This weekend I was running errands with my *almost* twelve-year-old daughter. We needed to return two chairs that didn’t work in our new house. As I was placing one in the shopping cart, I turned to find her trying her best to lift the other chair out of the back of my truck.
“Hey!” I said. “That’s heavy! Let me help you with that.”
“No, I got it,” she said firmly.
Her thin arms shook as she lifted it out. I let her try to put it into the shopping cart, but when it started rolling away, I had to jump in. She was pissed. But as we walked into the store, I watched her carefully, my only daughter and the youngest of my two kids. She tries so hard to be tough and has never cared for big shows of affection. When she was two, she would say “good-bye” when I tucked her in and roll over and go to sleep! It was disconcerting, to say the least, especially after raising her brother, who couldn’t get enough hugging and snuggling at bedtime. As she got older, she stopped hugging me back and would simply stand there with her arms limp by her side. I always accepted it as ‘how she was wired’ and let it go. Her father is the same way. I chalked it up to genetics and didn’t want to try to change her or make her uncomfortable.
But things are different now.
Her father and I are nearing the end of our divorce. Our family home, which we’ve lived in for the past five years, is up for sale. Last weekend I moved into a rental house just 3 minutes away. She was spending her first weekend in her new house in her new room, just the two of us (her brother is out of town on a field trip). She only cried once – back in June when we first told the kids about the divorce. Since then, she has brushed aside all my attempts to talk with “it’s fine.”
Now, after watching her struggling with that chair, refusing my attempts to help, I knew we needed to talk. But it wasn’t the right moment. I would have to wait for it. She only wanted to have fun singing to pop music in the car and telling me about her field trip at school and buying the much-coveted rubber band bracelet kit from the craft store. Everything was ‘fine.’
With pre-teens and life, as you know, it’s all about the timing. 🙂
My opportunity came the next day as we were driving home from her newest baby cousin’s baptism. I had tried to hug her that morning and again, I had gotten the limp return hug and attitude. I brought up the hugging issue. I told her I loved her more than life itself and wanted to show her – and I did not like my hugs going unreturned. She told me it embarrassed her.
And then she burst into tears.
I immediately pulled off the road and stopped on the side street. I unbuckled our seat belts. I reached over and held her in my arms like I always wanted to. She let me hold her and sobbed. Her hair smelled like strawberry shampoo, the new one I bought for her for “Mom’s” house. I told my girl that it was okay to cry, to feel sad, to have feelings. I talked about change, and how much we were going through and that it WAS hard, and that it was OKAY to feel sad and let it out. She did not have to be “Super Girl’ and keep it all inside. I told her that feelings are just that – feelings. And they are natural and they will come and they will go. But if you don’t let them out, if you pretend they don’t exist, if you don’t share them, it will eat you up inside.
What I don’t say is this: It will make you like me. And I don’t want that for you.
Instead, I tell her that I have come to learn, through counseling and the support of my friends and family, that it is okay to have feelings, to let them out, to share them. It is not a sign of weakness – it is a sign of being a human being. I tell her that I am learning to do things differently, and that I realize she learned from me that to be a woman is to be tough. To be strong. To never ask for help. To never, ever, ever show anyone that you are anything less than perfect. And that this was ALL wrong. And I was so sorry, so very, very sorry.
Because the only way you can truly love – and be loved – is to open your heart. To share your thoughts and feelings. To ask for help. To admit when you need help and then let people in. It’s how you connect with other people and if you don’t, you will feel all alone. You will be alone. I tell her this: True strength is not about being able to lift a heavy box by yourself. True strength is about having the courage to ask someone for help when you need it.
I gently lift her chin. I look into her huge, beautiful, tear-filled blue eyes. I say:
Let me help you lift your heavy boxes.
I told my girl a lot of things on the side of that road today. We sat there for a long time talking. She hugged me back, but I know she has a way to go. We all do. In the end, we agreed that she would come up with a discreet gesture we can use to to show each other we love each other. I suggested some baseball hand signals. She shook her head no. How about this, I said, and pretended to stick my finger up my nose. She burst out laughing. I knew then everything would be okay. 🙂
The picture in this post is the rubber band bracelet she made for me tonight. It reminds me of what love should be: happy colors, flexible but strong, holding things together, beautiful.
Whatever you have going on in your life today, remember – you don’t have to do the heavy lifting alone.