A Lonely Playground

This morning was the first day back to school after Spring Break. My seven-year-old daughter woke up in her usual slow-moving, totally dragging, sad-faced way. She doesn't particularly like school. She's a homebody, so the fact that Spring Break was over didn't settle too well with her. But then again, this wasn't that different than every other school morning.

She went about this morning in her typical routine: We drag her out of bed, make sure she gets dressed, and she goes downstairs and plants herself on the couch. We beg her to come eat her breakfast because by now the clock is ticking and the school is a stickler on their tardy policy and it's not just her that would be late. Her older sister would suffer that consequence as well. She eats a few bites and asks us to check her fever, complaining that something ails her, ensuring us that she needs to stay home. So we humor her and confirm her lack of fever, and continue our scurrying around to make sure everyone is ready. We're out the door to send a sad-faced little girl and her sister off to school. This is probably a fairly normal morning for families that have a kid or two that don't enjoy school.

I'm usually in a hurry and I drop and go, nearly peeling out of one school parking lot to get to another where the two younger siblings go to preschool. My to-do list is raging through my mind as I calculate all I need to get done that day and subtracting it from the minimal amount of hours I have to do it all. I'm no longer thinking about that sad little face that jumped out of my van only moments ago.

But this morning as I reminded her every three seconds to please take another bite of Cheerios, there were tears. I took a deep breath, hugged her, and was secretly thinking, 'Great, here we go again.' I gave the usual pep-talk about the school year coming to an end soon, and a big trip we were taking that would ease the pain of making it through these last two months. She said her stomach hurt, and I told her I was sorry. She drug her feet over to her backpack, boots, and coat and put them on slowly (and I mean slow as in take slow motion in a movie and multiple it times one hundred). By now, I'm getting frustrated. We need to get out the door and everyone else is already in the car.

We tear into the school parking lot and my oldest leans over to me with a kiss and smile, then hops out the door. The seven-year old pauses until I open the van door with my ceiling button and lean back to give her a kiss. Her tiny mouth is tilted into a frown as I notice she is staring at the playground. Finally, she steps out of the van and her tiny head (hiding in a knit hat with an owl face on it) is hanging as she enters the gate to the playground.

Normally, that's when I back out. Once she's inside that gate, I'm outta there, moving on and about my day. But today, something told me not to hurry. Something made me watch her.

She strolled over to where the kids all place their backpacks until the whistle blows. She set her backpack down and turned around to gaze at the playground. She started to wander around a bit, but had yet to speak to another kid. Then one of her little friends that she had just had a play date with over the weekend entered the playground. I saw my daughter's face light up at the sight of this friend. But as my daughter began to move toward her friend, another little girl ran over and monopolized the friend.

Once those two were paired up, my daughter kept her distance, as if there were some unspoken (or spoken, possibly) rule that she couldn't join the other two girls. I watched as my daughter continued to glance in the direction of the other two girls, moving toward them occasionally, but then backing away, as if contemplating if she would be accepted into their duo, or would simply be a third wheel.

Her friend was left alone for a moment, and I saw my daughter take the opportunity to go say hello. They interacted briefly until the other little girl returned, and I watched as my daughter's friend locked elbows with the other little girl, and the pair turned and walked away from my daughter, leaving her standing alone.

I felt a tear stream down my own face as I realized what her little tears in the morning were really about. Why her stomach hurts and her body aches on the mornings she must go to school. That kind of rejection would be painful to anyone.

She's lonely. At a school of hundreds of children, she feels alone.

She has occasionally mentioned to us that she doesn't have anyone to play with at school, or that the other girls all pair up and there she stands without a partner. But some days, I ask her if she played with anyone on the playground, and she will say that she did. But today, I saw what the majority of her days must look like.

I don't recall ever not having friends at school, or not having someone to play with. But she is my introvert. My child that doesn't want to do any activities unless they are private. She is guarded and quiet, and on the playground I saw what she has talked about so many times before as she wandered around by herself in a sea of children. She is an island.

I don't know where the grass is greener in this situation. I can't be there for her at recess or lunchtime, and I think that to some extent, life can be like this and it's a road she is going to have to travel. I can't run out onto the playground and scold other children for ignoring her or turning the other way, or not including her. They may not even realize what they are doing. But I know that inside, my daughter's little heart breaks every time she is turned away, when three's a crowd and someone she thought was a friend leaves her standing alone.

I don't think I'd want to go to school either.

We've talked about her being brave. We've discussed her standing up for herself, speaking boldly about her feelings and what she wants and needs from her friends. Yet, I watched her let the two girls walk away, as if she were invisible. Maybe she thinks she is.

So I'm left to feel like there is something I should be doing, or could be doing, to make her schooldays a little brighter, yet I have no idea where a parent steps in. Does she just endure it, since she has to go to school? Do I call her friend's mom and tell her that her daughter is not including my daughter on the playground? Or is that forcing friendship where it doesn't belong? Do I want my daughter to have to beg someone to be a real, true, genuine friend that wouldn't neglect her? Or do these things have to forge their own path?

At this moment, I have no answers. I'm at a loss. I see no greener grass on the other side right now. But I know that when June rolls around, my daughter's face will be happy again. The grass outside our windows will be green and the flowers blooming.

Until then, I vow to be a better mom. To watch her more often. To talk more. To let her talk more. To be a better friend.

One Down (But can she keep her mouth shut?)

I'm driving in my car with my oldest daughter (only 9 1/2), and I've got Easter on the brain. It's time to be the bunny again and of course, it's the day before Easter and I've got nothing. I'm obviously quiet as I roll around some ideas in my head about when and how I'm going to pull off the visit to the store without any kids by bedtime.

My daughter (in her usual curious and observant state) could tell I was in thinking mode. She loves to break up my thinking mode. I don't know why (could it be that with four kids, it's an opportunity to get a little attention?), but it drives me nuts because my brain likes to think. A lot. When it gets interrupted, it's almost like I was just woken up from a deep sleep. It takes a minute to regain reality.

Back to Easter. So my daughter turns down the stereo and breaks up my thinking mode by saying, "Hey mom, what are you thinking about?" Original huh?

I think she said that same statement two more times (and quite a bit louder) before I returned from my trance and said, "Oh, sorry. Yeah, what's up?"

"What were you thinking about?" she asked again.

"Just Easter. What do you want from the bunny?"

"Really, Mom? You think I don't know about 'the bunny." She put 'the bunny' in quotation marks with her fingers (thank a lot Disney, I know that's where she learns this stuff).

I try to revamp her perception of "the bunny". "Yeah, and what exactly do you want "the bunny" to put in your basket?"

She turned to me and smiled. "A cell phone."

I laughed, even though I'm really annoyed, because I'm entirely too tired of this 'when can I have a cell phone' conversation, but I humor her. It was kind of clever to throw it in at that opportunistic moment. I also realized what it really meant. One down in the believer department. No more Santa, Bunny, or Tooth Fairy for her.

I rebut, "Well, I don't think "the bunny" can afford one more cell phone plan right now."

She argues, "Well, maybe if "the bunny" would give me the phone, I could pay for the plan."

"You're 9."

"Almost 10."

"But not 10, and "the bunny" doesn't give 10-year-olds phones either."

She pouted as I took a deep breath and realized that it's starting. She knows "the bunny" is me and her Dad, and that means she is growing up. Sometimes, I like it that she is growing up, but it made me sad today. So, I did what I usually try to do when I realize she is growing up in a certain area of her little life. I try to embrace it. So, I took another deep breath and said, "So, you want to help tonight; be 'the bunny's' assistant?"

She smiled and squealed and jumped up and down in her seat. I drove through the green light and asked, "ShopKo or Kmart."

"Kmart," she answered, and I whipped on into a parking space.

That night, she could barely contain herself. She was giddy with excitement as she asked me every two minutes when everyone was going to bed so that we could "you know, do that thing (hand signals included)."

Well, good thing I had a helper, because the hubby fell asleep and I would have been solo. As she and I stuffed eggs to hide and placed everyone's basket out (including hers so she could pretend 'the bunny' came), I reminded her that it has to be our secret, because we don't want to ruin the magic of it all for her little sisters and brother. She pretended to zip her lips. We hugged. I cried.

I was woken up at 5:45am to small children asking me if they can hunt for the eggs the bunny brought. I said 'sure', even though I was thinking how painful it was going to be because it was so effin early. I started to get out of bed, slowly. My new assistant put a hand on my shoulder and said, "You stay. I got this."

I shrugged. "Okay." I said, and snuggled back into bed. Slept until 9am. It rocked. Maybe this is what other Mama's mean when they say, 'don't worry, it does get better.'

I decided that maybe it really was a good department for her to be growing up in (as long as she can keep her mouth shut). The grass definitely seems greener.