We all do it. It comes more naturally than anything else in parenthood, doesn’t it? More naturally than breastfeeding or disciplining or all of the other things that are more essential. We’re parents. We breathe and we worry.
When our girl was smaller, we worried a lot. Because when children are small, worry is all you’ve got. You can’t see the future and you haven’t been down this road before to know that it usually all turns out ok. You don’t know what to do and fear making a misstep. So you worry.
When our girl was two and three, we worried so much about her socially. Painfully shy and exhibiting signs of textbook introversion, she walked into new situations slowly or, sometimes, not at all. She cried outside of ballet classrooms, sobbed on the way to school for weeks and months. I’ve watched several of her friends’ birthday parties with my back against the wall of the gym and her on my lap.
In the beginning, it was hard for us. We wanted nothing more than for her to be brave and confident and outgoing. To walk with her head held high into any new situation and just join right in, as unnatural as that really is when you think about it. We wanted her to have friends and experiences and fun. In those days, we didn’t know how to handle her fears and anxieties, and didn’t have any experience to tell us that she would really be ok. So we forced and cajoled. We negotiated and threatened. Go into ballet or we won’t go out for lunch. Go play with your friends at this party or we’re leaving. Have fun at this party, dammit, or we’re not coming to any more!
Even as we said those things, we knew they were wrong. But we didn’t know what was right.
Last weekend, we went to the park. We walked in and cut both kids loose. The baby toddled around, sometimes wandering, mostly sticking close. But sister ran. She found a friend from school who happened to be meeting more friends and the group of them ran off, climbing on the structures that she regarded fearfully last year, diving headfirst into tunnel slides and, at times, running out of our line of sight.
While M kept an eye on her, I followed the baby around and eventually we ended up on the swings. Before long, a woman with her daughter arrived at the swing next to us. The little girl was bigger than my boy, fully verbal and bordering on too big for the baby swing. But the mother loaded her in and began to push. Before long, however, I heard her trying to force the little girl out.
“It’s time to go play with your friends now.”
And the little girl would refuse.
“Push me higher!”
This went on for quite a while. The mother telling the little girl just one more push, then it’s time to go play with your friends. You’re missing the point of this playdate. No more swinging, you have to go play. The little girl’s response was always, only, to beg for more pushing.
Later I learned that the friends the woman had been referring to were the friends that my girl had been playing with since we got there. That the little girl’s parents had organized the playdate. That they had just moved here from California, just started at our girl’s school.
And they were worried.
I can’t even imagine all the things they worry about. The way a cross-country move has affected their little girl. That joining a classroom in the middle of the year is making things hard for her. That she isn’t making friends or joining in the way they wanted her to or felt that she should. That this is how life will always be for her and she’ll never make friends or walk into new situations with confidence. Maybe she won’t walk in at all. That she’ll always want to swing by herself and what kind of life is that?
When we worry, we paint a bleak picture as far into our future as our heart’s eye can see.
I didn’t say anything to that mother that day. I have not yet learned the balance between offering helpful or kind words and sounding like a stuck up smarty pants. I’ve actually begun to doubt that there is a balance.
But watching her made me more closely examine my own actions. We’ve come a long way since those early days and tears. Our girl more easily joins in now, most of the time, and we respect her process when she doesn’t, most of the time. We worry less because we see that she will be fine. Her process will serve her well and is not entirely different from our own. She is, after all, cut from our cloth. And because of that, I don’t have to worry. I know what she is feeling, what she needs. I know that if I can help her believe in herself, trust in her process, follow her own way, then she will indeed be ok.
Watching that mother made me realize that we worry. We’re parents. We breathe and we worry. But we’re not doing right by them when we worry. It’s what we do with that worry that matters.