My Hero Girl
In August of 2012 I left my husband and the father of my children. I rented a bedroom above a garage a few blocks away from our apartment. The kids were one and two years old. I thought I was sparing our family unnecessary upheaval. Surely no need to hire lawyers or make extra drama. I came every morning and resumed my stay-at-home-mommying. Late in the evening, he returned from work, and I returned to my little bedroom.
Then one night two social workers called to tell me I'd just been indicated in a child abuse report. The next morning the bank accounts were empty. And my nightmare began in earnest. He hired a nanny. I had to find a job. Distraught doesn't begin to describe my inner world. I was being investigated for child abuse. I couldn't eat or sleep or function properly. Except, I had to. I had to show that I was a good, capable mom.
For months I did not sleep in the same place as my babies. Speaking that fact made my throat choke and tears stream down my face. There were moments when I felt confident about my choices and direction. But whenever I felt like torturing myself I would ask, "What kind of mother doesn't sleep in the same place as her babies?" And then I would answer myself by falling apart.
All my motives started with my priority on creating the life I dreamed of giving my children. One of honesty and authenticity and limitless options. I had to hang in there.
One night a couple months ago, I was putting my daughter to bed. She didn’t want to go to sleep. We’d been through the bedtime rituals in entirety. She was cooperative when I said goodnight and gently closed the door behind me.
But a few minutes later she called out. When I went back in she was standing in her crib, smiling like the middle of the afternoon. I knew coaxing or reprimanding were useless. But I didn't want to encourage her by getting her out of bed. She usually puts her arms up and sweetly says, “Let me hold you for a minute?” It’s nearly impossible to say no. But she will cuddle for a few minutes, then wiggle down under the pretense of needing to close the door or turn on a light or pick up a stray piece of laundry. Once she’s off my lap, she heads straight for the toys in the living room. So that night, I told her to lie back down and I would tell her a story. She got under the covers and looked up at me expectantly.
Once upon a time, in a land far far away… I began. I told her a story all about a little princess who was sick with a tummy ache. Her dad, the king, put her to bed, and then went to call the doctor. The doctor told him about a special medicine. It grew on a tree in a faraway land, over an ocean, across a desert, through a jungle, way up high on a mountain.
When the king got off the phone, he asked, “Who is going to get the special medicine?” I was making this random story up as I went. Just then, when the formula called for a gallant prince to come offer his brave services, I caught myself. “Whoa! What am I telling her?” And I quickly answered the plot with the entrance of a brave little girl named Meira Claire.
She was laying there, hanging on my every word. When I mentioned her name, and how she'd volunteered to go get the exotic medicine, her eyes almost bugged out of her head and she smiled so big. I almost burst with pleasure watching her reaction.
I described how she sailed a ship, rode a camel, made friends with a flying dragon… She bravely journeyed to the top of the mountain, and climbed the medicine tree. Then I described the ways she managed to return with the medicine safe in her arms. When she finally arrived back at the palace, she and the king went into the princess's bedroom. Together they fed her the medicine, and she recovered instantly. Then she got up and had a playdate with Meira Claire.
I couldn't describe my daughter’s face if I tried. To see the wheels of her imagination turning while I told her the story was electrifying. The story was over but she was still wide awake, lost in the new possibilities opened to her. It was truly magical. It felt like my greatest moment as a mother. I kissed her goodnight and she didn’t protest as I walked out.
That story has become a regular with us. We tell all sorts of variations to each other when we are driving, or find ourselves killing time somehow. Now, instead of just telling the story, I tell a few lines, and then ask her what happens next. “How does Meira get across the ocean?” Every time she offers a different mode of transport. Riding a dragon is a favorite though.
The responsibility to help shape a brand new human’s expectations and understanding of the world is almost too profound to deal with. But the joy and awe I saw in her that night, I fully shared. Wow! I am going to teach her that she's strong and capable and clever and amazing, and it's GREAT to be that way! I'm going to teach her that she doesn’t have to wait for a prince. She is her own hero when she lives the full-sized version of herself. That is going to be her normal.
It was as if the same new wonder had opened up and creative wheels were turning in my head.
Stories though, are one thing. If there is anything we grown-ups know, it's that life doesn’t resemble a fairytale. Letting go of Happily-Ever-After is necessary if we are ever going to find real happy endings. Ditching the prince storyline to empower my girl is one thing, but in the end, all fairy tales must be seen for what they are. Myths.
I didn’t grow up thinking a prince would save me. I did think I was strong and independent. But somehow I still absorbed the message that I needed a man to make me okay. To give me full license to be who I am. It’s sad to unravel the absurdity of the thinking now.
At almost three years old, things are a lot simpler for her. And I am doing my damndest to keep it that way. They say, “More things are caught, than taught.” And oh, the painful reality to discover that. The confusion that lives on inside when we don’t realize that what we were taught is not what we caught. We live by what we caught, like it or not.
Consciously I believed I could do it all, be it all… But underneath, I was really always waiting, killing time until I got permission and protection and approval from someone else. Waiting to be made legit. Believing I wasn’t enough on my own. Believing I needed to be underneath someone else.
So now I find myself trekking through a barren desert trying to live out the story I tell my daughter. Some days I am on a little boat, tossing in wild seas of uncertainty. Some days I am okay, resting along the way, eating bananas in the jungle. But then the time comes to pick up and keep moving, climbing, slashing through the underbrush.
I am determined to give her a true story. I cannot bear to tell her she can be all she can be, and then demonstrate something less. I won't tell her life is a fairy tale, only to have it smack her in the skull over and over later. She will become her own heroine, and she will also meet wonderful partners. But the long journey between fairy tale and reality and truly joyful blendings, is happening now, with a rough trudge through lonely landscapes. Perhaps these times, the sometimes lonely, fraught ones, are my greatest moments as a mother.