She dons her running shoes and her 15-dollar t-shirt and then tiptoes down the stairs, hugging the bannister like Chicago fog. She pauses about halfway down.
"Hey, Mom?" she says, peeking around the bannister.
"Whaa?" I mumble, slamming the K-pak into the machine. It's too dang early. I need at least five more minutes until I can legitimately show up for "Hey, Mom."
I look up from the coffeemaker. My daughter's eyes are wide and earnest.
"Mom, I know I told you that I wanted to do running club?"
"Well, um... I don't want to do it any more."
Coffee trickles out of the machine with agonizing slowness and I fight a wave of irritation.
I take a breath and attempt good parenting procedure: "OK. I am listening to what you are saying and you don't want to do running club."
"But we already paid the registration fee and the t-shirt fee and got you the running shoes..."
"I know. But I don't want to do it anymore."
"It's only the third day," I remind her.
That flare of irritation again. I set my coffee cup down. "So why do you want to quit on day three of running club?"
She stares at her feet, which are shifting around nervously. "I don't know. It's just..." Her voice gets thick; she's fighting tears. "I thought it would be fun, but it's not. It's actually really boring and I don't like it and please can I not do it any more?"
I look at her little face and the fight bleeds right out of me. It's too early and I'm tired and I don't need tears right now, I really don't.
"OK. Whatever. Your decision." I shrug.
She brightens and bounds down the rest of the stairs.
Thanks, Mom, for making it entirely too easy to quit things, I think. Great parenting moment, there.
The first person to point out "the problem" is my daughter's teacher at the Montessori Kindergarten she attends.
"There is one thing I'd like M. to work on," the teacher says, leaning her elbows on the conference room table. "At Montessori, we firmly believe in offering the children a variety of activities to choose from in the classroom, and we don't discourage their choices, per se..."
"...but I've noticed that M. consistently chooses the same few activities. Activities that are, frankly, too easy for her now. We've tried to direct her towards more challenging choices, but she's quite resistant to trying anything new."
The teacher furrows her brow a little. "It's almost as if she doesn't think she can do the more challenging things, so she doesn't even want to try."
When those words sink in, I feel a sharp sting of recognition, a slow burn that creeps up my throat.
Resistant to change. Risk-averse. Abandons difficult tasks... if she tries them in the first place.
Those are the nice ways of phrasing it.
Less kind terms float through my mind: Coward. Sissy. Quitter.
Terms that seem all to familiar, because they colored my own childhood, stark and loud as graffiti.
In this regard, I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
I drive home from the parent-teacher conference feeling unsettled. Truth is, my child is like me in so many facets of her personality. She's shy. She's cautious. She startles at harsh sound and bright light. She doesn't like change and loathes surprises. She's so sensitive that she's brought to tears at the drop of a hat -- an errant look, an abrupt tone of voice, the merest gesture of annoyance -- all triggers for waterworks. Her biggest fear is that she will disappoint. That she won't measure up.
And if you're afraid you'll disappoint and fairly certain that you won't measure up... well then, why even try in the first place?
My child is 5 years old and she's already given up.
She gives up, just like her mother.
At dinner, I dump all of my worries and anxieties into my husband's lap in a teary, emotional vomit. "She gets this from me," I say. "All of her bad qualities, they come from me. She's a quitter, and it's my fault."
"You're taking this too personally," he says. "She didn't get all of her 'bad' habits from you. She got a lot of good things, too. She's sweet and compassionate and funny and a helluva speller." He winks.
"And seriously, you've done lots of things in your life that were hard: you went to college, you graduated Phi Beta Kappa, you got two Master's degrees. You taught high school, for chrissakes. Talk about hard."
"Okay, maybe the big, gigantic things, I managed to finish, but I can tick off a heck of a lot of stuff I did quit."
He gives me a look that clearly says: I'm humoring you.
"First time out riding my bike in the second grade. I fell off and hit my head on the concrete. I never got back up on that bike again. I quit Brownies after a couple of meetings because I didn't know any of the girls in the troop and it made me nervous. In college, I wanted to be an actress, but it seemed like an impossibility -- so much rejection! -- so I majored in English instead because it was safe. That novel I wrote when we first got married; I sent it out to maybe 20 agents. Got rejected. Heck, some of them even rejected me really nicely, with personal notes, but still, I just abandoned it -- stuck it in a box in the basement. Boom. Done."
"You did sort of give up on that prematurely," he admits.
"That's what I'm saying! Quitter. I quit. I just do. When things seem really hard, I get intimidated and I just cut bait and run."
I push my plate of food away, virtually untouched. "I'm just not brave or strong. I never have been. I'm nervous and fragile and afraid. And I hate that about myself but it didn't really matter because it was just me, you know? But now I've passed it on; it's not just about me, and I don't want M. to be like that. I don't want our daughter to be like me."
I stick my chin out stubbornly. "She won't be. This gets fixed now."
The girl who has permission to quit the running club is 9 years old. Four years have gone by, and apparently, I'm not doing much better on the "building resilience and bravery" front. I meant to do better; truly, I did. I guess some things are so ingrained in us that they run deep and heavy, like varicose veins.
I can't change my nature -- at least I'm pretty sure I can't. I think, where I'm concerned, it's a little too late for that.
I'm not sure if I can change my daughter's nature, either. I'm not even sure I should. So much about her is beautiful and kind and right, and even if it's all wrapped up in a shell more fragile than others, is it my place to judge?
I don't have the answers.
I do know one thing though. Tomorrow, I'll take my dusty running shoes out of the closet. I'll lace mine up and my daughter will do the same and we'll run on morning concrete. It will be hard, but we'll do it. Together.