and will be here for her. It taught her that she can face a terrifying situation (turning from the window and joining the class, walking into a party without a comfort friend present) and survive it.
My daughter learned to watch me drive away, dry her tears, take a breath, and join the classroom. She had to choose something or someone to play with. She had to go through the rhythm of circle time, eating with friends, nap time, playing outside. She trusted that I would be there to pick her up at the end of the day.
I am here to tell you that I worry about my kids through every phase of their life. While I love the work that I do as a pediatrician, I have been racked with guilt every time I’m away from my kids. I fret every single time they are in an uncomfortable or intimidating situation I can’t fix for them. But now, years later, I see the lessons they learned from those situations.
So this month, imagine my pride when my daughter got into her car and drove an hour on Houston highways to the summer camp herself, not as a camper, but as a counselor. Imagine my shock when her friends did not sign up to go with her, and she didn’t know anyone going, and she packed her bag and went anyway.
This time, I scanned the camp photos not to make sure she was making friends, appeared happy, and didn’t look left out. This time, when I scanned the photos, I saw a beautiful, confident young woman being a counselor to 3rd and 4th grade girls, who themselves might be in the baby steps of their own developing confidence.
The lessons really do add up. The walk-aways and tears and facing scary and new situations build a foundation of confidence. And they and we really will, in most circumstances, be OK.