It's been hot here in Massachusetts. The air, it's been like water; one feels thick and slow-moving, as if existing in slow motion.
My daughter is especially sensitive to such heat. Her face grows red from the most minimal exertion. Sleeping is challenging.
I've noticed lately that her go-to response when challenges arise is to complain. I'm not sure why it surprises me, coming from a mother like me, that she complains with her whole self; "half-assed feelings are no feelings at all" could be our mantra. The complaining first begins with words, as complaining often does. It then moves on to full-body shaking, the kind where you scrunch your fists and do a tiny little jump up with board-straight legs. Do you know the kind I mean? Let's call it full-body exasperation. After that the tears start, as does the angry tone of voice that gets tossed toward anyone who crosses her path. I often feel that if I don't intervene in some way, she'll spiral down into a child's version of hopelessness, getting lost inside a sadness she can't remember wandering into.
Such was the scene tonight, so hot and sticky, when bedtime avoidance was reaching a critical mass; I felt I needed to reign things in before she took a turn toward a This Bedtime Is Never Going To End And You'll Probably End Up Yelling So Just Cue The Guilt Now sort of tantrum.
"It's hot," she complained. "I think I'm allergic to this heat. And I think my feet might be wide, and so shoes hurt me when we're hiking, and..."
"Sweetheart," I interjected. "I know it's hot. Everyone is hot. Does it feel any better to complain about how hot you are?" She glared at me through the slats of her bunk bed. Naturally, I continued. "You know I'm never going to tell you not to feel your feelings; if you're grumpy because you're hot, be grumpy. But complaining all the time? It's no fun to be around. I get triggered by it because I know people who complain constantly, and it's so, so hard to listen to them. I don't want you to be one of those people."
Aha, I thought, smugly. Now I'm getting somewhere. She won't want to be one of those people.
And so of course, because my pause button sticks and my off switch is straight up broken, I continued.
"You can decide how you want to feel. You can be hot and just accept being hot."
And then she interrupted me because her voice came unstuck and she said the words that stopped me dead. "Mama, I'm not ready for all of this. I'm not like you. You keep trying to teach me everything you know, but you're 34 and I'm only seven. You learned this stuff as a grown-up and I'm just a kid, and..."
BOOM! my head broke free of the haze the heat had caused and I came, quite immediately, to my senses.
"Wow. Um, wow, you are so right," I said, pausing in an attempt to conjure words that would match hers in truth and wisdom.
"I've been trying to teach you everything I'm learning so I can save you some of the struggles I've experienced. But you're right -- you're only seven. You need to just be seven."
"Yeah," she said, smiling at her victory. Then she burst into tears. I sensed she was relieved to have said what she'd likely been holding in for quite some time. And let's not forget: telling hard truths to people we love is an emotional business.
"Oh my God!" I shouted after consoling her for a moment. "Am I just the bossiest bossy lady ever!?"
"Haha -- YES," screamed both children, together, glee-filled. I was human, too.
See, I am human, too.
"Honey, I just need to tell you one more thing." Many minutes had passed. Her brother had fallen asleep. "My only job is to love you. To love you just as you are. It's not my job to tell you who or how to be. All I'm supposed to do is love you."
I know that's simplistic. I know that's not the whole story of motherhood.
But in that hot, nighttime moment, it felt like the only pertinent detail worth putting out into the darkness, the one she might remember many years down the road, the detail she'll maybe mine from way, way back, mid-struggle, mid figuring things out for her own self one day.
This slight tension between me and my daughter has been present for a few weeks now. She's growing up, not a little girl anymore, but not quite big one yet either. She needs and wants me, and I need and want her, and yet something is new. Something is different.
The other day I was expressing my concerns to my husband. "I'm just worried. She's growing up. She's seven, and that's the age when my first real memories kick in. I can't be inside her brain with her, and I want to know what's going on in there. I want to support her -- who she is, how she feels -- and at the same time, I want to push her to be the very best of who and what she is."
And then my subconscious let a dam down and a flash flood of memory filled my brain. See, my daughter is, right now, the exact age I was when everything fell apart. When I woke up and found my dad sleeping on the couch. When he tried to explain it away, but I could feel that he was hiding something. When he moved out and bought the two rose-colored loveseats. When my parents said things they did and didn't mean, their everythings falling apart, too.
My daughter is the age I was when everything spiraled out of control, when my inner world needed to learn to fend for itself, when I discovered that feelings were dangerous.
So lately, I've been looking at her and her increasingly complex Self and my subconscious has been screaming, Just deal with it, girl. Get over yourself. Life is hard. I don't want to hear about it.
My subconscious -- my surely-weary subconscious - is still trying to protect me, and she's been threatened by the purity of my own daughter.
Writing that truth just made me nauseated.
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Tonight my up-too-late daughter padded quietly downstairs. "Thank you for what you said to me," I whispered, pulling her into a hug.
"I need to go to the bathroom," she whispered back, a huge, proud smile on her face.
A few minutes later, as she made her way back up the steps, from the kitchen I heard her stage-whisper, "I love you infinity billion times two, Mama."
"I love you that much times a billion," I said.
Because that's all I'm here to do.
Emily Ballard is a writer who's sometimes scared to call herself one. Visit her website at www.emilyballard.com, where you can read the original version of this piece which contains cautious and well-placed swearing. And 'Like' her Facebook page, where she's sometimes funny, always curious, and tries to be as brave as she can be: www.Facebook.com/EmilyRVBallard