The start of the school year is like parent hell. I dread the overdue health forms, missing soccer uniforms, and barrage of commitments that herald the beginning of September. This year is no exception — and on top of the typical stresses, there’s this: my daughter is starting fifth grade. It’s a time of seismic physical and emotional shifts, new and complex social dynamics, and increased academic pressures, to name a few. In my work with Dynamo Girl I’ve coached hundreds of elementary school-aged girls and I’ve learned how to support and encourage girls through exciting and challenging experiences, from introducing them to new sports to helping them navigate changing friendships. But just as doctors make the worst patients, I sometimes struggle when it comes to parenting my own daughter through complicated moments. I am keeping this list of reminders close at hand to help me support my daughter while she maneuvers the bumps and swerves of the upcoming year.
Every morning she wakes up in a different body.
My daughter’s ten-year-old body seems to change on a daily basis and that can be frightening for her and unsettling for me. One day my daughter may smell like baby shampoo and the next day like raw onions. One day she may have a flat chest and seemingly overnight, she may have breast buds. What’s most important as her mom is that I stay calm and keep things low-key, have conversations while I’m driving or while we’re lying side by side on her bed. The message to her is this: everything she’s going through is perfectly normal, I went through it too and I am here to love her through it all.
Tell her to get muddy.
So often I hear mothers saying to their girls: don’t get your clothes dirty or don’t step in that puddle. Sometimes, I’m tempted to say the same thing because as a mother, a transgression means more laundry or ruined shoes. But when I take a step back from the ordinary concerns of parenting, I remember the sense of freedom I had as a girl playing in the rain. I can still feel the sensation of running fast down a sports field in wet shorts and muddy cleats. I have absolutely no meaningful memories of the thousands of days I stayed clean and dry. So instead of telling her what not to do, I will say to my daughter: GET MUDDY. I want her to experience the thrilling sense of freedom that comes with soaking wet hair and mud-splattered legs, because I know she will carry that feeling with her wherever she goes in life. I certainly do. It is the feeling that bolsters me when I need courage.
Sometimes it feels good to cry.
As part of her return from summer camp, my daughter sometimes just lies on her bed and cries. I sit with her and we sing campfire songs through tears or I rub her back and braid her hair. This year, about a week after she got home and the crying had let up, my daughter turned to me and said: “It feels good to be sad and to miss camp because it means I REALLY love it there.” I was blown away by her revelation because as parents we are so often trying to get our children to stop crying ASAP. Our first response is so often: Don’t cry! But my daughter’s insight showed me that sometimes those tears, particularly for girls her age and older, are a reflection of a deep love for something. They are a sign, not of pain or of lack, but of joy and connection and so sometimes, it feels good to cry.
She might be the only girl playing football. And that’s fine.
Starting in kindergarten, girls begin to drop out of sports in co-ed environments. For years, I was the only girl playing football during recess. Sometimes I felt all alone in making that choice, but I wasn’t willing to give up the game I loved just because I was the only girl. Turns out my daughter is cut from the same cloth as I am. She comes home with stories of what it was like to play football on the roof with the boys, the highs and lows of going it alone. I want her to know that sometimes doing what she loves might mean she is the only girl doing it. I want her to know that choosing that path might feel uncomfortable and lonely, but also that I’m super proud of her bravery.
Let her be.
I have to LET HER BE. Occasionally, my daughter will run to her room screaming, slam the door and pound her fists on her bed. That makes me feel like I have failed her as a parent in some epic way. I have to remember that my daughter is having big feelings that are scary and painful, but also exciting and grown up. I have to give her time to have those big feelings — they may lead to an amazing drawing or a powerful journal entry while she is holed up in her room. Running to fix everything won’t teach her how to work through her emotions without my immediately interceding. Sometimes I just need to let her be.
Let her be also means to let her BE. It means to let my daughter be who SHE is, not who I want or wish for her to be. My daughter lives in a world where how she should look, dress and act is prescribed down to the very last painted toenail. She is fighting her best fight against that pressure, charting a unique path with her own style and her own dreams. Sometimes it thrills me and sometimes it makes me nervous. My job as her mother is to push the outside world out of our home and say to my daughter: you be who you are and I am here to love and support you while you are trying to figure out what that is. I am going to let you be you.