Generally, kids’ birthday parties are not my favorite way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The venues are loud, the food is lousy, the cake is overfrosted, and the kids go home with goody bags of crap and about 80 pounds of sugar coursing through their veins. This past weekend, however, I went to a birthday party that I’m really glad I attended.
First of all, it was fun because the main attraction was an inflatable water slide in a graveyard. Because the birthday boy’s home didn’t have a backyard to speak of, the water slide had been installed in the adjacent graveyard. There’s not a much better juxtaposition of life and death than a bunch of kids on sugar benders screaming and laughing and being daredevils in one of New Orleans’ famous cities of the dead.
But the main reason I enjoyed the party was that I got to see an amazing side of my daughter: the assertive, friendly, confident little girl that –– because I’m such a complete and total pushover –– rarely has a reason to emerge when it’s just the two of us. The kids on the water slide were significantly older and bigger than she was, but she was completely unfazed. Within minutes, she had learned all of their names and was at the top of the slide with her hands cupped around her mouth screaming, “Grayson! Aiden! Move, please! I get to go now!” She stood her ground but waited her turn; she didn’t break the rules or get bossy, but she also didn’t take any shit from these bigger kids.
I watched her with a familiar maternal mixture of overwhelming awe and pride … and worry.
When she was a much younger but still very active baby, I used to joke that somewhere there was a family of circus acrobats who were going to be really pissed and bewildered when their little girl only wanted to lie on the couch and watch Law and Order. Now that she’s older and I can’t deny the family resemblance any longer, I have no explanation as to why we’re so very different –– except, maybe, that I’ve had more time to be socially influenced by how our culture thinks “ladies” should act.
As I watched Ruby waiting in line and fearlessly chatting with the other kids, I hoped that she would always be exactly the way she is right now, even though I know it’s not all that likely.
Although I probably seem more or less adept in most social situations, the truth is I am still cringingly awkward. I lie awake after parties regretting things I did or said –– even though I know, logically, that everyone else is either sleeping peacefully or regretting things they did or said, that no one is still thinking about me. I am always shocked when people like me or express an interest in being friends with me, and 95 percent of the time, I’m way too nervous to initiate a conversation with anyone. And assertive? No way, not me. I will let a thousand people cut into line in front of me before I even clear my throat. I cave on almost everything, and I have literally run away from conflict on more than one occasion.
I think this started in first grade when the teacher had laryngitis and made me teach the class –– after that, I was the automatic hall monitor, the natural choice to watch the class while the teacher stepped out, the default selection for student of the week. And obviously, no one liked me. One day, a group of fifth grade girls was clustered around the swing set, and I curiously wandered over to see what was going on. A pudgy blonde freckled girl –– whose name I remember but will not use –– turned around and made a face and said, “Ugh, go away, Eve. You’re not popular.” And I flinched and turned around and slunk away. I don’t want to say that incident haunts me because that’s giving it more significance than it really has, but I do flash back on it every now and then and wince.
As I stood admiring Ruby, I hoped more than anything that none of that would ever befall her, that she would always be as sure of herself as she is now. And then I realized that more than anything, more than society or mean prepubescent girls or well-meaning teachers, I will influence her behavior based on how I behave. And if I want my daughter to grow up to be assured and forceful, then I’m going to have to change my own behavior, stop second-guessing myself, stand up for myself, learn how to say no sometimes.
It seems like a daunting task –– but for Ruby, for this tough little girl laughing and shrieking and hurling herself blonde curly headfirst down a water slide in a graveyard –– for her, anything is possible.