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It’s over 90 degrees out, the kind of heat that warps your skin. I splash my face and feel a moment of cool, but my daughter is shivering in her bathing suit. Toeing the water at the edge of the pool while the rest of the swim class splashes and screams happily below, she won’t budge. It’s not a deep pool and the other kids flail about with smiles on, but she is walled off in her own little twilight zone. I think about pushing her in to get it over with, telling her to just do it. Her fears keep multiplying, and I don’t know how to handle them.
About a year ago, my daughter started saying she was afraid of things.
“I don’t want to talk to that girl, I’m afraid,” she told me.
“Why? She seems nice,” I replied.
“I’m just scared.”
And I let her be.
I figured she was just being shy and, to be honest, I don’t like talking to every person I meet either. Then her fears started to become routine.
We visit my parents pretty much every weekend. They adore my daughter and always try to get her to play. My dad will ask her if she wants to play outside and she will say she is scared to, with no reason why. I have to push her to interact with her grandparents. I mean, I want her to say goodbye and hug them so they feel good and she feels loved, but then I feel bad for forcing my child to do something she doesn’t want to do. I feel torn about the whole thing.
“She’s just tired,” I say as I wave my parents off. When they ask what’s wrong, I have no real reason to give them.
I thought maybe it was just social gatherings that overwhelmed her, but then she started being scared of things at home as well.
My daughter is afraid of taking a bath. She screams if a drop of water touches her head. I explain to her that she needs to be clean and I would never surprise her by drenching her head with water, but she doesn’t hear any of it.
Then she told me she’s afraid of her head being near water because she would “never come back.” I have no clue where this fear came from. At times, I have to pour water on her hair to wash it out as she screams bloody murder. How do I help you, I think as I my heart sinks again.
My daughter has been going to ballet since she was a two-year-old. I remember buying her first pair of tiny, pale pink, ballet slippers. She pranced around the dance store filled with pink tutus and blinged-out tiaras. My heart was exploding.
Then we went to ballet class. There would be days where she would amaze me and do plies, twirl, and actually smile like she was having a good time. She made a few friends and seemed to be building confidence by joining in. Other days, I bribed her with candy and presents to get her out of the chair. That seemed to hold her fear off temporarily.
When she recently moved up to the “bigger girl” class, she said she was afraid of the “bigger girls.”
“But you’re a big girl now. You’re the same age as the girls in the class,” I told her. It seemed like a logical thing to say.
She looked down and shook her head.
Just like that, my dreams of her becoming a prima ballerina vanished. My heart broke.
As I watch my daughter sit on the edge of the pool, startled by the flapping and squealing around her, I see that pushing her will not accomplish anything. It won’t help her to conquer her fears – it will confirm them.
I also realize something about what we ask of mothers. When you feel like you fail your kid, it seems to undo all the good work you do as a mom. As a parent, it never feels like you can refuse to take part or say, “I don’t feel comfortable with this.” We’re always pushing past our comfort zone to nurse when it hurts, to put our babies down to sleep when we’re giddy with anxiety, and to dole out our emotion and affection when we have nothing there to give. We don’t need to impose these demands on our kids.
I call my daughter over and wrap her in a towel. “You don’t have to do it,” I tell her. “Just listen to yourself.”