Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Tripped Advisor

"Stop calling here!!" my dad yelled into the phone as I rocked back and forth in a ball on the living room floor. My hands were pressed against my ears with all my might, but the sounds still poured through.

"If you don't want to be friends with Sheevani then leave her alone!!" he shouted and slammed the phone down, "Sheevani! Come here!"

I slowly rose to my feet and walked sheepishly into the kitchen. 

"Who are these girls? Why do they keep calling?"

"They're girls from school, Daddy," I stared at the kitchen floor. My toe traced the pattern of grout around the cream-colored ceramic tile.

"Are you in a fight or something?" His tone softened a bit after hearing the crack in my voice. The phone rang again and my body jerked inward. My father mumbled some Gujurati curse words and answered angrily.

"Hello?!" His furrowed brow and intense glare at the kitchen table told me all I needed to know about who was on the other end. "Stop calling here or I'll call the police!!"

Oh god, this is going to make my life worse when school starts next month, I thought. Technically, he was coming to my defense, but my imagination painted a picture of the mean girls sitting around a phone, laughing at my dad's accent further filling their tank of ridicule, which for me, never did seem to empty. 

The tears were rolling down my cheeks as my mother walked up from the basement holding onions for that night's dinner.

"Su thayu?" she asked upon seeing my red-rimmed eyes and my father's frustrated expression. They conversed in Gujurati for a few seconds while I sat down at the table. I knew he wasn't mad at me directly, yet I couldn't help but feel responsible.

"Bheta," my dad said, "These girls are low-class, stupid idiots with nothing better to do. Just ignore them, okay? Don't cry all the time. That's what they want. If you ignore them, they will get bored and stop."

"They are just jealous of you, Sheevu," my mom said.

I sat in silence and nodded. Ignore them. They are jealous of me. What the hell was I supposed to do with either of those statements? I would have given my entire collection of New Kids on the Block pins to anyone who could teach me to magically ignore these girls. And jealous?? My mother had said this back in 3rd grade, when I first started having problems with girls at school, and it did nothing but confuse me. What in the world could they be jealous about? Did they want to be the only brown girl in a sea of white kids who wore nothing fashionable and wasn't allowed to go to slumber parties? Hard to imagine.

My dad squeezed my shoulder and walked out of the kitchen. I looked at the back of my mom's head as she poured fennel seeds into cooking oil. As they started popping and the air began to smell of warmth and flavor, I walked to my room and flopped onto my bed.

There were 21 days before school started. 21 days to figure out how to ignore them. 21 days to learn how to stop being so emotional. 21 days to devise the perfect way to enter the doors of Churchill Junior High with confidence.

Spoiler alert: Turned out to be 21 days of worry, tears.... and countless prank calls.

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Mean girls have arrived and I'm re-living so many emotions from my childhood. Except, this time, it's through the eyes and heart of my 3rd grade daughter. We are at the onset of friend drama and so far it's been pretty mild, but I'm bracing for what's to come... and I fear I won't know how to help my girl get through it.

Released Into the Wild
I wore my daughter for about the first year of her life. When we weren't co-sleeping, she was strapped to my body throughout the day because if I put her down, she'd go ballistic. Yeah, I know, I should have let her cry and get used to it, blah blah blah. Hey, she was my first kid and all I knew was if she was content snuggled against me, I was content as well... with an aching back, sure, but content. It was my job to make sure she was comfortable both physically and emotionally, and unlike my job at Pottery Barn in college, I took it very seriously.

As time went by, of course, the baby-wearing stopped and she started walking. Walking turned to running, breast milk turned to solid foods, diapers turned to underwear, daycare turned to elementary school and all of a sudden I'm driving an articulate 8-year-old home from school listening to her trembling voice tell me how her best friend ignored her all day. Whoa, what.. who... when, are we? What the hell happened? Oh yeah, that whole time flies thing.

She's no longer secure against my chest where, if needed, I could envelop her with my entire body and protect her from harm. She's out there in the world of emerging independence, limited as it may be, but a world where Mom cannot come and intervene if a mean kid is hurting her feelings. Of course, this is how it's supposed to be... school is as much a social learning experience as it is academic. The social part scares me way more than my kids getting good grades. I mean, 4x4 will always equal 16, but Kristen + Stacy could equal fun and laughter one day, and then isolating insults the next. You can't study your way to a drama-free social life.

The Worst is Yet to Come
I hate being negative. I hope I'm wrong. But, unless there has been a seismic shift in the way young girls treat each other, I feel pretty confident that my daughter will experience a lot more heartache in the years to come. Up until 3rd grade, she had been very resilient. I'd hear about an incident with a friend and there was never an indication of hurt feelings. "She said she didn't want to play with me, so I just found another friend," was sort of the gist of the story. I'd grin and sit up a little straighter with pride, fooling myself into thinking she did not inherit my sensitive tendencies.

Today I'm seeing something very different and painfully familiar. Today I'm seeing a rejection at school or gymnastics class affect her mood for hours and sometimes even disturbing her sleep. She has inherited my emotional side after all and I find myself scrambling to find the right words to help her through it. I want to give her tangible techniques that will help her more than "ignore them," or "they are just jealous of you." At the same time I feel helpless because I know at her age, pulling a friend aside and confronting them about their behavior is a far too mature path to take. Hell, it's a bit too mature for ME to take!

There is an urgency in my bones to equip her with the tools to handle this shit. Now, when it's not so bad. Now, when the situations usually resolve themselves within a day or two. Now, when she still seeks me out for help... because that, too, is going to disappear in a few years. This breaks my heart most of all; someday she will be going through really tough stuff and coming to her mother won't seem like an option. I always want to be an option, but part of being a parent is the acceptance that, eventually, our kids will not consider us one.

Get the Balance Right
I do not want to be that overbearing parent who swoops in to shield my kids against anything negative. The value of experiencing the challenges is what makes them grow. The first time my daughter told me about her friend making fun of her one day, my chest tightened in the exact same way as it had in the stale smelling hallways of junior high. Her furrowed brow and quivering lower lip stabbed the same part of my heart that broke every time I'd answer the prank phone call, or when I'd walk into 3rd hour English class and everyone pinched their noses at me in a pre-planned gag. It all came rushing back and I had to take deep breaths to keep my own tears from brimming... at least I've gotten better at that now.

There was a recent situation where I did intervene, but only after a lot of thought and advice from a teacher friend of mine. My daughter was having constant issues with a boy in her class: he'd push her books off her desk, grab her pencil while she was working, tell her he didn't like her and so on. I'd listen and tell her that everything he was doing was not okay and that she needed to be firm with him. She said she always tells him to stop, but he doesn't listen. Then I came to find out he tickles her. "He touches you?" I asked. She said he wants to mess up her handwriting, so he pokes her ribs over and over while she's working. I took a deeeeeeeeep breath and decided to email the teacher. The image of this boy (who is a larger kid) ignoring my daughter's repeated protests against his hands on her seemed an appropriate situation for me to get involved and protect my daughter. She needed to know her words hold value, especially when it comes to her body. I'm happy to report the teacher handled it all very well, and things are much better.

When it comes to these little fights and jealousies with her girlfriends at school, intervening is not an option. Usually it's a thing where her "BFF" all of a sudden wants to play with other girls and doesn't include my daughter, or her gymnastics partner pairs off with another girl and she's left out, and every so often it's a true "mean girl" scenario where a girl will make fun of her. In about 98% of all of these occasions, everything goes back to normal within a day or two and all is forgotten, which is typical for this age. My worry stems from the way my girl is handling it; these scuff-ups seem to permeate her usual bubbly self and my smiley girl isn't always smiling anymore, which scares me. I'm also well aware that I may be projecting my own past onto her. This whole blog post could be an over-reaction, but hey... you've read this far so just stick with me here.

Listen and Relate
Until I crack the code of perfect advice-giving, my method right now is to be an excellent listener. My daughter is very perceptive and just as she is the first to ask if I'm okay, I do the same for her because we both have that innate sense that glows red when someone we love is hurting. And because I always want her to be open with me, I'm an open book to her... even if it's something really hard to talk about. This may sound weird, and I do not say it lightly... my daughter is one of my best friends. She constantly checks in with me, tells me she loves me about 25 times a day, comforts me when I'm upset, anticipates my needs and tries to help when she can. The motherly love I feel for her deepens everyday as our friendship evolves into something so beautiful it blinds my heart.

Stop crying.. there's more to read.

Some days I have to nag her until she opens up, but other days there's a, "Mom? I need to talk about something." However the conversation happens, I make sure to give her my full attention and listen to every word. Sometimes it's over an after-school snack or sometimes it's snuggling on the couch, sometimes it's at 10pm because her stress is keeping her from sleep. My top priority is to show her that what she is feeling is valid and it matters. Yeah, it sucks when your friend ignores you. Ugh, totally annoying when that girl boxed you out so she could be partners with your friend. Oh man, I hate when someone makes fun of my name too. What? She acted like you weren't even there at recess? Totes rude!

My daughter looks like Paul on the outside, but as she's growing up, she seems to resemble me on the inside. I'm hoping those similarities will help inform my strategy to guide her through the tough times. I had an epiphany one day while watching my kids walk to the school doors from my car... what would I have wanted when I was going through all that crap? What did I need back in 1990-1991? First, I would have loved a sweet pair of Girbaud jeans, but beyond that, I craved feeling like I wasn't some over-emotional cry-baby. Those mornings in seventh grade when I would wake up queasy with worry and run to the bathroom to dry heave for 30 seconds, I wanted someone to rub my back and say it was okay to feel that way instead of hating myself for being so weak. Those bitches made my life hell and I just wanted someone to acknowledge that I didn't deserve that treatment.

So, I'm sharing a lot about my past struggles with my girl. Some are a bit too intense, so I've only included examples on par with what she's going through. It may be years before I share the story of getting invited to Ambassador Roller Rink as a joke for everyone to ignore me, which led me to sit and cry by the payphone for 2 hours until my dad came to pick me up. I hope I never have to tell her that story, but if I do, she will hear every detail. If it makes her feel less alone, I'll describe everything about that night because I have never forgotten. Everything from the stinky feet smell to my prickly neck sweat when one by one, everyone ignored me when I approached them... it's as clear as a 4K Blu-Ray movie experience. If I can turn those horrors into something that will help my daughter... you better believe I will.

Of course, I'm also painfully aware there will be so much to which I won't be able to relate; social media being the big one. But, isn't there always a generational divide? Parents and children have never gone through the same experiences and there are always new things to deal with. My parents weren't bad at giving advice, they just couldn't relate to anything I was going through. They went to strict gender-segregated schools in Mumbai 30-40 years before I was attending school in Royal Oak, Michigan, how the hell could they relate? They did the best they could and I do not fault them in the least.

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Mean girls didn't take me down. Those years taught me a lot about who I never wanted to be and how compassion and kindness are so much better for the soul. My worry for my daughter will probably never go away, but I take solace in the fact that she can look at her mother as someone who went through it, felt all of it, cried a lot from it... and ultimately SURVIVED it. She may not fit into a Baby Bjorn anymore, but I'll never stop being her protector.

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