There is this short story by Sandra Cisneros called, “Eleven.” In brief, it is about a little girl who gets almost bullied in school by her teacher and classmates about leaving a sweater on the ground that was not hers. It goes into the emotional responses of the young girl and asks questions about bulling and perception and power. But it also happens on her eleventh birthday, hence the title.
I used to teach this story to my college kids, but I actually hadn’t thought about it in a few years. And then the first line came into my mind about a week ago, and I haven’t been able to let it go.
It goes like this. “What they don’t tell you about birthdays and what they never will tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.”
I wasn’t a mom when I used to teach this, and so my interpretation of it was always in regards to my own life and experiences, and perhaps that’s partially why I always had a bit of difficulty with it.
But now I understand it differently.
My five year old went to a birthday party yesterday. It was one of those big extravaganzas at a trampoline farm. I stayed there with her because most of these kids are rather new classmates, so I didn’t know most of the adults there. I stayed happily on the side, watching and enjoying.
She was there with a bunch of other kids all within a year of her age, but suddenly she seemed so small. How was this little girl who was trying to make her way into the excitement and join in the fun the same little girl who helps me set the table in the evenings and reads me her favorite books? How does she seem so old at home and yet so very little when surrounded by her peers?
And then that Cisneros line came back to me. At home I see her as she is because when she is at home, she is her most authentic self. She’s free to be silly and goofy and serious and morose and excitable. She’s fully accepted.
But when she’s at school, she’s not surrounded by people who have loved her since before her heart began to beat. She has to prove herself. Assert herself. Make herself known.
And to be honest, that’s hard to watch.
I see her anxiously approaching some new kids. Walking a bit slower. Trying to find a way into the crowd. And I flash back to when she was cautiously approaching Santa at the mall when she was two. I see her reluctantly speak to a new girl, and I remember the time at the park when a new girl slapped her in the face and she came running back to me in tears.
I see the games the kids play. The harmless jokes. The chasing of each other. And I think of how wrong it can go. How friends one day can turn into bullies the next.
And I’m brought back to our days at the dinner table when she was finally learning the words to our dinner prayer, and how peaceful and solemn and holy she looked as she was earnestly repeating everything she had been learning. Then I realize that it’s this same little girl who will have to learn to maneuver through those sometimes murky waters of childhood and adolescence.
It’s common to hear teenagers berating their parents by saying, “But Mom, I’m not a little baby anymore.” And I think the typical response is usually, “Yes, but you will always be my baby no matter how old you grow.”
And I guess it wasn’t until Magoo started school that I was first able to really understand that concept.
Yes, we have a duty to see our children as they are at the moment. We have to let them utilize their new skills as they venture out into a brand new world. We have to remember that wings are as important as roots. We have to accept and encourage and help them cultivate identities of their own.
But how possible is it really to fully see our children in the moment? How possible is it to push away all those years and all those memories and all those imprints of who they once were?
And is it really even desirable to do so?
In a world that largely values us on the worth we can show them, on the value we can add to their lives, on the balance of our strengths and our weaknesses, isn’t it nice to have someone who remembers the more innocent aspects of us? Who knows how deeply our hearts can be broken because once upon a time, they were the ones responsible for putting them back together? Who yearns to see our smile because they know just how big it can grow when it isn’t inhibited or shamed? Who remembers not the polite hugs of adulthood, but the unencumbered, all in squeeze hugs of childhood?
We have an entire world who will see us as we are now. I think it’s a comforting thought to think that there are a couple of people who will always remember us when. That’s what I hope to be for my girls. Their bridge from their past to their present. Reminding them that even when they are thirty or forty or fifty, they are also still twenty and ten and five. That even when they feel at their most beaten down and broken, they still hold the remnants of that baby in the cradle or that toddler on the swing.
That’s where we can find hope. And I think that’s also where we can find peace.
Amanda Knapp is a writer and a stay at home mom to her three little girls. She blogs about life and everything that goes along with it at Indisposable Mama.