All day my daughter, who is seven, was excited – thrilled to begin a new rock-climbing class I had signed her up for. She had tried it once before with my sister who climbs actual mountains, and took to it well. I had been amazed the way she darted up it without giving a thought to falling.
When it was my turn, I clutched the pegs so hard my forearms were sore for a week. I wouldn’t be scaling the wall again anytime soon, but when I offered the class to her, my daughter quickly agreed.
We arrived early. Soon, other children filtered in around us. My daughter’s chatter started to grow softer, then quiet. After a kiss and a hug, she walked uneasily into class. Even from behind I could tell, with every step that grew slower than the last, that her confidence was already fading. The instructors were warm and inviting as they welcomed the children. Still, I sat by and watched tears pour down my child’s cheeks for no discernible reason. A few minutes later she folded into herself in a ball on the floor. She became as small as she could be, trembling while the rest of her classmates introduced themselves. The other children turned and stared. Finally, the female instructor walked my daughter over to me where she collapsed into my lap. It wasn’t the rock wall she was afraid of. This new group dynamic had been too much for her. In the past year, lots of things had been too much for her. I took her to the bathroom, dried her tears, and asked her to try again. She agreed, but demanded I didn’t leave to go run on the treadmill down the hall as I’d been hoping to. I’d already handed off my toddler son to the women who work at the gym Stay n’ Play without so much as a, “See ya later.” Instead of exercising, I would look after my daughter who was five years older than him and somehow still needed me desperately. Sitting on the floor, I watched her wipe tear after tear with the mounting feeling that my heart was growing arms, trying to reach through the roped off area to wrap her in every bit of love and bravery I carried. I watched her send me pained expressions and felt other parent’s eyes on me, while their children smiled and climbed. I dared not look their way. Instead, I kept my focus straight ahead, and sent out smiles and thumbs ups to my daughter. I tried not to care how ridiculous I looked to people whose children didn’t have this struggle. My child was once eager to try new things, too. Yet lately, her grueling pace has become slower, more cautious. It’s almost as if she began to notice that the world didn’t accept her for exactly who she is: sensitive, artistic, often lost in her thoughts, but boisterous, even hyperactive, when comfortable. She is charming and witty and full of life, but now she’s careful and intentional with whom she shows that to. For years, I suspected my daughter might not be exactly like other kids. When she was in preschool she flitted from one task to the next, never resting for a moment. As I watched other children begin to draw forms: houses, trees, each other, I wondered when her attention span would grow long enough to draw a picture, or finish listening to a story before gazing out the window. She sang to herself all day long, which her teacher said was, “very dear.” She played dress-up, baked bread, and got to feel safe and warm for a while. Her sensitive nature, curiosity, and inability to stay within the carefully plotted lines, was viewed as, “age-appropriate,” but that acceptance didn’t translate to the start of elementary school. At five she was expected to sit still, walk in lines, raise her hand. She got called down for chewing her hair. For asking to use the bathroom. She wasn’t reading as quickly as the schedule demanded. She had nightly homework, only twenty minutes of recess, and testing. Soon, the safe cocoon built of choices, of going at her own pace, of not being critiqued, began to dry up and fall away. Conform, conform, conform was the constant, deafening message. Differences were no longer appreciated, and I knew enough to know my daughter might not thrive. She started to push back. Hard. She kicked and screamed when it was time for school. In the first month, I watched her tear up school work in frustration. She told me often, through flowing tears, that she hated school and would do anything not to go. Halfway through the year she stood clutching me in the hallway while classmates walked by calling out, “Hi, Piper!” But she didn’t hear them. She was too busy begging me not to leave her. At kindergarten’s end, I made the only choice I felt I had. I pushed my work to nights and weekends so I could stay home with my daughter and toddler son. She was thrilled to be homeschooled and instead of sitting at a desk all day, we joined co-ops and went on adventures and made new friends. She took a handful of classes, but mostly, we spent the year rebuilding her broken confidence that had been shattered all too quickly. I grieved the time I'd lost for my own work, but no longer did our days start and end with angry tears and defeat. When people told me that homeschool was a mistake, it was easy to let roll off my back. For months I’ve watched her confidence come back in bits and pieces. I’ve watched her uncover new fascinations and feel passionate about what she’s learning. She’s shown interest in starting at a new, less traditional school next year, too, but when her moments of uncertainty come, they come hard. Each time, it devastates me. I try to embrace her with compassion, rather than frustration, even though I feel both. Still, it is not my job to tell my daughter who to be. She already feels the world speaking to her, telling her that her sensitivity is undesirable. I feel it, too, telling me we shouldn’t coddle our children even when they’re in pain. Instead we should push them, so they are ready for a big tough world. Perhaps, though, it is the ones who refuse to play the game who can rewrite the rules. Perhaps it is the ones who don’t keep up with the rhythm who can make the most beautiful music. My daughter’s intense sensitivity puts her in touch with her own feelings, and the feelings of those around her. She asks to give money to the homeless. She sobs at sad movies. She performs from her heart in ballet shows twice a year that I never have to urge her to prepare for. She worries about big things, like death and illness. To be in tune with your emotions is a feat at any age. Yet sometimes, it is all too much. It is why most of us grow to numb our pain rather than feel it. To feel it we could handle. To let the world see us feeling it is the real burden, even though it makes us who we are. Whether my child is a writer, a dancer, a doctor, a mother, I hope one day she will know that having deep, cavernous emotions isn’t always such a terrible fate. Because, baring your soul, rather than giving the world just what it demands, is the real act of bravery. The next week, we head back to the gym with the rock-wall for the second class. My daughter is as excited as she was the week before, as if the tears and the trembling and the self-doubt never happened. So I try to hide my own nerves. We’ve talked about taking a few deep breaths, and focusing on what’s happening around us, rather than our own scary thoughts. I remind her of this as we pull up to the gym, and I try to do the same. The instructor calls the kids in and without prompting, my daughter lets go of my hand. I watch her climb to the top of the wall and repel down, then do it again. When she gets to the bottom, she calls me over. “I’m okay,” she whispers. Smiling, nudging, waving me away.