There comes a time in nearly every parent/child relationship when a threshold is crossed. One when the child goes from adoring his/her parents to acting like a vampire in a Garlic and Crucifix Emporium when mom or dad enter the general vicinity. The slamming of doors, the rolling of eyes, the huffing sighs (usually in conjunction with the latter two) are typically symptoms of this phenomenon, making it official: the people who each contribute to half of their kid's genetic makeup go from being the center of their spawn's universe to the bane of said rugrat's existence. There isn't much that can be said as to "why" this occurs. It's obvious. They're ungrateful little cretins who need to have their asses whipped, right? Probably more apparent -- the very first assertions of "real" independence often require that once angelic children start acting like little cretins.
It usually takes at least 10 years for this to happen though, at least from what I've been able to gather from my own personal experience; I didn't start insisting that my mom not go anywhere with me until I was around 13, but my own personal experience has also taught me that kids are growing up a lot faster these days. So when I was asked to volunteer a couple hours of my time today at Natalie's school to hand out popcorn (because every Wednesday is "Popcorn For a Quarter Day"), I accepted with a slight bit of apprehension. First of all, I looked as if the morning hours had eaten me for breakfast and spit me back out, and I didn't feel much better. More importantly -- how would Natalie react to seeing her mom at school? Maybe it's denial, but I am still not convinced that I actually fit in with the other parents. They look parental; look like I'm just pretending. I don't get it.
And better yet, how would I react to seeing my child in this environment? Natalie's adventures in kindergarten are still, for the most part, shrouded in mystery. I have no idea what she does there, whether the kids are being consistently nice to her, or whether she's as obedient as she and the oodles of "Suck-Up Bucks" in her backpack claim. I've only got this tiny open channel between her academic and home worlds: a folder. Every day I open that folder looking for some indicator of Natalie's performance, and it appears to be satisfactory and in many cases exemplary. What it never shows, however, is what Natalie is actually "like" in school. Does she sit alone a lot? Does she have friends? Do people pick on her a lot? Is she happy? Lonely? Popular? Snotty? Nerdy? I have no clue, and frankly I was apprehensive about finding out.
The other mom and I got the popcorn popper set up in the cafeteria and began the long, laborious process of popping, bagging, and distributing puffed kernels of trans-fat-coated maize to about 300 students. The kinders were the first ones into the cafeteria, and I found myself searching out of the corner of my eye for my girl as I scooped bag after bag of popcorn. She had no idea I was going to be there, so her reaction was going to be as genuine as it could get. I was seeing this as a sort of "naturalistic observation" whereby I would be able to judge not only my daughter's academic persona, but also get a gauge on almost 6 years worth of parenting in one capsular moment.
Sometimes I get the feeling that I project my own dissatisfaction with my parenting onto my kids. It often comes after long weeks of feeling too rushed, too tired, and too distracted to spend any real "quality" time with them. More often than not, I feel as if I'm just going through the motions of keeping them alive (clothed and fed), but not actually living with them. In short, I wonder if they feel they are missing out on a lot having me as a mother. They can't tell me these things because their brains have not developed the ability to form language sophisticated enough to do so, but it is my hope that they will one day be able to tell me before they start paying shrink bills.
I had my back turned, dumping another batch of kernels and oil into the hot kettle when I heard a loud yell echoing from across the small cafeteria: "Mommy!!!"
There she was, as jubilant as a sunflower in a warm breeze, my Natalie, my sweet girl, running to me with her hair bouncing and her light-up shoes strobing, wearing a turquoise shirt emblazened with the all-too useful phrase of "What-Ever" on the front, wrapping her arms around my legs in that precious "my arms aren't big enough to fit all the way around your thighs but I'm trying anyway" style only a child under 6 can really pull off.
She hopped up and down while telling me that she had her lunch all ready and that she was just waiting for her friends before she made a quick dash to her table where she dumped out the contents of the lunchbox that I had hastily assembled only four hours previous. She kept circling around in her seat to look at me, exclaiming: "I just can't believe you're here! Oh wow!" Every kid who came to her table after that also got a big helping of Natalie's enthusiasm.
"Hey look! My mommy's here! That's my mom! She's so awesome! I love her! I'm so glad she came!" The words burst forth at the speed of joy from behind the tiny, temporary (yet still fully intact) teeth of her mile-wide smile. Her friends all waved in my direction, grins plastered on their faces as well. One little boy with a mohawk put his arm chummily around Nat's shoulders and they both munched their sandwiches, talking in a language I haven't spoken in over twenty years. She seemed very much at home in the world.
I learned today that my daughter has friends. She also has a tendency to charm all of the adults in the room with loads of charisma and openness. In about 20 years, that will be known as "schmoozing," but for now, it's just adorable. She also managed to eat all of her lunch. At least, she ate it all today while I was looking. That part of my naturalistic observation will have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Either way, I can breathe a sigh of relief. The doors aren't being slammed. For now.