Slumped beneath the weight of her backpack, my daughter slinked from the school bus steps. Her ocean-blue eyes had faded to stormy skies and her skin was muted.
“How was your day?” I asked. I was concerned. Most days she raced off the steps with a grin so wide her eyes were shut. This day, she didn’t even wave.
“Fine,” she said. The word pushed out of her lips unwillingly, like the last puff of air leaving a balloon. She was deflated.
“Are you sure?” I pressed.
“Yep.” I watched her kick an invisible rock across the driveway.
“You know what?” I said as I cupped my hand around her small shoulder. “I think we should get some ice cream.”
“Really?” she stopped and looked up to me, squinting her eyes against the sun. I realized, in that moment, how fragile she still was. “Before dinner?”
“Yep,” I winked. “Let me get my keys.”
Ten minutes later, we were sitting at the table with bowls of pink frozen yogurt in front of us and I asked again, “Is everything alright, Hun? Did you have a bad day?”
My daughter stuffed her spoon deep into her cardboard bowl and swallowed a mouthful of creamy treat. “Sorta,” she shrugged.
I lowered my eyes to meet hers, pushed my bowl aside, and whispered, “wanna tell me about it?”
She looked away and tears started to gush from her eyes. “Mama, they chased me,” she sobbed. “I wanted to collect rocks and they chased me.” Her chest heaved, catching breath in spurts, and every bit of my heart crumbled.
“Who chased you, Hun?” I scooted my chair closer and wrapped my arms around her. I prayed that somewhere in my embrace she’d find strength, and a that my arms would take her sadness so I could store it under my own skin.
“My friends at recess,” she pressed against my heart like she did as a baby and continued to bawl. “I just needed some alone time.”
“Aww Sweetie, I think you were so brave for standing up for yourself. It can be hard to not give into the pressure of our friends,” I encouraged my daughter and inflated her balloon.
“I don't know,” she said while looking down at her sparkle-covered sneakers.
“Trust me. Sometimes our friends don’t understand when we need personal space,” I explained. “We have to tell them when we need to be left alone.”
“I did that Mama, but they kept chasing me!” she stuffed a spoonful of frozen yogurt into her mouth and wiped her face with her shirtsleeve. The parent in me wanted to scold her for staining her shirt, but the mother in me couldn't. Instead, I handed her a sticky napkin to wipe the tears beneath her eyes.
Conversation comes easy for my little girl when she’s with family, but sometimes large groups of people drain her batteries. An only child for the first five years of her life, my daughter recognized at an early age that alone time helps her recharge. It’s especially necessary during the flurry of a long school day, when staying focused is so important.
“I know it can be frustrating. I need my personal space, too.” I took her soft cheek into my hand. “I get grumpy if I don’t have time to just be quiet and write each day.”
“Really?” she asked.
It is my job, as a mother, to ensure my daughter has enough air in her balloon, enough confidence, to succeed.
“Really,” I said. “Just keep reminding them. And if they don't get it, it will be okay. At least you know what's best for you.” I half-hugged her shoulder, then took a bit of my melted yogurt. “Mmm! Is this tomato flavor?”
My daughter laughed and straightened the slump in her shoulders. “Mama, you're so silly. It's strawberry!”