By: Amber Leventry
I carry with me a pocket of sadness. It is no longer debilitating, nor is it something I feel every day. But it’s there. It’s a wound that will never heal and a reminder of the childhood I had and that which I will never allow my own children to experience. This pocket echoes of the years of work I did with my therapists to get to the place where I am today. It’s a symbol of my struggles with mental illness. And this pocket of sadness shrinks and expands with my daughter and whatever pockets of feelings she is carrying.
In no way is my daughter responsible for my happiness. She is a profound piece of my happiness, but she is not the sole reason. I learned a long time ago that I hold that responsibility. The road to happiness was not always easy, but the steps were ultimately mine. My partner held me up when I didn’t think I could keep walking, but I did the work. And while I no longer struggle with the dark days of mental illness, moments of some days can still be dark. And some moments of parenthood scratch that never healing wound.
My daughter and oldest child, Eva, will be four in a few months. Since her birth I have done my best to not project my feelings onto her or to assume I know what she is feeling based on my experiences and the way I react to similar situations. As a parent, the hardest thing for me has been to watch her struggle with frustration. Letting her struggle with puzzles, putting on her own clothes, or navigate the independence all three-year-olds want to have has been more challenging to me than talking her off of the ledge of a tantrum.
But this summer that necessary piece of parenting became the second hardest thing for me since having children, being replaced by the agony of watching my daughter learn the cues and realities of social skills and friendship. Part of this agony is from imagining myself as child and seeing my old disappointments and sadness come alive again in a little girl who is the age I was when my memories began. These memories are more shadows than colored images and have very different triggers than Eva being told she is weird by an older neighborhood friend.
The other piece that makes this new phase in Eva’s life difficult is that I am her mama. I want to do everything in my power to protect her physically and emotionally.
I am under no illusion Eva is perfect or an angel; but she is one of the sweetest and most joyful kids you will meet. She carries confidence and a spirit I hope will never break. And she is sensitive. Not to the point of crying at the simplest of things, but sensitive in a way that allows her to feel empathy at a young age. This sensitivity also comes with an unhardened ability to be vulnerable. Her beautiful mix of confidence and sensitivity allows and forces her to do everything with her heart on her sleeve and my heart in her hands.
We live on a cul-de-sac and a very kid friendly street. This summer my partner and I gave Eva the freedom to ride her bike at the end of the road and walk across the street to her friend’s house. Alone. I, my partner, or neighbors were always aware of where Eva and her friends were, but we weren’t right by their side. We weren’t crossing the street with her or right behind her on her bike. My partner and I held our breath a bit and practiced free-range parenting.
We also practiced telling Eva that her friends did not always want to play with her. And we practiced explaining to her that not all of her friends will like what she likes. With her new freedom, Eva wanted to visit her buddy constantly. But her buddy didn’t always want to play with a kid two years younger, nor did she always want to play with the things that make a child two years younger tick.
After several minutes of nagging to see if her friend was home, I walked Eva across the street to see if she was allowed to play at our neighbor’s. I walked her over because the last time she went by herself she didn’t know to ring the doorbell and just stood outside the door for ten minutes without anyone knowing she was there. I wanted to make sure she understood how to let someone know she was present. Always make yourself present, Eva.
Eva likes stuff. She is attached to her stuff. And she likes to carry her stuff around, using it for many scenarios only a three-year-old brain can come up with. As I walked my daughter over to her friend’s she wore a backpack with a mix of stamps, fairies, and scrap paper and carried a wooden tray filled with wooden pieces of a toy cake. They were very important to her and she wanted to play house with her friend.
As Eva held out her toy cake to her friend and said, “Do you wanna play house?” I held my breath. Her friend said no and quickly went back to whatever she was doing, leaving Eva in tears. Some of these tears were of a toddler’s frustration of not getting what she wanted and some were of genuine disappointment. The ache in my heart screamed of disappointments given to me as a child. My brain screamed of the need to separate my feelings from the ones Eva was feeling. Be present.
But there were lessons here. Eva needs to learn that the world does not revolve around her and not everyone and everything is available when she wants them. She also needs to learn and be comfortable with saying no. Her friend didn’t want to play. Good for her for saying so. Eva didn’t like the answer, but she needs to understand the beauty of doing things out of desire and not obligation. And I need to learn that I will never be able to protect Eva’s heart from all of the world’s realities and life’s growing pains. And I need to remind myself that the reasons which cause her sadness are very different from what caused mine.
Eva will develop her own pockets of emotions, but her feelings are hers and mine are mine. I know this is just the beginning. Different stages and ages of all of my children’s lives will pick at an emotion—good or bad—that runs parallel to theirs. I will never numb myself to the point of not being affected by the things they experience in life, and it will be hard to not project my feelings onto theirs, especially onto my daughter.
But just like the memories of my childhood have become echoes, I want Eva’s to become shouts. I will fill her pockets with love, happiness, and the tools to navigate each day. I will reach into my pocket of sadness only to be sure I create a present much different than my past. It is my pocket to carry, and I will not let my daughter carry my sadness.