She didn’t get a part in the junior high play. The dreaded cast list for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was posted yesterday, and my girl’s name was not on it. I found her crying in her bedroom last night, confiding in her Mississippi friend.
I hugged her, offered my ear if she wanted it, told her I was so proud of her for auditioning.
“It’s not easy to get on stage and sing in front of everyone,” I said. “You’re so brave.”
She told me earlier in the week that her audition song was a bit off-key, that her dance number was a disaster. I think we were both expecting this outcome, but her disappointment was still palpable.
I remember that feeling. When I auditioned for the Singing Hoosiers at IU, I made it to the very last cut. And then I read the final list, sans my name. I was devastated, crushed, ready to quit school and flip burgers for the rest of eternity. (Yes, I was nineteen and still highly dramatic.)
All my life, my motivating force has been in proving my worth. It’s not pretty, it’s not healthy, and I work every day to write a new story. Still, though, it rears its ugly head from time to time, this unworthiness. With every team I didn’t make, every audition I didn’t get, every friend who stopped calling, I allowed a little piece of myself to get lost.
My greatest challenge is ensuring I don’t project that yuck — that need for external approval and validation — onto my own kids.
Just last week, Mary Claire was looking at herself in my bathroom mirror. She turned around, checked out her backside and declared, “Look how big my butt is!” Immediately, I went into my own head and said, “Well, Honey, if you’re concerned about it, why don’t you start running with me?”
“I’m not concerned about it,” she said. “I love it! I’ve got the booty going on!”
Then she shook it for full effect, chanting, “Booty, booty, booty!”
I tried to pull the dastardly “Well, Honey, if you’re concerned about it, why don’t you start running with me?” out of the atmosphere and back into my big mouth.
Sometimes words stick when and where we least expect them to. Even when we choose them with great precision, we never really know how what we say is going to land on someone else’s ears. I always contend that part of the beauty of writing is knowing the words I pen mean something different to everyone who reads them. It is, in fact, both the beauty and the bane.
When I didn’t make Singing Hoosiers, I cried. (Shocking, I know.) I cried for quite awhile. I wallowed around, felt lost and alone in my beautiful new Bloomington home, even though I was surrounded by friends and new adventures… and Bloomington! After the wave of performance rejection receded a bit, I was able to think more clearly. When the fog lifted, here’s what became evident: I didn’t read music well, had never taken a dance lesson. And so, committed to vocal performance, I refocused. I studied with a private opera instructor, perfected my pitch, expanded my range. When I transferred to Ball State my sophomore year (because a cute, young freshman who would later become my husband had received a full ride there), I auditioned for the Ball State Chamber Choir. And I made it. Chris and I both toured with them. It was a magical year of song and travel. I wouldn’t have been chosen, though, if I hadn’t reflected and recovered and changed what I was capable of changing, if I hadn’t looked into my own heart to determine what was worth the fight, the effort.
The same goes for my girl.
I can’t fix this for her. I can’t tell her how to feel. I can’t determine what matters to her. I can only stand with her while she figures out her next move. I can hold her while she cries, and I can encourage her to step out of her sadness when she’s ready. Most importantly, I must ensure I don’t project my own feelings onto her. Shared stories of disappointment can help us feel less alone, but first and foremost, I must remember that her experience is not my experience. I will honor that truth, and make sure I don’t diminish her right to feel exactly what she’s feeling, that I choose to listen and respond to her, not to me.
And I will remember that more often than not, my best parenting comes when I close my mouth and open my heart.