The Sounds of Silence

“Kate? KATE.”

I look up from my desk by the door. I’m making my way syllable by grim syllable through The Peloponnesian War; my poli sci professor believes that all students need a good, classical grounding. The young woman standing in my doorway hikes her ripped sweatshirt back onto her shoulder and grimaces slightly.

“Phone’s for you. I think it’s your parents. They sound kinda pissed.”

I sigh, stick a piece of paper in my book, and steel myself for what’s sure to be an uncomfortable conversation. I have been at college for all of five weeks, and up to this evening, nearly every time my parents have called, I have been out of my room. Now, these are the days before cell phones, and there are just two phones on my hall, so staying in touch takes will and coordination. The problem is that I have choir three nights a week, and play rehearsals have just started, and I would rather study in the library than in my room. I have good excuses for being out of my room when the phone rings. I really do. But I know that my parents aren’t imagining me wrapped up in my studies or cultural pursuits – they probably think that I am wallowing in an Olympic-sized pool filled with beer and frat boys or being chased across campus by an axe murderer. The post-it notes (“Your mom called” “Call your parents” “Your parents called and said to call them”) have become a mosaic on my door.

They worry. It’s what parents do.

I managed to allay my parents’ worst fears that night (although they still worried that choir and theatre would take too big a bite from my studies, and that walking across campus after the library closed at night was unnecessarily dangerous). We ended up setting a time for a weekly phone call, and we stuck to it fairly well over the next four years. But my parents never stopped worrying, and they never stopped wanting to hear from me. If I went more than a day without talking to my dad, he would greet me with, “I thought you left the country!”

You know what they say about what goes around. You know what they say about karma.

Tink is away at camp. Because it is 2018, because she is a teenage girl, she has her phone with her. In theory, this should mean that we hear from her more regularly than my parents heard from me

In theory.

Every morning, Bruce and I text her. We send her pictures of the dog and cat. I tell her about our days. Bruce has an arsenal of dad jokes at the ready. In response, we get the occasional “Good” or “HA.” These little words are easy to read, hard to parse. I want to know if she’s learning, making friends, having fun.

But then I recall the last time she was away from home for any length of time. She was having Boy Troubles at the time. One night, at almost midnight, she sent me a long text about how sad and confused she felt. Hundreds of miles away from her, I didn’t feel the anxiety, the urge to fix things, that I might have felt if she were right there. I asked questions. I sympathized. I paid careful attention to what she wrote. I don’t know if anything I said affected any actions that she took, but I think that I did what she needed. I let her know that she could talk to me, that I cared about her and her worries.

With my teenager, no news is good news. Eight hours away, off in the woods, she is absorbed in the business of living. In the pictures that the camp posts every day, I see her: laughing, talking, active. She is caught up in the glorious Now . . . just like I was all those years ago.

Parents understand silence differently: when our kids don’t communicate, we think that something bad must have happened. For a person on the borders of adulthood, silence is only the status quo. When things go well, young people navigate these new territories with confidence. It’s only when things go wrong that they need advice or simple reassurance.

In the meantime, I will send my messages and my love out into the ether, and I will feel grateful when I hear nothing.

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Fire in My Ears

Does grief have a sound?

I suppose at first glance (listen) that grief should just be silent. It’s an absence, the sound of something that isn’t there that should be. Or maybe there are sounds that capture that loss.  I suppose a case could be made for sobs, church bells, “Amazing Grace.”

When my father was dying, grief sounded like the ring tone on my phone. It was the sound I heard when the hospital first called me to tell me that his organs were failing. For the last few weeks of his life, that noise could jolt me out of a sound sleep. I could hear my phone even when it wasn’t ringing, even when I was sitting at my father’s bedside, holding his cool, gnarled hand. It was the wail of sirens, the sound of disaster. It was the sound I heard when a hospice nurse called to tell me that he had slipped away. The night he died, I turned the ringer off. There was nothing else I needed or wanted to hear.

Now, grief is a phone that doesn’t ring. It’s a voice that I want to hear and don’t.

But grief has other voices, other noises.

This year, grief sounded like fireworks.

When I was a little girl, my grandparents lived in a big Victorian house at the top of a hill. Their lawn sloped down to an apple tree, and a hedge, and a dirt alley, and below and beyond, our local fairgrounds. On special occasions, like the Fourth of July, the town would set off fireworks at the fairgrounds. Dad didn’t like driving to the fairgrounds because any event there caused a snarl of traffic that made it feel like every single soul in our town of 8,000 had purchased his or her very own car for the occasion and had learned to drive fifteen minutes earlier from a simplified picture book written in Finnish, for the sole purpose of clogging up every entrance to and exit from the fairgrounds. Dad hated waiting in crowds. He wouldn’t have waited in a crowd to hear Jesus and Abe Lincoln jam with Hank Williams. He certainly wasn’t going to wait to see fireworks.

His way of viewing fireworks was much better. He would walk with me up the hill and pick a spot in the alley behind my grandparents’ house. We would look down on the fairgrounds and wait. Eventually, we would hear a trailing whistle and a pop. A blossom of white fire would bloom in our faces. We would compare our favorite fireworks. Dad liked the giant chrysanthemums in red, white and blue while I preferred the ones that looked like fountains of copper-colored stars. We would stand there face-to-face with the fireworks while Dad told me once, twice, a dozen times about how, when he was a boy, his parents would take him to the county fair and they would watch fireworks. They sat in the stands and Dad turned his face to the light as ashes from the spent explosions dusted the crowd. He didn’t really like the noise, but he loved the colors and the patterns. In sparing us from traffic, Dad spared me the deafening noise. From where we stood, the sound of the fireworks was dimmed and refracted. There was an occasional shriek as a twisting flame snaked its way into the heavens, and an occasional hollow boom as a firework failed, but mostly, the sounds didn’t bother me. I loved it, standing there in the night, in my pajamas, with my dad.

Last year, he didn’t feel well enough to see any of the fireworks displays around our town, so Bruce and Tink and I climbed the hill behind our house took pictures. I showed Dad the images afterwards. He thumbed through my digital photos, evaluating and appreciating each starburst. “Well, isn’t that something? Those look like some beautiful fireworks.” I promised myself that next year I would find a way to take him to see some fireworks.  I wasn’t able to keep that promise.

This year, I didn’t even go outside. I heard faint pops, muted thunder. I wanted to see, to appreciate the festive lights as Dad would have. I didn’t want to see because he wasn’t there to see them with me. I tried to ignore the sounds, to shut out my grief.

Almost a year later, grief surprises me with its insistent voice. Grief is the sound of absence. It’s also the sound of life going on, heedless, full of color and light, despite loss.

Just a Text Away

Yesterday, the phone rang. I glanced at the receiver; I didn’t recognize the number but I picked up and heard, “Hello, is this Tink’s Mother? Don’t be alarmed . . .”

(Dear Teachers, Administrators, and Healthcare Professionals Who Work With Kids, this is actually not a reassuring way to start a conversation. I’m not sure what the alternative would be, but those words don’t stop my heart from jackhammering against my rib cage.)

My flight-or-fight response kicked in because Tink is away at camp for part of the summer. Unfortunately, the area in which her camp is located is experiencing higher-than-normal temperatures. Okay, maybe the camp hadn’t completely slid into the pits of hell, but it was definitely tilting downward into an infernal suburb. Tink is an energetic kid who is unlikely to let a minor obstacle like a triple-digit heat index stop her from having fun. The combination of heat and Tink’s usual activity level was combustible – she was in the infirmary with heat exhaustion. The nurse told me that the plan was to let her rest and hydrate, and she promised to keep me posted on Tink’s condition.

Of course, I spent the rest of the afternoon texting Tink:

“I hope you’re feeling better.”

“Dad said that he’s going to send you some electrolyte powder to put in your water.”

“How are you?”

“Is your stomach okay?”

“Did you get some rest?”

“How are you?”

Etc., etc. All I got in response was a series of irritated monosyllables (with mounting levels of irritation signaled by capitalization):

“Yeah”

“Cool”

“Ok”

“YEAH”

“YES”

“FINE”

I may have even received a “YES” in response to something that wasn’t a yes-or-no question. The point is, I have no idea how Tink is really feeling, if she did the sensible thing and drank some water and got some rest or if she was texting me in annoyed bursts between sunfish sailing and swimming with her friends. I felt helpless. I felt frightened. What if this wasn’t simple heat exhaustion? What if there was something else, something more serious, wrong?

As the mother of a teenager, I am used to single-word responses: “How was your day?” “Fine.” “How did the test go?” “Okay.” But when Tink is here, right here, I can spin the conversation into something more detailed, more revealing. I can drop in a Game of Thrones reference (yes, my teenager watches Game of Thrones. Go ahead and judge me, my sweet summer children) that will prompt Tink to talk about what makes someone a good leader or how women might exercise power differently than men. That kind of conversation is a lot harder for me to initiate via text, especially since I still type one-handed and feel an old person’s need to spell and punctuate everything correctly.  Yesterday, I couldn’t gauge from Tink’s demeanor or her responses whether she was really, truly fine/okay/cool, or if she was sick or scared.

I hate the feeling of letting go, of not knowing.

But that’s the point of this experiment, isn’t it? To let her test her limits, to understand that even a strong, healthy, flexible teenage body can’t go forever without reasonable amounts of sleep and water. To let her run into the occasional wall, make the occasional mistake. To let her learn about taking care of herself, about being on her own.

After all, she may be on her own, but she’s not alone out there. She has a full staff of caring adults monitoring her body temperature and her general well-being. She’s surrounded by people who will say, “whoa, there!” if she pushes herself too hard or neglects regular meals. My problem is that none of those people is me.

I have to trust their judgment. I have to trust hers.

 

The Worst Advice My Mother Ever Gave

Many of my friends knew my mother as a wise and comforting presence. She gave advice on school, on relationships (parental and romantic), on fashion, on food. She could tell whether a boy had good intentions, whether a color was flattering, whether a job was likely to lead to advancement. I learned a lot from her – to value friendships, to pay attention to the beauty around me, to never over-mix pastry dough. But I think one of the most important lessons I learned came from the worst piece of advice she ever gave me.

I had just graduated from college and I was still anxious and tentative about every decision. I had entered a graduate program and I was trying to decide whether I should share an apartment a bus ride away from campus or whether I should just stay in student housing. I had made a list of pros and cons – heck, I’d made a detailed, branching tree of nuances and considerations.  When I turned to my mom for help, she took my hand in hers, holding it so tightly that her rings pressed into my flesh, and told me something that I have never forgotten:

“If you have any doubts about something, any doubts at all, you shouldn’t do it.”

At first, I accepted Mom’s words with relief. I was anxious about actually having an apartment: navigating public transportation and paying utilities and cooking meals. I had doubts. I had ALL the doubts – about my ability to take care of myself and juggle responsibilities and be on my own. Mom’s words gave me permission to NOT do something that scared me. In fact, they gave me permission to not do anything that scared me.

Then I started to think about what she was telling me, what effect her advice might have.

I understand that doubt and fear can offer important warnings; there’s a reason that our spider senses tingle when we’re in an ill-lit parking lot or when a stranger offers to carry our groceries. But not every doubt is equal. I am by nature anxious and analytical. Every decision feels momentous. I will debate the costs and benefits of different pizza toppings. As a kid, I spent hours in the library deciding which book to borrow. (If you’re imagining me wandering among the stacks, dreamily picking up one book after another and getting lost in one fantasy world after another: no. Our library had a limit on the number of books you could borrow, so I would sit there grim-faced weighing the merits of the newest Zilpha Keatley Snyder against the latest entry in the All-of-a-Kind Family series.) In college, dropping and adding courses kept me up at night: maybe that class on German expressionism would end up being the key to my entire future. In other words, doubt isn’t just a fleeting emotion, a passing acquaintance. I breathe doubt. I weave friendship bracelets for it. I If I avoided everything I had doubts about, I wouldn’t do anything at all.

I wouldn’t have signed up to take the SAT. I wouldn’t have applied to a bunch of colleges miles away from my hometown.  I wouldn’t have gone to one of those faraway colleges. I wouldn’t have taken my first ride on a plane, or on a subway. I would have remained where (and who) I was at sixteen, forever.

My mother taught me a lesson, but not the one that she meant to teach. I realized then how persistent and how pervasive my doubts were, and that those doubts shouldn’t be a barrier to novelty, or effort. I began to think about why I was frightened, about what I thought the worst possible outcome would be, and what the worst possible outcome was in fact likely to be. Oh, I understand why my mother said what she did. She had her own fears and doubts about her twenty-something daughter living in an off-campus apartment, traveling at night. But she didn’t want to stop me herself; she wanted my own fears to guide me. In a way, they did. My fears became a signpost. If I never did the things that scared me, the things that caused doubt, I would be paralyzed, trapped in stone. I learned that the question is not simply, “Am I afraid?” but “Why am I afraid?” Are my doubts telling me something that I need to pay attention to, or are they simply jumping up and down, clamoring, “Look at me!”?

In the end, I’m grateful to Mom for her advice, for forcing me to look my doubts steadily in the eye, and for caring about my choices. I hope that my daughter learns as much from my bad advice. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to decide whether to have falafel or flatbread for lunch. This could take a while.

How I Learned to Eat: An Autobiography in Two Anecdotes

For Bruce, who says that I always choose the weirdest thing on the menu (“She’ll have the goat slaughtered on the first night of the new moon, prepared in a bath of crickets’ tears and the dew from a kiwano melon.”) and for the Kitchen Chick, who turns tofu skins into the stuff of dreams.

  1. My father walked into the kitchen, grocery bags looped over his arms. He started to line up bags on the counter and our kitchen table; I opened the cupboards and began organizing his purchases: cereals in the left-hand cabinet under the counter, canned goods on the first shelf, treats on the second, spices and baking supplies in the cabinet above the bread box. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dad pull something from a small bag at the back of the pile. “Here, Katy,” he said, “look at this.” He set a brown, fuzzy oval on the tabletop. The three dark circles at one end looked like a wide-eyed, open-mouthed face. He walked out of the room and returned with one of his screwdrivers. He tapped at the three round circles, listening carefully after each tap. Finally, he gave a small grunt of satisfaction and began twisting the screwdriver into the object. The screwdriver worked its way through the fibrous shell. “Get me a glass,” he said. I pulled an orange juice glass from the cupboard and set it next to him. He upended the coconut and we both watched as a thin trickle of liquid ran into the glass. He handed the glass to me, and I drank. The taste was a shock. Up to that point, my experience of coconut was confined to the dried flakes that my mother sometimes used in baking and the gooey sweet centers of Mounds bars. This wasn’t sweet at all, but it was rich and fresh, coating my tongue, simultaneously familiar and strange. Dad told me about a cousin who had served in the Navy, ending up in the Pacific. The cousin brought coconuts back to his family’s rainy northeastern farm. Dad’s grocery store coconut offered me his memory of that gift, the trace of distant, warmer places. I didn’t immediately love this new, not-sweet taste, but it stayed with me, like the buttery, earthy sautéed mushrooms that Dad ate with his steaks, like the briny oysters he served up in a creamy stew, or the intense, salty little sardines he peeled from their tin. I came to understand that these flavors, sometimes sharp, sometimes funky, so different from the plain, hearty meats and root vegetables that we ate every day, were insights into what Dad loved. The tastes were stories, and each taste expanded my world a little more.
  2. The food at college was unfamiliar. I had never had ratatouille or clam strips or stir-fried vegetables. The dishes looked weird. They smelled strange. I didn’t taste them, so I couldn’t be sure how their flavors measured up to my mother’s cooking. Instead, I put together salads from the salad bar; I made my own rudimentary sauces for plain pasta. I may have been the only freshman to lose a significant amount of weight in those first months. I made it through almost nine months of college without eating anything that I didn’t already eat. Then, at the end of the school year, I was elected to the board of a college organization I had joined, and the outgoing board members took the new board out to dinner. The minute I walked into the restaurant, I knew that I was in trouble. The dining room was nice, nicer than anyplace I’d ever eaten before. (I could tell this from the heavy linen napkins and the impossible collection of spoons and forks arrayed beside my plate.) The atmosphere made me want to speak in whispers. I watched the other people around the table before helping myself to rolls and apple butter. I was careful not to slice into the roll but to break it as I saw the other guests do. The menu puzzled me: there were fish that I didn’t recognize, things served in puff pastry (I could just imagine it flaking all over my fancy dress), a Long Island duckling in raspberry sauce. “Do we want to get some things to share?” a young woman asked. A few experienced souls consulted over the menu and ordered appetizers. The very first thing that came out was a silver dish pitted with little, round divots. Inside these divots were pools of shimmering butter flecked with parsley; in the pools floated tiny shells swirled brown and cream like expensive chocolates. Someone handed me a small, sharp fork. I plunged the fork into the shell and pulled out a dark, oily morsel of meat. I popped the thing into my mouth. Warm, deep flavors of butter and garlic and salt surprised me. The meat was slick and chewy but delicious, a little like the sautéed mushrooms my dad had given me years before. I wanted more, but the plate had already made its way down the table. “That was good,” I said, trying to sound like the sort of person who ate escargot every day. “Yeah,” another young woman said, “you wouldn’t think snails would taste like that.” Then she said, “Hey, do you want to try a bite of my baked brie?” We started carving into our appetizers, passing plates. I tried everything: the baked brie (managing to get shards of puff pastry everywhere), the fruit-studded salad, fish in a crispy skin, and dark, savory duck. I’m sure that the food was impossibly 80’s, blackened this and sun-dried that, but each bite was a discovery — not a memory, but something new. That dinner reorganized the way I thought of myself. I became less cowed by the restaurant’s soft lighting and heavy tablecloths. Voices rose, and laughter. I was new to the board, new to this setting, new to this range and presentation of flavors, but sharing food meant sharing enjoyment.

A Soul in Tension that’s Learning to Fly

I lay there, holding my breath, the better to hear the house settling around me. My best friend, Candice, was fast asleep beside me, untroubled by the creaks and pops of old walls and old staircases. Why should she be troubled? It was her house, after all. Come to think of it, I shouldn’t have been troubled either – I had been to Candice’s house dozens of times. I had pounded up and down those stairs, hidden behind the curtains of her canopy bed, built doll villages in the TV room. I should have known that house as well as my own, but somehow, it was different at night. The whisper of wind through the open window could have been a hushed voice; that faint scrape from the hall could have been footsteps. I pulled the covers over my face, terrified by the sudden strangeness, unable to comfort myself with the thought of going to the beach in the morning. Morning was a long way away.

It was my first sleepover; I was nine years old.

Growing up, I was never comfortable being away from home. I liked sleeping in my own bed. I liked my routine. Even when I was in high school, overnight trips felt overwhelming. I never pushed myself, and my parents were happy to let me stay right where I was, safe in my home. When I went away to college, I was terrified – like I was back in Candice’s room with ghosts lurking in the corners. I spent the first six weeks of freshman year being completely, profoundly homesick. I was so disoriented by the adjustment that I struggled to concentrate. I checked the clock compulsively: “This is when Dad should be getting home from work. This is when Mom should be putting dinner on the table.” I measured my days at college by the rhythm of days at home. Slowly, slowly, I began to adjust. I got involved. I made friends. By the time second semester rolled around, I started to feel at home in this odd, new place.

When Tink was born, I vowed that she would never feel so homesick. She was five when a friend from her dance class invited her to spend the night. Tink went, joyfully. I stayed up that night, one eye on the clock, one eye on my phone, waiting to hear that Tink was nervous, that she was scared, that she needed her mama. The call never came. When I went to pick Tink up the following morning, I nearly had to drag her away. Tink was only too happy to spend the night in an unfamiliar room, to eat food that her father and I hadn’t prepared.

Over the next few years, she had more sleepovers. She went to Girl Scout camp and summer camp. The absences got longer and longer: a weekend, a week, two weeks, three. Next week, halfway through the summer before her sophomore year, Tink will head off to six weeks of summer camp. She’ll be in a place that she loves, doing something that she loves, surrounded by friends. She’s a little nervous, sure, but she’s also eager for the adventure. For weeks now, she’s been stockpiling things to take with her, rolling socks and t-shirts into neat little balls. She texts with friends from camp, rehearsing memories, making plans. She FaceTimes them. “I can’t wait,” I hear her say.

Meanwhile, I wander around the house in a state of distraction. Did I remember to give her a beach towel? Will her water shoes from last year still fit? Does she have bug spray, sunscreen, toothpaste, soap?  Beneath these questions runs another, more insidious litany: Is this too much? Will she be lonely? Will she be safe?

What will she do without me?

Of course, beneath that, is another pressing question: What will I do without her?

I never thought of myself as the sort of mother whose only identity was motherhood.  Bruce and I are affectionate enough to mortify our teenage daughter. I’ve made a point of cultivating friendships. I work. I write. And, I remind myself, I have practiced for this moment. I have been saying goodbye to her for a very long time. (I know that this goodbye too is just practice.)

In a way, the question what will I do without her is a practical one. During the school year, my days are bookended by Tink’s schedule. In the mornings, I hear her alarm go off – not an alarm, really, but her favorite high-energy song of the moment programmed on her phone. I hear her feet pounding around upstairs as she gathers papers, books, clothing. I marvel that someone so slight can make so much noise. And I respond to her requests: “Mom, have you seen my –?” “Mom, can you get me a –?” The energy in the house drops by eighty percent as she rushes out the door. In the evenings, I take her to various practices and rehearsals, to the mall to meet friends. My routines are shaped by her schedule. When she is gone, my day will feel formless and flabby. There is nowhere to be right now.

But missing Tink won’t be just a matter of routines broken. When she is here, I know her schedule, more or less. I know when she is eating lunch or in the lab. I know her friends. I can measure my days by hers (much as I used to measure my days by my parents’ when I went off to college). When she is away from me, she passes beyond my knowledge (and my oversight). Sure, I can check the photos that the camp posts every day. I’ll search for her gamine features in a sea of other teenagers. I’ll piece together her schedule from those photos. I’ll get the occasional letter mentioning the names of her friends and counselors. But I won’t know what she is doing, not in the same way.

Bruce and I started sending Tink to camp to give her a chance to stand on her own, to understand that loneliness and new-ness can be survived, to discover who she is without us. As I look down at Tink’s duffle bags and survey six weeks’ worth of shorts and shirts and toiletries, I think that this wrenching, temporary absence will give us a chance to see who we are without her.

In the Past, I’ve Been a Nasty

There are plenty of aspects of parenthood for which I was completely, woefully unprepared: for instance, I never expected to tell another human being “Please don’t lick the window” or “Please don’t put cocoa butter on the dog.” I wasn’t ready for the cycle of ear infections or the inexplicable resistance to red foods or the constant worry. I wasn’t ready for the inexhaustible supply of Legos and Polly Pockets at the bottom of my bag. And I really wasn’t ready to dislike other children.

Let me be clear: I like children. I have always liked children. That’s one reason I wanted a child of my own. Plus, I have always considered myself a fairly mild-mannered, tolerant person. And as a connoisseur of children’s literature, I know that people who dislike children are villains, from Captain Hook to Count Olaf.  But I remember the day that I learned my own capacity for villainy. I was dropping Tink off at preschool and I took a few minutes to get her settled in. Tink went off to play with some other children and I stopped to talk to her teachers. As I turned to leave, I heard a high, bright voice laugh, “Look at what Tink did! Tink’s so stupid.” A different voice took up the refrain, “Yeah! Stupid.” A ball of ice formed in my stomach and sent sharp, narrow fingers through my veins. I turned around and walked over to where my damp-eyed daughter stood in a knot of small children who were laughing at her.

Then, I went full Alan Rickman — my voice dropped an octave and all my words grew extra vowels: “Whhaaaaaat. Diiidd. Yooouuu. Saaaaayyy.” (I may even have acquired a British accent.) The little blond cherub who had called Tink stupid looked up in shock. She shook her head. I continued. “I thought I heard you say that Tink was stupid. I hope that you didn’t, because that’s not kind and it’s not true. That would hurt her.” I struggled to keep my voice level, to not lash out or say cruel things myself; the villain in my head was raging: “You little jerk. How dare you? I am going to inflict psychological scars on you that will take years in therapy to smooth out.” Eventually, the child muttered a startled “sorry” and I marched away.

I was aware that I was more than twice the height of the child I had just spoken to. I had experience and language and self-control that child didn’t have. I was a grown-up, and by virtue of being a grown-up, I was Scary. I knew that the child had spoken thoughtlessly and that my response was probably excessive and downright terrifying. I knew all this, but at the same time, I was still angry. Another child had been mean to my child, had encouraged other kids to be mean to my child, and I wanted to make that child pay.

I would like to say that was the last time I came face-to-face with my inner Evil Queen, but it wasn’t. From the kid who announced to Tink that they were no longer best friends to the Eddie-Haskell-in-French-braids who didn’t invite her to a party, I’ve felt the same anger and frustration, the same deep dislike. I find myself rehearsing cutting retorts in my head: “Oh, yeah?” “Nuh-uh.” “Well, so are you!”

When I find myself mentally flailing in a sea of schoolyard taunts, I have to remind myself that I am no longer 15 or 12 or 10. My kid’s feelings are not my feelings. My job is to let her feel her feelings but not to take them on. Let me tell you, that ain’t easy. When Tink tells me that a friend has said an unkind thing or left her out of a fun activity, I flash back to my own teen years, to hurtful words and a sense of isolation. Hearing that my child has been excluded taps into my own buried fear of exclusion. I remember my own loneliness and pain, and I want to spare Tink from that. For a moment, I dislike the child who has conjured up those old feelings, who has reminded me of the awkward kid that I used to be.

Here’s the other thing about disliking children: the tides of childhood ebb and flow quickly. That kid who is mean to your child today may have been having a bad day, may just need time to mature. (Or you, the adult, need more perspective.) A couple years ago, Tink and another kid had a conflict that made me dizzy with anger and anxiety. The other kid had said things about Tink that infuriated me. I remember disliking this child, wanting to confront this child, working through feelings of anger and helplessness. But this story doesn’t end with me towering over this girl, lecturing her about hurtful words. Instead, she and Tink began talking about their differences. They discovered that they had more in common than they thought, and they managed to resolve their conflict without me breathing fire in the background. Today, they’re friends. If I had held onto my anger with her, Tink would have missed out on that friendship. She also would have missed out on an important lesson: circumstances change. People change – especially when those people are kids. In fact, their whole job is to change.

These days, I enjoy spending time with Tink’s peers. They’re interesting, funny, curious. I like hearing their questions and their plans. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have occasional outbreaks of Disney villainy, but while other kids (and mine) are growing and changing, I’m growing and changing too.