All through K-12 I kept my ear to the ground, listening keenly for any and every possible thing my very introverted daughter might be interested in, inspired by.
I considered it my JOB to watch for signs of what might spark her curiosity, hoping to discover the thing to bring her out of her shell and get her out of her room and into the world.
You see, she preferred to be alone with her pens, her pencils and paints and piles of paper, solitary, making art and listening, deeply listening, to music, in the beautiful world inside her own mind. To see this and respect this space is how she feels seen.
But I was taught you need to ‘GET OUT THERE’ ... and that came more naturally for me. Ballet, tap, jazz, orchestra, marching band, art class, roller skating. That’s how I grew up, running in a mad dash from class to class. Busy on stages everywhere, trying to be seen.
But as a parent, useless I would sit, every morning, waiting with my coffee, on a sofa full of eggshells, while she got ready for school. This was an onerous ordeal, High School. And she developed elaborate preparation rituals in order to cope with her anxiety.
For two hours each morning she toiled and troubled over her hair and makeup. When it worked, and the curls and eyelines were just right, she could walk out the door relatively calm. But when the curl wouldn’t hold and the angle of the line was off, let’s just say, she’d be late. Gym days were the worst.
Her art was the only thing I knew contented her.
And still, I felt I was supposed to push her outside her comfort zone. Go outside walk around the park. Run! MOVE. Talk to people. I thought her introversion would inhibit her success in life — and that she needed to get over her anxiety.
THIS ISN’T HEALTHY, I thought. And we fought. Oh how we fought.
I remember on the subway one spring day, she saw a kid in full fencing regalia with a rapier in a case. She said, "Oh wow! Look at that!"
And so of course, within 24 hours I found a place where she could take a free trial class. When I told where we were going the next day, she had a full-blown meltdown.
"Just because I said something looked cool does not mean it is what I want to do with my life! ARGH!"
But this is my job, isn’t it? To try to glean your core drivers and light the path for how they will become your future?
How do I not do everything in my power to support you?
It seemed an impossible situation. And totally unfair. And I sat on my hands, on the sofa full of eggshells.
But I needed to feel like I was DOING something — to actively be parenting. (Looking back, I think I can say that being quiet, so that they can hear themselves, is also actively parenting.)
After much prodding, she got a summer job at an off-Broadway theater production, behind the scenes, setting up props and ushering. And she found great joy, facilitating the production from backstage. She was excited and inspired and I was elated. And she went on to study theater-tech in college. But when she learned that as part of the course, she had to also take acting and improv classes, she disintegrated.
I explained the benefits of doing "something that scares you," of "facing your fears." I tried the "what if’s." What if you tried, what if you can ... but I could hear in her tone on the other end of the phone that she was paralyzed inside at the thought. I sensed the anger she felt to be judged, to be graded on her performance for something she had no interest in doing.
Our conversations became quite heated. Wasn’t I supposed to enforce consequences and withhold financial support should she choose not to go to class, choose to throw away this opportunity?
She did not go to class and we were at an impasse.
“Maybe there is a different path for her. To be honest, I don’t think college is for everyone,” my (now) husband said.
I have the words "To thine own self be true" tattooed to my arm to remind myself that we all have agency over our own story. For someone who believes in agency and preaches, teaches against judgement and for curiosity, I had to reckon with myself.
What if there is a different path for her? What if she doesn’t have anxiety as much as she is frustrated and angry with being pushed in directions she doesn’t want to go? What if the specific design of her body and mind are built for something else?
And with that, I woke up.
I asked her what she truly wanted. She wanted off of the stage and out of the spotlight. And I told her that all I wanted was for her to be proud of herself. I said you can leave school on one condition: you must choose something that truly interests you and learn about it. We considered the possibilities. What does she already loves? Art. Art school? NO. She said, “I don’t want to kill my joy by having to do it for a grade.”
What else? The things that she spends tons of time on already? Hair? Makeup?
So she went to Aveda Institute. She chose this. This was a huge step in her exercising her agency over her own story. Later, after months of reading and practicing with mannequin heads, she got her first live client. She called me and said, “WHY? WHY MUST THEY SPEAK?! Why must they share So.Many.Things??” She didn’t know what to say and did not want to talk and wanted to run away. “Can’t we just do their hair in silence??”
I laughed and I thought, what if you can? What if you said, “Hi, I’m Victoria and I really don't want to chat, except for what is necessary to do your hair.” I mean, "to thine own self be true," right? What if you could say, ‘“I do my best work quietly and I want to give you my best.”
It took me a long time to realize that I had been inadvertently pushing her to be inauthentic, to be untrue to herself. It took both of us recognizing and respecting that there are so many possible paths and that with some thought, we can all have the agency to find our own way. I said I don’t care if you ever cut someone’s hair out there in the world. I care that you feel good about yourself. I care that you are proud, and proud does not mean loud.
It’s funny, we are taught that in order to get ahead we need to be bold and we need to be loud and stand our ground.
AND we are taught to take up as little space as possible and not to rock the boat.
It seems like we are brought up and taught to do a lot of things that contradict each other.
We are taught to be quiet. And told we must speak up.
We are taught to be patient and to wait. And we are told that we have to go out there and get after it.
We are taught to be polite. And we are told to be 100% that bitch.
We are taught not to be annoying. And we are told the squeaky wheel gets the oil.
WHAT IF WE WERE TOLD, “This, above all: to thine own self be true. And then it must follow, as the night the day, that thou canst then be false to ANY…”
I can tell you from a couple of years' perspective on this that the girl who couldn’t get out of her room is doing just fine. She is 23 now and finding her way. She is happy. She is doing her thing.
Christine D'Ercole, Brooklyn, New York, USA
Christine D'Ercole is a public speaker, decorated track cyclist and cycling instructor at Peloton. Her Wordshops™, workshops in self-talk, span topics from body image, parenting, addiction and corporate culture. When not writing, she is racing her bike on Velodromes across the country.