My daughter was always different than me. She was born early. She came home just four tiny pounds, but with lots of opinions. I didn’t know how to be a Mom. I didn’t even want girls. Girls scared me. I wasn’t taught how to build relationships with other girls, and at 24, I still hadn’t figured it out. Yet there she was, tiny but mighty, and mine alone.
She was scared of unfamiliar faces, unhappy in strange places, but also more quiet, patient and kind than I was. In second grade, she started coming home telling me that she played alone again. She would cry because all of the other girls already had a best friend and they didn’t need another one.
I remember the sick feeling I got when she told me this. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t change it. I wanted to tell the other moms, beg them if I had to, “Just give her a chance. You’ll see how wonderful she is.” Her pain was my pain, and nobody understood. Nobody saw it. Nobody believed it. Nobody helped. I found that I couldn’t convey the depth of our desperation to other adults anymore than she could explain it to other kids.
“I don’t know why they don’t want to be my friend.”
“I’m too scared to say anything. Then the other girls won’t like me.”
“I just want a best friend, Mama. Just one friend.”
“Please don’t make me go to school. Please, Mama. Homeschool me.”
In middle school, we thought a change of location would help. She could reinvent herself, start new hobbies, play volleyball like the other girls. I planted seeds of dreams in her head. I prayed every day that it would work. I did the things I knew I shouldn’t — buying her clothes that would help her “fit in,” paying for club memberships we couldn’t afford. I did anything I could think of to help her avoid the pain.
There were still months of loneliness, nights of tears, but she learned to stand out just enough to fit in. She had a dream now. She would fit in on the volleyball team. She would ride the bus and learn the chants. She would get to make memories and be a part of the inside jokes, and some days, I thought maybe we were getting the hang of things.
Then she didn’t make the team.
It was true now, her mind told her. Everything she had been telling herself about her self is definitely true.
You’re a loser.
You’re not good at anything.
Nobody likes you.
You’ll never have any friends.
They don’t even notice you.
She stuffed those words and feelings in her mental backpack and took them to school with her every day, but she never gave up. She came home and cried, still wondering if she would always feel this lonely, but she never stopped trying.
If you met her, she would never show you what she was carrying in her backpack. She got so good at hiding it that even I believed her. I asked her not to let one “no” define her. I asked her to face her pain and tryout again. She did.
Then she didn’t make the team. Again. “I’ll be the manager. At least I can ride the bus with them,” she said. She settled — and while I was so proud of her, it felt like a knife to my heart. She filled the water bottles, sat through practices, rode the bus, cheered them on, and was seemingly happy just to share in their victories from her seat on the bench.
I went to a few games. I would watch her from across the gym as she sat in the end seat, her beautiful face trying to fake a smile, pretending it didn’t hurt, but much like how I would close my eyes when they would give her shots when she was a little baby, I just couldn’t watch. How selfish is that? She’s sitting there, holding her head high, just for a chance to occupy the end of the bench, and I can’t even watch.
When she comes home with red eyes because they asked her to take the picture instead of be in the picture, I hug her and tell her that it must just have been a misunderstanding. When she lays in my bed sobbing because they make fun of her for not knowing the rotations, I brush back her tear-soaked hair and tell her they don’t realize that it’s just different watching than it is playing. When she tells me she’s a loser because they yell, “Get my water bottle!” I tell her some people just don’t have manners. When they shove her off the court and say, “You can’t be out here,” I tell her that she doesn’t have to take it. But she will take it, because, she tells me, “it” comes with fitting in.
Do you see her? Does your daughter see her? That girl on the end of the bench is my four-pound baby. She gets hurt, but she keeps coming back. She doesn’t know how to fit in, but she’ll never stop trying. She never got to play, but she smiled anyway. She is stronger than you’ll ever know. Her victory is always my victory, and her pain is always my pain. Even if nobody else does, I notice her.