Monday, June 7, 2010

The Need We Don't Need

Today is Wear a Tie day in Anna's kindergarten class. Every day this week, the last full week of school, they're doing something different (Pajama Day! Hat Day!). This morning before school Anna realized that would mean walking into school with a tie around her neck. I could sense the worry mounting before she spoke, as she thought about the kids who weren't participating in Tie Day seeing her walk through the doors.

"I'll put in in my backpack. Miss Vokert can tie it for me," she said first. When I nixed that, she wanted to make a paper tie. Then wanted to find a way to roll up her tie and hide it from people as she walked in the door. Yes, the monster had reared its head. The I Don't Want to Do Anything That Will Make People Laugh at Me monster, also known as I Care A Lot About What Everyone Else Thinks.

"Anna, Anna," said to her as she paced in the kitchen, panicked. "I know you are worried. But you can't live your life ruled by what other people think of you. When you do that, it's like they're putting yourself in a cage."

And once again, I was preaching to my daughter and myself, simultaneously.

I can't remember when I didn't carry the weight of worrying what everyone else thought. The burden has loosened in recent years and I look forward to wrenching away from its grip even more in the years to come. I can remember being in first grade, Anna's age, and my mom mixing up the school picture day along with some of the other parents and sending me to school in a cheap t-shirt, looking rather sloppy. "They must all think I'm such a slob, me and everyone else from our part of town (read: the other side of the tracks)," I remember her saying. "I don't want them thinking less of my child because of this!"

In my head over time I realized it must be pretty horrible to have people not think well of you. Which is true in some respects, but the point I missed is that it's one thing to not be liked because perhaps you don't treat people well; it's an entirely different matter to assume people don't like you and are judging you and to be constantly trying to put on the best front so that you never rock the boat and invite judgment.

About 10 years ago my mom and I were invited to my cousin's bridal shower. We hadn't seen her in ages and the shower was to be held on the beach in swanky Marblehead, Mass., of all places. My mom and I spent most of the ride there analzying if we'd chosen the right thing to wear. What DID one wear to a shower on the beach, of all places? Was it casual? Was it really on the beach, literally? Was it fancy, being in Marblehead and all and being paid for by my well-to-do aunt and uncle? At one point we actually stopped at a convenience store and changed. My heart was pounding, thinking of arriving and being just all wrong.

Then we got there, and the shower was indeed right there on the sandy beach, under a tiny pavilion, and people wore sundresses and flip flops and we all had chips and sandwiches and drank soda. Inside I was laughing and feeling sheepish. So much wasted energy. So much.

That's what I wanted to tell Anna. That is what I have lived most of my life doing. I have often lived ruled by a running internal conversation that eats away at me; or, as I alluded to Anna, traps me in a prison. Don't let people know about your brother. They'll think your family's weird. Don't share your faith with anyone. They'll think you're one of those freaky Christians. Don't speak up and voice your opinion -- what if they get mad at you? Don't go out on a limb and do that. People will think you're overconfident and basically full of yourself.

In time, I've gained some confidence, security, and some plain common sense -- it's not all about me and half the time people aren't even thinking or judging what I'm doing but concerning themselves with their own lives. But I know I haven't smacked this demon down completely yet. If I had, I wouldn't have spent yesterday afternoon fretting about how to host a tea party for six-year-old girls, wailing to Dan about not growing up a girly girl and not knowing how to set a table in a cool decorative way and worries about Connecticut suburban moms juding me.

"Deb," he said to me in that same voice I used with Anna. "It's a tea party. For six-year-olds. This isn't tea for the queen." His voice of reality cut through the air and made me stop and almost laugh. Almost.

In the car with Anna driving to school, I told her I knew she was worried. "But you're going to make yourself tired and miserable always worrying what everyone is thinking of you. I've lived a lot of my life like that Anna, and it's not fun."

For a fleeting moment I thought ahead to the future, of friends and parties and playdates and of Anna's inherited need to blend in clashing with a brother who doesn't quite.

There will be more moments like this, I thought as she climbed out of the car and neatly rolled up her tie into a ball and clutched it in her right hand. This drew more attention to herself, but I'd never tell her that. The man letting the kids in the door looked at her and smiled knowingly.

There will be more moments like this for all of us. And maybe, just maybe my son who has no choice but to not blend in will help his mom and sister realize once and for all that really, honestly, that's not the worst thing in the world.

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