In the quiet dark, as I nestle beside my squirming child, I hear only the faint electronic hum of the alarm clock which casts a dim green glow on the bedside table and the soft scrabbling of paws on the other side of the bedroom door – the protest of the cat who has been evicted for the evening. My daughter draws a breath. She wants to tell me something. This is our ritual – this nightly unburdening. The shower, the brushing of teeth, good night kisses, the settling beneath the covers, and then, after a few moments, an itemized list of all the things Samantha didn’t like.
My son did the same at her age. I used to feel badly. Why did my husband get all the giggles and excited news, while I was the one who got to hear a litany of 9 year old grievances? Was I the family ombudsman? Now, I get it: I’m the safe place. They can empty their pockets of all the hard little affronts they’ve carried all day and give them to me to hold.
“Mommy,” she begins. “Can I tell you about the issue that happened on the playground today? One of the people, as you know, is my enemy.” She says the word without heat. Her enemy is a girl who once bullied her and who is now simply an annoyance. Enemy doesn’t mean the same thing to my daughter that it means to other people. You can still play with your enemy or wave goodbye to her after school. You can sit by her at lunch and talk. You just don’t trust her, and you don’t allow her to cross your boundaries. “I told her she was being rude for making fun of Mary (we’ll call her that) and laughing and making faces every time Mary talked. And she just rolled her eyes and said she wasn’t! But she was. I know she knows it. She can see that Mary gets upset and wants to cry when she does that, and she keeps doing it.” Her whole body quivers with outrage, remembering. “Everybody knows she’s mean, but nobody will say anything! And everybody hates it, but they still play with her! WHY?”
Memories of my own playground persecution and indignation are rising to the surface – tiny, fizzy apple cider bubbles. “Do you know why (Enemy Girl) does that?” I ask. “I think she is trying to get power,” says Samantha. Her insight slides between my ribs like a skewer. “Yes,” I say. “She is probably trying to feel big.” I tell her the story of my third grade self and my own Enemy Girl who was pretty and popular and mean as a snake, and how I wanted to shake everyone who complained about her behind her back but then did whatever she said the next day at recess. I tell her about the morning I cracked.
“I kind of went bananas. I don’t recommend you do this,” I say.
Samantha is rapt. “What, Mommy? What happened?”
“Well, you know. She had lots of friends, lots more than I did. I was the smallest kid and not very good at sports, and I was kind of nerdy and weird. But I had had enough – I don’t know why – and I told her I wasn’t going to be bossed anymore.”
Samantha’s eyes are huge in the dark. “And then what?”
“She said, ‘I don’t like you.” And then I put my hands on my hips and screamed, “I DON’T CARE BECAUSE I HATE YOU. YOU’RE A HORRIBLE PERSON AND YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ANYONE AND I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!’ Everyone just stared. This was before the bell had rung for the start of school. There was this walkway in front of our classroom, with benches on each side and, we’d line our bookbags up on the benches and sit on the cement and play jacks or whatever until the first bell. Her bag was on one side and mine was on the other. After I yelled at her, one by one, people went and picked up their bags from my side and moved them to hers. Every single person. Even the people who were my friends. I could tell they didn’t want to, but they weren’t brave enough to stay on my side.”
Samantha strokes my shoulder. “That’s awful. Did you cry?”
I sort of want to cry now, thinking of that skinny little kid. “I did cry,” I tell her. “But not then. Not in front of everyone. I went to the bathroom. But you know what? I also felt really good that I said what I felt.”
Samantha nods. “I know what you mean. But what if you are the only one on your side?”
“It sucks,” I say. “A lot. But you will never regret the times you stood up for yourself, and those times make you strong. You’re like me. We have this really strong sense of right and wrong, and when we see someone acting wrong, we can’t take it. But you can’t control what other people do, and you can’t make other people think like you think. You’re going to have to pick, my baby. Where are you going to put your energy?”
I can feel her turning the words over, magic pebbles in her pocket. You’re like me.
“I am like you, Mommy. I don’t know why other people don’t see meanness. Or if they do, they don’t do anything about it. I don’t know. But this makes me feel better.”
We talk about what she will say the next time. I don’t pretend there won’t be a next time – I won’t be one of those grown ups. “I think I’m just gonna hush her. Like a teacher. As soon as she starts saying something mean. I’m just gonna be like, ‘Shhhhh, shhhhh.’” She puts a finger to her lips and makes a patting motion like she’s soothing a cranky toddler. “I’ll say, ‘Shhhhh, it’s okay. Nobody cares.’” I think about it. Likely, this will drive Enemy Girl crazy. We grin identical grins. “Mary’s mom says she is going to talk to (Enemy Girl)’s mom about all this meanness. But I still want a plan in case that doesn’t work and I have to stick up for myself.”
I could give her better things to say. I could call Enemy Girl’s mom. I could tell her to simply ignore the whole thing. I could, but I think – no. She’s navigating the complex world of female friendships and power dynamics and trying to stay true to herself. I will let her. “You know what I love about you, kiddo?” I say, kissing the top of her head. “You know who you are. You know where your lines are. If you know that, you’re going to be ok.”
She tucks her head into my shoulder. “I’m glad we can discuss these issues,” she says, formally. “Now, perhaps Mary needs this talk. I might have to give it to her.” I bury my smile in her hair. I wish for a hidden camera so that I might witness this strategic conference. I feel the tiny bubbles dissolving in my veins. Her breath is warm against my neck, slowly evening into the cadence of sleep.
Photo credit: “Hopscotch” by Dean McCoy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.