This week has been full of ups and downs. I was sick, then I was better; Nora was sick, then better, and now, after an hour and a half of sobbing and her not even able to nurse, we’re concerned that she may have an ear infection.
Today started out beautifully with nearly two hours of yoga and plenty of fun play before an amazing dinner with Dada. Up. But this evening the happiness evaporated, almost instantly turning into hysterical crying, and a frantic search for baby pain relievers after the pharmacies were closed and crying had hit the one hour mark, until finally exhaustion took over and she was able to sleep. Down.
At the beginning of the week I was excited for the New Year, I was excited to try new things, and to expose Nora to new things. Up. Resolutions and the idea of a blank slate. New possibilities for community and friends. I took Nora to an event for which I had high hopes. Up. It didn’t go well. Down.
I had my first true failing as a parent.
Down, down, down.
All week, I have been mulling over this experience. Sitting on a bench in the second row from the back. There’s a man behind us. In his forties, probably; I’ve seen him before. He’s friendly enough and good intentioned, I think. When we came in, he was already there and he said hello.
“Hi,” I whispered back as Nora and I slid into our seats. We were late and they’d already started. I was trying to be quiet, taking off Nora’s jacket and my own, getting settled, without trying to call too much attention to ourselves.
“Did you bring Tigger?”
He’s talking to Nora now and I feel her tense on the bench next to me. Like most two-year-olds, she’s shy, nervous about people she doesn’t know, and it’s readily apparent. She drops Tigger and leans into me as if trying to hide. I move her into my lap and don’t look back at the man.
For awhile, nothing. We watch and listen, participating when necessary. Then Nora starts to get a little antsy. We’d been there for nearly 40 minutes and her legs are itching to run, words louder than whispers are starting to pool on her tongue. As good as she is, an hour of sitting quietly is about all she can take, and we were nearing that mark.
On the bench beside me, she fiddles with the program, rustling the paper. The crinkles seem to echo in the silence of the room. It’s a families-welcome event, but she is the only small child. I remind her to be quiet.
Behind me the man sees everything: a fidgety toddler and my attempt to shush her. He leans forward. Starts whispering to Nora. Friendly words that do nothing but make her nervous. She crawls over me in her attempt to get away. He leans to the other side, still talking, trying to get her to look at him.
This goes on for a few very long minutes. She moves, he follows. He picks up Tigger and tries to talk to her about him. Does he think it’s a game? Can he not tell that she’s uncomfortable? Does he think he can make it better?
He touches her shoes. The clip in her hair.
She’s on my lap now, trying to crawl into me. I tell him, “She’s shy and gets nervous when strangers talk to her.”
He nods, but keeps talking. Keeps touching. Nora looks at me wide-eyed, uncomfortable, looking for cues as to how to respond, looking for safety and reassurance.
I start to put on her coat. The main portion is ending, he wants to know if we’re staying for cookies and juice. “Not today,” I pull on my coat, shifting my body away.
“Will you be back?” he asks.
“Maybe,” I don’t want to cause a scene.
Outside, I breathe a sigh of relief. I put Nora in the wagon and walk down the street toward home. The January air, only a little cool, feels fresh and calming, but still I feel sick to my stomach.
All day, I replayed the exchange in my head. I felt Nora’s discomfort, over and over; I saw her looking to me for help and the weak and polite attempt I made echoed through my head. Why hadn’t I told him to stop talking to my daughter? Why hadn’t I told him he was making her uncomfortable? Why hadn’t I said, in a perfectly clear tone, to STOP touching my child?
We know Nora is shy. After nearly two years of visiting The Brotherhood three-four times per week, she still doesn’t even say hello to most of the people there. She gets nervous when other people, children even, touch her uninvited or get too close to her personal space. Before visiting my family at Christmas, she was very adamant that she didn’t want her uncles to hold her.
“You don’t have to let anyone hold you, if you don’t want them to,” both Chris and I said to her over and over. “If you don’t want someone to pick you up, you can say, ‘No thank you,’ and that is okay.”
I know that part of teaching my daughter to protect and respect herself is teaching her that it is okay to say no, even to grownups. That her body is her own personal space. More than telling her, I have to model it for her and I have to speak up for her when she cannot. I have to protect her and make her feel safe.
That morning, I failed in my duty as a parent. I did not speak up for Nora. I caved to the social pressures of politeness, not wanting to cause a scene, and my own newness in a place where most everyone else already knew one another. I forgot that it doesn’t matter how innocent the intentions, all that matters is Nora’s level of comfort. I was not the parent that I want to be.
Later that night, with Dada, we had a short (two year old level) talk about what had happened. We told her whenever she’s with us she is safe. I told Nora I was sorry she had been uncomfortable. I told her it’s okay to say no, and that “next time Mama will help you say no.”
We hugged and kissed and, thanks to the wonders of children’s memories, she’s forgotten the whole thing. I, on the other hand, will likely never forget it. It was the first moment when the parent I am did not line up with the parent I want to be, and the first moment when I felt like I truly failed Nora. I’ve moved on, but only after silently promising that I will always stand up for her…no matter how big of a scene it may cause.