During a playdate at the home of a family we'd known since Clare was an infant, while the parents gathered in the kitchen and caught up with each other, the kids ran around the huge backyard. Because Grace was almost one and very mobile, I tried to occupy her inside the house so I could join the adult conversation, but she would often drag me outside to help her navigate around the big kids' play.
While I watched Grace climb the hill covered with ivy, and slide down the plastic toy structure, I kept my ear cocked toward the adults. I was listening to the other parents through the screen door when five-year-old Clare tugged on my arm to get my attention. "Suzie says she doesn't want me to be here," she said.
I kissed the top of Clare's head where the blond part revealed her scalp, and said, "Oh, I'm sure she doesn't mean it." And then I turned my attention back to the adults in the house.
An hour later, I was up on the hill in front of the yurt chasing after Grace, when I heard the other kids tell Clare, "Don't look in here. Go away." They were inside the yurt with the door shut, and Clare had been standing outside trying to look in through the plastic drape covering the window. But now, after being told to go away, she was facing me, her face growing red as a dazed smile flashed across her lips. I felt like I had been slapped.
The incidents of the past hour—Clare wandering in and out of the house while the other kids remained outside; Clare sitting alone in the corner; Clare pulling on my arm when I was focused on the other parents; me brushing her off—all coalesced in my mind.
One of the kids opened the door they'd locked to prevent Clare from coming into the yurt and they all ran out. "Don't follow us," they yelled to Clare. "We don't want you with us."
Stunned, I watched as this played out over the next several moments, with Clare stumbling after the kids and them running away from her, chanting, "We don't want you here. We don't want you here."
I grew hot with rage and shame. Fierce thoughts volleyed in my head. Didn't Clare know that she should be ignoring them? That following after them for their approval and affection was feeding their meanness? Was weak? Didn't she have any self-esteem? Didn't she value herself enough not to put up with that? What had I done wrong as her mother? As I stood watching Clare's teeth glint in the sun while her embarrassed smile pushed up the reddening flesh of her cheeks, the thoughts in my head continued to ricochet, gaining speed and volume while becoming increasingly harsh. This is the way it will always be. Clare's pathetic, just like me. This is the truth of things.
Through tears I tried to hide, I packed up all of our things and ushered the kids out the door. Clare tried to make eye-contact with me as I fastened her seat belt. When I wouldn't look at her, she put her head down and asked me, in a quiet, small voice, "Mommy, why were they being so mean to me?"
I didn't trust myself to say anything. Clare's occasional sniffle as tears streaked down her face was the only sound in the car as we drove home. Once back at the house, I locked myself in the hallway bathroom, wedging myself between the toilet and the shower and ducking my head between my bent knees. I took some deep breaths, while I ignored Grace and Aidan shouting at each other in the living room as they fought over a toy that they both wanted. I couldn't hear Clare, and I didn't know where she had gone. Thankfully, Shane came in from the backyard and took over. I listened as he intervened between Grace and Aidan. Then he came to knock on my door. "You alright?" he asked. "Yeah," I responded in a shaky voice. "I just need a minute. Can you please check on Clare? She had a rough time at the playdate."
Watching the other kids ridicule Clare forced me to reconnect with the little girl I had been and to acknowledge that, in many ways, I was still that little girl. I thought I'd outgrown those days. I thought I was far removed from the third-grader who, during PE, stood at home plate with a bat raised over her head while the kids jeered, "Look at how fat she is. God, she's so ugly. She needs to go on a diet. How could her mom let her wear those pants out of the house?" That day, I'd been wearing a white flowered cardigan and gray stretch pants, and my face was burning. My hair was pulled back in a bun or a ponytail, not protecting me from anyone's sight, not shielding the "fat" flesh on my cheeks as they flushed deeper and deeper shades of red. Back then, the girl leading the assault was the one I sat up at night dreaming of. I fantasized about sleepovers at her house, and how we'd dress up each other's dolls and watch Grease and paint our toenails. And how, if only I was thin enough or pretty enough or somehow better, I could earn her friendship, which would feel like an aura of protecting warmth and light.
I had wanted to run away, but I couldn't. I had to stand there and take it. And as the taunting continued, seeming to escalate in volume and ferocity, I started to cry. And I thought of my dad and how he didn't want me either. The few times I had seen him he'd been distant and uninterested. When I had dinner at his house with his new family, his new kids had laughed at me while I knifed two and then three servings of butter onto my noodles. I couldn't taste it, and so I kept adding more. I didn't understand that the butter was unsalted because I'd never had that kind of butter before. But I did understand that my dad's new kids were thin, and I was not; and that they had my dad's love and affection, and I did not. He was in their life and—except for three of four brief visits—not in mine. My younger-half siblings had continued to laugh at me, looking at each other as they pointed at my plate full of butter. I had put my head down so they wouldn't see the tears in my eyes.
And later, on that baseball field, while the tears fell down my face and the taunting of my third-grade classmates merged with the memory of my half-siblings' laughter, it all hurt too much. Something snapped inside me. I will never again let myself feel this way, I told myself. I swore that I would not allow myself to want anyone who didn't want me. And I forced myself to stop crying.
As an adult remembering these things, slumped on the cracked linoleum floor of my bathroom, with my face red and my heart beating so fast and hard I could hear it in my ears, I felt the hunger of the little girl in me. How I'd yearned for the friendship of the popular girl in my third-grade class, the acceptance of my half-siblings, and the love of my dad. I experienced all over again how much it hurt to long for them. How it hollowed me out. Left me extended and unbalanced. And how hard I'd fallen into self-loathing when my desire was left unmet for too long.
Feeling the presence of the little girl in me who was still, after all these years, in pain, and my daughter, Clare, who was also hurting, I knew I wanted something better for both of us. I thought about all I'd learned since becoming a mom through my own personal experience and from other parents and researchers.
I called out to the wisdom of The Mother. I felt her wrap her arms around me and rock me, just like I'd done so many times with my own kids when they were crying. The warmth of her love moved through me, meeting my longing, soothing my pain. Her wisdom hummed to my adult self and to the little girl I had been: Loving those who don't love you requires great strength and courage. You are strong and courageous. Your love is bigger than the pain of their rejection. You are loved. You are met. You are held. You are not alone. I rocked myself back and forth, humming the tune that hummed me. I am loved. I love. I am loved. I love.
At bedtime that night, I lay in Clare's bed and wrapped my arms around her. I told her I loved her, and then I shared my story with her. We cried together. We cried for the way we'd both been hurt and because hurt, left untended, hardens the heart.
Amy Henderson is the founding CEO of TendLab, where she has been working with companies and their parent groups to optimize the workplace for parents. Tending is her first book. To join the movement, visit amyhenderson.org
The eBook will be available for purchase directly from the NationBuilder Books website, as well as on the Kindle, iBooks, and Nook stores. Print copies of Tending will be available on Father's Day, June 20th (pre-order begins at the NationBuilder Books website starting on May 9th).