It was Monday morning, and I was settling down to the dining room table with my pumpkin spice coffee steaming in my favorite mug, getting ready to teach my daughter her first class of the day, both of our least favorite: math. We complete math first so that we both have the patience of not being over tired from other classes to give math the attention it needs. And usually it goes pretty well. She may grumble a bit, or I may have to retrace my steps to make sure I haven’t made a simple computational error (which I’m known to do). But usually math doesn’t cause too many problems for us.
Today, however, it was quite the learning moment for us both. Perhaps more so for me than her.
You see, I gave her a final project assignment for multiple digit addition and subtraction, and place value that I thought was really cool, and applicable to the real world. Because, seriously, anyone who is not full of joy to work out some numbers needs all assignments to have real-world application. She was challenged with planning a sleepover party, and needing to budget both her money and time between activities. Initially she was really excited to work on this. She dove right into the planning of what she would want to do. Rent a movie or go to he movies? What kind of pizza and what size to buy? Should we have pizza before or after the movie? She was all abuzz over these decisions. But as soon as I asked her to figure out which pizza deal was better, and if she’d have enough money for each plan, her face fell. I hadn’t said anything else when I could see the tears welling up in her eyes. What the hell just happened? I wondered to myself. What did I do??
I didn’t want to rock the boat any harder, for fear of collapse, so I just silently watched her as she started adding pizza and pop prices together. And I continued to say nothing until she was finished, even when I saw her make an easy mistake of not carrying and adding the one, hoping she’d catch it herself.
So, when she looked up at me from her paper, I had to tell her to recheck her solution to problem A. You’d swear that what I asked her instead was “Can you solve 2x+3y-9(16+4b)=. (I don’t even know if that’s a legitimate math problem, and if so what the fuck the answer would be). As soon as I asked her to check her answer again, the delicate balance of tears on her bottom eyelid toppled, and down flowed her frustrations from her cheeks to her paper. I knew then that I was fucked. There was no way she was going to go any further in this assignment today.
So, instead of pushing her to finish the work, I asked her to set her pencil down, and without shrugging, and using her words, tell me why she’s so upset. My kids hate when I do this, but I refuse to let them shrug and try to force me to drop the subject. Nope, not this mama. We’re talking this shit out.
Perhaps because she’s been though this so many times and is sick of me, knowing I can outlast her silence any day; or, perhaps because she really was ready to talk, she actually opened her mouth and squeaked out a “It’s just so hard.”
Huh? I’ve seen her do much harder work than adding a pizza and a pop together. How was this hard?
“What’s so hard, Lil? This was simple addition, which I’ve seen you do so many times before.”
“But I got it wrong. And I always get something wrong. And I hate getting it wrong.”
Now we were getting somewhere. I inhaled and exhaled fully and slowly, just like yoga taught me to in a situation when talking right away is not necessary or advantageous. I looked at her picking at her cuticles, avoiding eye contact with me, and suddenly understood who she was. She was me. And it was not only shocking, but also very disheartening to realize. My heart ached for her because I knew exactly who she was and why this math problem had become so monumentally huge and terrifying for her.
Having anxiety is a motherfucking bitch. It’s crippling at times, and the longer it goes unchecked, the worse it becomes. And it doesn’t give a shit if you tell it to go away or if people tell you that you should just ignore it or get over it, or that you’re too old, or smart, or capable to have to deal with it. Nope. That asshole latches on and Does. Not. Let. Go.
So because I know all of this already, but my sweet little girl is just figuring it out, I couldn’t have just told her, “Lil, it’s fine. It’s just a math problem. It’s not life or death.” Because for her in that moment, it felt like it. So, instead, I said, “I know, Lil. I really do. It feels like shit, and I hate it too. But what does feel better is acknowledging it. Talk to me, Pookie Girl, so I can try to help you.”
I don’t think this was what she was expecting. I think she had already made up her mind that I would try to dismiss it away so that we could get back to work. So it took her a second to switch gears and decide how she was going to explain herself to me.
“It’s just like taking a test. I’m always last. And everyone is always done way before me. And then I feel like they’re looking at me, and waiting for me to be done. And then I don’t even finish because I don’t want to be last. I don’t want them looking at me. And then I get a lot wrong because I don’t finish. So then I don’t even try different next time.”
I couldn’t talk. My face was pinched as tightly as my throat was. I couldn’t talk because she had just put my whole life into her words. And I had no idea what to say to her. How was I supposed to tell her to carry on and move forward when I can’t do that myself? How could I be an inspiration when I was so damn stuck in this, too?
So, for better or worse, what I did do was tell her the truth. I told her that I too was always one of the last to finish tests.
And that I hate going out in public, especially doing things I’m not comfortable with because I imagine everyone is watching me and judging. I don’t go running like I want to because everyone will know I’m out of shape, and laugh at me. I don’t go to yoga class because everyone will know I can’t get myself into the more advanced poses.
I told her that anxiety has gotten me so badly that it literally has made me physically ill. That every job interview I’ve ever gone on, I’ve been on the verge of puking or passing out the whole time, and that I walked out thinking I was an utter failure. And the times I didn’t get the job only perpetuated that notion, leaving me feeling worse and worse as the revolving door of interviews kept turning.
That when I finished my Master’s degree, a professor I had told me I should really consider going on to get my Ph. D., but that I would never do it because I don’t think I’m smart enough.
That for as long as I’ve been self aware, I’ve loved stories. And as soon as I could write, I began writing my own. And there’s not much else in this world that I want to do but write and publish a book. But I don’t follow through because I’m pretty sure I’m a hack, and that no one will want to read it. And it’s just so much easier to hide and not take that chance than to face the reality of feeling so wholly inadequate.
I told her that living with these fears has left me with so many regrets and what ifs. I’ve held myself back because I was too afraid. And who knows what I might have denied myself because of it. I told her the longer you refuse to acknowledge your fears and anxieties, the bigger they grow until they overpower any will you have left.
I told her I wanted so much more for her than I have ever wanted for myself. And I told her I would do anything at all for her to show her she could do it.
She then asked me, “So weren’t you writing a book last year?” I replied that I was. “What did you do with it?” I told her that I stopped. And when she asked me why, I could only tell her the truth. I stopped because I didn’t think it was any good. I quit because I was scared. I quit.
She put her hand on top of mine, and said, “But you said we’re not quitters. That life will always be hard, but we can’t quit because what would be the point then.”
Oof, right to the gut with that one. I guess she does listen to me after all. And what could I say to that? She was right. I do say that. And I say that because I don’t want her to give up on herself when things get tough because I know firsthand what that is like. But here we were having to confront the fact that I talk a good talk but haven’t been walking the walk.
All I could muster was another, “Yeah, you’re right, Lil.” Weak, I know. But what else could I say?
And then she came at me with the one-two punch.
“But you just said you quit your book. You don’t know it wasn’t good. What if it was good? I know that my math isn’t good, but you want me to keep going. That’s not fair.”
True. It’s not fair. And it’s not how I want her to see me.
“So, if I don’t quit my math, you can’t quit either. I’d read your book, even if you did think it wasn’t any good.”
My beautiful, brilliant, amazingly loving and true little girl. My life. My reason for doing everything. My reality check.
So I smiled, and thanked her for saying she’d read my book, and promised her that I would look at it again, and see where I could move forward with it. And when she asked if I had blogged recently, I and I told her no, she very pointedly told me that I could start there, that I needed to practice my writing if I thought it wasn’t good enough.
I couldn’t love her any more if I tried.
And after I told her I would. That I would write something today, she picked up her pencil, and finished reworking the math problem she’d gotten wrong. My brave girl.
So I guess the lesson my daughter taught me today, instead of me teaching her something as expected, is that being in denial of being in denial is bullshit. I’m not fooling anyone, least of all myself. And if she can tell her anxiety to pack it up and out, the least I can do is try to do the same myself.
You see, when I was 23 and trying to get pregnant, I heard from so many people in my life that I was too young, that I had no reason to get pregnant yet. But somewhere inside of me, I knew that I needed her. I didn’t know who she was yet, but I knew that this baby, whomever it turned out to be would give my life greater purpose. What I didn’t know, however, was how much she would ultimately save me.