If we suspend disbelief for a moment and travel back in time together to this day in June, 1978, we will come across a cute little version of me who has just celebrated her 10th birthday. If you choose to remain in the past for a moment to observe this little girl in her primary school yard you will see a sweet child with a big smile and a loving nature. She will appear to be a child without a care in the world; you will see her playing tag, skipping rope and smiling broadly surrounded by friends, laughter and fun. What you will not see is the little girl who just wants to be liked by everyone. You will not see that she desperately wants to quietly blend into the background and let others take the lead. You won’t know the pains to which she goes to carefully follow the rules and be ‘a good girl’. You will not know that she has never been in the principal’s office other than to deliver attendance or run an errand for her teacher. Or that her heart breaks every time she thinks someone is talking behind her back and that it takes her days to recover from any kind of conflict. But mostly what you will not see is that she is terrified of any kind of trouble that will single her out or thrust her into the limelight.
To observe my past self in the schoolyard, I can easily tap into the angst of childhood that flourished so abundantly in that seemingly innocent arena. Venturing into the schoolyard as a child was a torturous mix of anxious vulnerability and apprehension day after day; where are my friends? What if they aren’t here and I have no one to play with? What if they are mad at me for something I don’t even know I did? What if no one wants to play with me and I am all alone? What if I have no friends left? The schoolyard is a place with minimal adult supervision, clearly defined hierarchies of popularity and sometimes abject cruelty. It is a scary place where complex dynamics dance painfully on that blacktop and can make or break you as a kid.
Flash forward 32 years and I am now the mother of three wildly extroverted alpha male boys. Through circumstances well beyond my control I have become the focus of a significant amount of unwanted attention, both inside the school and outside in the schoolyard. Having a child with ADHD has put me in the limelight and in the hot seat more times than I care to remember. For me, the ever present anxiety of the schoolyard hasn’t changed all that much in 32 years except that now I seem to be experiencing it from both sides; not only as the child but also the mother.
This is where dynamics start to get a little tricky.
As an adult I am supposed to be able to objectively listen to the end of day report from the teacher about Michael’s behaviour. I am supposed to be able to sit in the principal’s office with the door closed to discuss the latest batch of trouble. I am supposed to be able to be the centre of attention and stand by my child out in the schoolyard when yet another parent approaches with yet another conflict to report between their child and mine. I am supposed to be able to be the mother when I still feel so much like the child who doesn’t want this much attention. These reports about Michael leave me feeling crushed and broken as if I am the little girl who is in trouble. This uncomfortable admission leaves me with an exquisitely painful question; how can I possibly support Michael in his perilous journey through childhood when it seems I am still healing my own? I must be able to walk through the school gates at the end of the day inside my 42-year-old body even when the younger version is crying for me to turn tail and run.
If I am honest I still want to blend into the background and have everyone like me. I still don’t want to be in trouble or, God forbid, be called into the principal’s office. I still don’t want to be the centre of attention and I dread the thought of parents talking behind my back about my out-of-control child and my bad parenting. There are days when I truly wish the ground would open up and swallow me whole so I did not have to face yet another angry parent, teacher or principal.
I have often heard it said that our children are our teachers. It seems to me that Michael has come into my life to teach me many things. My experience with Michael is teaching me that I am an exquisite mix of both strength and vulnerability. I am not supposed to have all the answers and he did not choose me to walk his path for him, just be by his side to make the way a little smoother whenever I am able. He is showing me that my ten-year-old self had that same strength of character and that it is one of the things that made her so special. Michael is showing me that even though the child in me wants to run away from the heart breaking conflict, I resolutely choose to stand beside him every single time. He also reminds me daily that his struggles are not about me and that all those latent childhood vulnerabilities have no place in today’s schoolyard. He helps keep my delicate ego in check because there really is no room for ego in parenting this beloved and complicated child.
So at the end of the day I am beginning to understand that my job is not to walk Michael’s perilous path for him. Nor is it to scurry around behind him making excuses and cleaning up the ‘mess’. My job is to stand with him and support him even when it is really hard and all I want to do is to flee. Part of being a mother to Michael is to stand in the muck beside him and know that we can face whatever comes along because we are in it together. It also seems that Michael is teaching me that my ever-present ten-year-old self helps me to identify with the desperately vulnerable child that is inside Michael. And that perhaps between us we have the strength to get through the challenges that lay ahead.
As painful as it is at times, perhaps life on both sides of the schoolyard isn’t quite so bad after all.