When it’s time to hang up the Super-Mom cape

Supermom cape

The mornings are crisp, now. It still gets sunny and warm later in the day, but when I’m up before dawn, I need something with sleeves: a sure sign that winter is coming. It’s not here yet, but I see it in the distance.

I sense this change in the seasons outside, but I sense a change indoors too: something subtle that is changing in the way my big-girl and I are talking. She’s planning for her eighth birthday: she has made lists, and is practicing her fancy writing for the invitations. She sighs about cursive and heels and learning violin: All The GrownUp Things. Both her dreams and her dilemmas are growing in complexity. She’s growing up. She’s not there yet, but I see it in the distance.

A few years ago I was her Super-Mama: the one with answers and ideas. I had band-aids and snacks on hand, I was there in the moment of crisis. Stuck on the monkey bars? Mommy will get you down. Can’t tie your shoe? Let’s do it together. Too high to reach? Let me help. Mean kid took your toy? Let’s talk about when it’s time to share or stand your ground.

But now we’re in a season where I’m not there for much of her day, and the things that frustrate her can’t be fixed with a band-aid, or a snack, or a 1-2-3 preschool ditty. “Mom, can I talk to you about something? In private?” she asked shyly one afternoon. “There’s a problem.”

The problem concerned the lunch lady at school, and muddled miscommunication about buying milk. A minor problem —a bagatelle, really—but to my daughter, a colossus of worry: something she’d carried home with a leaden heart. She was worried I would be angry. She was afraid she’d caused trouble. I watched her tell herself to take deep breaths as she mustered the courage to tell me.

A couple of minutes on the phone sorted out the lunch lady crisis, but in the hours that followed the weightiness of what had happened settled on me. Before I phoned the school district, the important part of that conversation was dealing with my daughter’s fears of telling me something she was afraid I wouldn’t want to hear. That was the issue, really. It was never about the milk. It was about whether she could trust me with her spilled milk confession.

The seasons are changing, and more than needing a mom who can safely fix all her problems, my daughter is growing in her need for a mom who is safe to hear her problems, without rushing to diagnose it, fix it, or adjudicate it. Sometimes she comes home worried about being left out, about something someone said that made her feel sad, about a friend who says scary things are happening at home. Sometimes she comes home remorseful, or just quiet, and when we take the time at the end of the day to snuggle in private and talk about the day, no matter how good my questions are, most often I just can’t tease out what really happened in that situation or conversation. The information I get is piecemeal and filtered: but then again, I probably couldn’t fix it (whatever it is) even if I’d been a fly on the wall.

She’s growing up, and that means she’s moving into that world where we play the long game in relationships. We learn how to love at cost, to bear with one another’s weaknesses. We learn the power of our yes, and (if we’re very, very lucky), we learn early how and when to say no. We learn the sound of our own voices; distilling them from the shouts of the madding crowd.

In a few years—really just a few breaths away—the problems are not going to be lunch ladies, or forgotten library books, or who teases whom about their lunch. She’s going to come across pain, and drugs, and confused sexuality. She might see a friend shoplifting, she might be asked if she wants to take a look at some porn, someone may make her swear not to tell about something that really should be told. One day, she will discover things about herself of which she is deeply ashamed.

We all do. We all did. Life shows us its good, but the bad and the ugly inevitably come out.

On that day, when it comes, having a mom with a band-aid and a one-liner-to-fix-it-all will be of little help. None of us bear our deepest vulnerabilities to people who talk without listening. None of us confess weakness to those who would take the opportunity to point out just how little we know. Not even to parents.

The seasons are changing, and this mom-of-littles is realizing that the Super-Mom cape I’ve wanted to don is lined with one-liners and fix-its. But that cape doesn’t fit anymore. I need to learn the gentle art of sitting and listening with my kid, of saying “I don’t know, but I love you,” and dignifying her struggle with respectful silence and later, with open questions. I need to be safe to tell about the lunch lady if I hope to be told about the friend who’s cutting in years to come. She’s afraid to make mistakes, and I am usually quick with an opinion. This is my window to find a new way of being with her.

She doesn’t need me in a Super-Mom cape, anymore. She needs me in pajamas, with feet tucked up next to her on the couch: quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.