I’m about to get really real with you and tell you about the day I lost my last shred of dignity. But first …
This has been a hard year, in so many ways. In many respects, we are among the lucky ones — no one in my family got COVID, my partner and I both had stable jobs, our kids (now three and five) were safe, and our daycare re-opened partway through the pandemic. All the same, we are bone-tired, crashing into bed each night with the grace of elephants. It’s been a particularly weird year for our kids, with confusion of seeing us home and working remotely, attempting to navigate virtual daycare (well-meaning but how TF do you convince a three-year-old to sit in front of a screen when her toys are right there? ALL THE JUICE BOXES and ALL THE POPCORN only buys about 3.7 seconds). One day we got in our car to get donuts and our then-four-year-old said, wistfully “Remember going places?”
We got a little desperate with trying to make it through — tea parties, upping screen time, paper plates, takeout, Science Sundays, shaving cream baths, “spa nights” (we used zucchini slices on the eyes when we couldn’t find cucumber), binging every Disney movie on the planet. Lion King 1.75? Yes please.
As a child psychologist, I found myself empathizing a thousand percent with all of my clients. I can’t remember how many times I said “This is SO HARD” in my best empathic voice, trying to look put-together, calm, and not at all frantic.
For my older kiddo, age five (let’s call her Kiddo), the social stuff has been particularly challenging. Last weekend, one of her friends from daycare kindly invited the class over for an outdoor hang. Kiddo was STOKED — bouncing in her seat in the car, and barely listening to the Story Pirates podcast. We had packed all the things: sunscreen, bathing suit, water bottle, towel. I thought we were ready. What I was not ready for was her reaction to being there.
For me, seeing all these kind lovely folks and their kids in one place (outdoors, social distancing, vaccinated grownups) was a taste of pure freeeeeeedom. I was giddy as could be. But suddenly, Kiddo was different. She’s normally an extrovert, talking to everyone she sees. Like yelling at rando strangers who are walking past our house and telling them all about her day at full volume “WE SAW A CICADA TODAY AND IT WAS FLYING AND LANDED ON ME AND I’M FIVE WHAT’S YOUR NAME IS THAT YOUR DOG?”
But that day, something changed. She looked scared, held my hand. I had never seen this side of Kiddo before. “Want me to help you say hi to your friends?” But no, she hung back. Eventually, she tentatively approached friends who were deeply engaged in really fun activities (slip-n-slide, water play, face planting into a cupcake) and asked in the tiniest voice I’d ever heard her use “Do you want to play with me?” The answer was inevitably no — no one wanted to stop Fun Thing to play with Kiddo. I got it, but my heart was aching.
I didn’t know what to do; hold back? Facilitate a parent-run convo? Validate her feelings? I started getting a little desperate. I watched a bit more, then asked my daughter, “Want to play with me?”
She was quiet, thinking. And then I decided, welp, there’s nothing to lose here. I looked at the other parents who all seemed happy, chatting while the kids played. I took a deep breath, and put down my phone. Kicked off my flip flops.
“What are you doing?” Kiddo side-eyed me.
“I’m doing this!” And then I took off sprinting. Glasses on, summer dress swirling. Straight into the abyss I go.
Technically it was a sprinkler. It was wet, glasses got foggy. Squishy mud under my feet, cut grass on my legs. I didn’t bring a change of clothes for me. Hair like a wet puppy dog, scraggly on my neck. But DAMN that cool water felt good.
And suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore; Kiddo and I sprinting together through the water, giggling and dancing. Other kids joining in, and now we’ve got a herd of free-range runners, mucking it up.
The day my daughter was born, I (vegetarian, pacifist), said something that surprised the heck outta me: “I’d fight a bear for this kid.” Hopefully I never have to, but parenting is the weirdest, hardest, most joyful thing I’ve ever done. My dad told me that when you have a kid, it feels like your heart lives outside of your body. I have never felt that more palpably than this past year — every scratch, every triumph — not mine, but felt so powerfully that I experienced an echo of what my kids are feeling.
I’ve cried a lot this year. I ache for the losses experienced by so many in this country due to COVID, injustice, racial inequity. My emotions have felt so intense that sometimes I have to just breathe through them like a labor pain. And yet — the bright spots, the moments of joy and triumph still happened.
In the end, I’d rather have that joy than any sense of decorum. Next time you see me, I’ll be in the sprinkler, sprinting my heart out.