The Time My Child Schooled Me, on Life

The tears poured down my face, hot and wet. I think it was my most proud moment as a parent. Yet, my 8-year-old daughter’s achievement could not be measured by a sports ranking or a letter on a report card. Her wisdom on the drive home from gymnastics that night so far surpassed my expectations that I was jarred, nearly speechless.

Walking hand in hand out of the gym, she started to tell me something but stopped herself with a quick “Nevermind.” When I persisted from the front seat, she took a deep breath and said, “Mommy, you can sell my iPod because I know you are looking for a job right now and we probably need the money.” Her voice cracked halfway through the sentence and she cried the rest.

My heart plummeted to my toes. The gravity of that offer was not lost on me. A month prior, the iPod was THE top birthday gift on her list. It was a much discussed compromise since we weren’t ready for her to have a handheld gaming or texting device. The wrapping paper was ripped in record speed and through squeals and spazzy jumps, she proclaimed it “the most awesomest gift ever.” The two have been inseparable. It’s clear she views it as a symbol of maturity and privilege and a surefire way to tune out her two younger siblings. Every unoccupied minute, she bops through the house like a bona fide teen belting out pitchy lyrics over her top volume headphones.

Emotions in response to her selfless proposal came in waves. First, I was angry with myself. I DIDN’T want my daughter to worry about adult things. I must have used the “essentials, not extras” message to rationalize more “no”s than I realized. Then, sadness, I DIDN’T want my daughter to feel my stress. The trickle-down effect was probably inevitable, but I still felt like I’d failed my girl. The waves stopped when I paused  to consider what I DID want for my daughter. Above all, I wanted her to be honest, empathetic and kind. She showed me those qualities and in exchange, I owed her transparency.

Her assessment of our situation was accurate. I was looking for my next consulting gig and my husband was building a new business. We were under some financial strain. But she was missing the critical context.

So I laid it all out. When she was born, we decided having one parent work a more flexible job was ideal for our family and along with that came some trade-offs, like less stability. And, while these types of jobs can be harder to find, in eight years as a freelance communications consultant I’d been fortunate to have many jobs and few breaks. This break was the first one when her Dad was also self-employed and, that meant for now, we’d have to do more with less. I told her these are the times that test faith and family and I was glad we shared those things.

She didn’t flinch and said, “Mommy, I just want you to be happy. I want you to have a job you love.”

Stunned, I wondered why I hadn’t shared more of the “why” with her, sooner. I knew it wasn’t pride. My child already knew I was not perfect and we never avoided tough topics. Maybe it was protection or maybe I was just too exhausted. One thing was clear, I’d drastically underestimated her ability to “get” the whole truth and to synthesize what’s most important.

What she didn’t know (nor do I want her to know) about the iPod was that we already owned it and simply dumped the data, refurbished and loaded it with her favorite songs. It had zero monetary value to us. But her willingness to trade her most prized possession to relieve some of her family’s burden was of immeasurable value – pure social-emotional gold.

She got it. People over things. A truth I hoped she knew based on our conversations and family choices, but never imagined she’d grasp so tangibly at such a young age. A truth I’d always talked but perhaps temporarily stopped walking. In the scramble of providing for and serving my family, my mindset may have become more practical than personal.

But my sweet second grader nailed it. She gave me a gift I’ll never forget in that brief car conversation. One day I’ll tell her how she re-calibrated my heart and mind to what really matters, when I needed it most. I won’t wait to tell her that I already have a job I love, and it’s not one she’ll find on my resume.

Things I Tell My Kids But WANT To Tell Adults

“I am going to close my eyes and pretend you didn’t say that and give you a chance to make it right.” It rolled off of my brain’s tongue like spit up from a reflux-y infant’s mouth. No, I didn’t say it out loud. And this time, I didn’t say it to my kids. But fantasizing about giving this go-to ode from my parenting playlist to a Starbucks employee was SO FREEING.

The scene: a location in a neighborhood with more children than ants. The situation: a mom hopes to connect with her 5-year-old despite the company of her 1-year-old brother. The crime: saying they had “just the one” highchair, which was occupied.

What? This is Chicago, not an off-the-grid mountain town. All I could see was that unassuming employee doing the Dr. Evil simultaneous smile and snicker while lighting a match to my best laid plans. Plans I know are necessary, like highchairs, to make quality time with each of my three kids a reality. Instead, precious moments I hoped to steal with my spirited middle child would now be stolen by her squirmy brother.

No time to mourn the impossibility of plan B, I pictured myself delivering a line once exclusively reserved for my offspring to someone voting aged+. Sweet mental meditation! The process proved such an effective mood catalyst that I became addicted to casting adults under the silent spell of my most used mom-isms:

To the person I overhear ordering with, “Give me the hummus platter,” or “I’ll take the pinot.”: “How about a little please and thank you!?!” OR “Why don’t you try again, in the form of a question.”

To the coworker who often speaks from or acts on emotions before pausing to think: “Was that a (30-60)-year-old choice?”

To the preschool teachers whose thinly veiled expressions guilt me about being late or forgetting the library books, again: “Can you cut me some slack, please?”

To the grocery store worker who asks while I’m juggling a cart full of kids and food, a bag on each shoulder, a kid in one arm and a work call on the other, if I want a bag for my milk: “I hope you are selling limbs, because I am not an octopus.” And, for the record, yes I want my milk in a bag. Every. Single. Time.

To gossipy moms: “No one likes a tattletale.”

To the road rager: “Two wrongs don’t make a right!” or maybe, “I can only hear your best voice and that does NOT sound like your best voice.”

To the boss who says daily, “I know your plate is really full but I need you to…”: “What you’re saying is important to me, but I simply cannot listen right now.”

To the health insurance representative who will not provide any of the codes I need and cannot answer my questions (and cannot tell me who can) but is pleased to “educate” me on a whole host of other topics: “First things first!”

To the friend who spends too much time texting at happy hour: “Eye contact, please.”

To the customer service rep who acts like they cannot hear me when I ask to speak to their manager: “I was not born yesterday.”

To the broken record colleague or friend who vents for months but takes no action: “Instead of complaining, let’s focus on what we CAN do.”

To the doctor who wants to explore every wait-it-out scenario before refilling my psych meds or prescribing an antibiotic for the fifth bug I’ve caught from my kids this season: “Can you see that I am struggling?”

To the way too well read friend or parent who is a frequent giver of unsolicited advice: “Who are you in charge of?”

I recognize actually saying these things would be rude and many of these people are just doing their job. I do believe everyone is fighting their own mostly unseen battles, including myself, as evidenced by the contents of this piece. My intent has been get-yourself-through-the-day comic relief. And, it has worked.

An outcome I didn’t expect was an increase in positive and supportive things I’d typically share with my kids, friends and family being directed towards complete strangers, more often.

To the mom mirroring my muffin top tucking pants maneuver: “You are beautiful, as is.”

To the child sitting alone on the field trip school bus: “You will find your people, I promise. It just might take some time.”  

To the mentally ill or homeless people we see on daily walks and commutes: “You are loved, no matter what.”

To the person on public transport who looks flat exhausted: “Be kind to yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.” 

This list could go on for pages. It is not about shaking things off for everyday self-preservation but about connection. Maybe I am craving connection in our increasingly disconnected world. And, maybe someday I’ll have the guts to let a stranger in on one of these private prayers. Until then, I will laugh and cry along with the voices in my head.