Today was Track and Field Day at my daughter’s school. She was excited (Yay! Outside in sunshine playing games!) but also terribly nervous.
“I know I won’t be good at anything,” she said before leaving. “I was embarrassed in gym yesterday because I couldn’t really play soccer.”
In part, it’s true. She doesn’t have the single-minded ambition to run harder or throw farther; she doesn’t have the inexhaustible stamina to Keep On Pushing; she doesn’t really care about winning, either, which makes it difficult to get the blue ribbon for the football-through-the-hula-hoop-game or the backwards-jumping-sack-race. Instead, she’s more likely to be wandering off at the sidelines investigating the worm now squiggling between her fingers or the blue robin’s egg fallen behind a bush, now resting in her warm palm.
“But you are good at things,” I told her. “You’re an excellent swimmer (she is) and my gosh, a great artist. You can draw animals that look like animals instead of cartoon blobs which is what mine look like.”
“I know,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I am a good drawer.”
I was glad for this self-assurance because it meant there was some stable internal image of herself as smart and talented and good-at-something which she could hold onto during these rough days of girl drama.
But my daughter wasn’t the only one who was nervous. I had volunteered to help out for a few hours at an event and had been assigned to Burlap Sack Race. This sort of volunteering is not something I usually do as it involves other mothers that I don’t know but all of whom know each other because they volunteer together. Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah! I almost called the whole thing off last night when Christopher asked me if maybe I’d want to go for the whole day since our daughter was so excited to have me there. And she was. “You’re coming?” she squealed, when I told her the news.
Those other mothers? All year long they’ve been helping out in the classroom parties, on field trips, have even shown up to have lunch with their kids at school. Not me. The noise of all those kids would be overwhelming. It already is when I pick her up from school in the afternoons. The shouting and jostling. Kids being kids. But to my Bipolar Brain, all that loud chaos makes me irritable and breathless. Like today: a few of my daughter’s friends rushed up to me, threw their arms around my waist, wanting hugs. I hugged back, but felt awkward and stupid and false (Get off me, I wanted to say, but couldn’t because part of me does want to be THAT kind of mom—cheery, breezy, lovable).
I don’t fit in with other mothers. I don’t know how to make small talk, or maybe that’s all I know how to do is the most basic small talk: weather, weather, and oh, did I mention weather? I had the same problem in high school and college. I was the one hovering on the edge of the circle, waiting for the right moment to jump in and say something smart and witty, but the moment never came or somebody else was on top of it, so I was left outside of them—their friendships, their intimacies. And for some reason that circle of women has always looked similar—blond and lithe and poised. Watching these women together always filled me (and still does) with a sense of longing.
Back to Pain and Suffering—I mean Track and Field. Burlap Sack Race. I let the other mothers direct traffic, herd kids, call the shots. I was just happy to stand with my group of kids and get them into a straight line. They seemed to like me! They really liked me! One girl told me she liked my nail polish. Another told me she liked my earrings. Then there were the huggy girls wanting my hugs in return. And I didn’t even have to talk to the other mothers. All good, because today I was not up to chit chat. Not after the past few days—the exhaustion, the edginess, the suicidal flights of fancy.
But as I was instructing one of the girls to move back into line, she turned to me, steeling a withering gaze upon me, and said, “Weirdo.”
Just like that, all good will evaporated. I wanted to shake her. How dare she? But of course, I am not that kind of person so I said, instead, “We don’t call people names here. I think you should apologize.”
She shrugged, stepped back into line, but said nothing.
All of my insecurities were bared. Weirdo. How had she been able to see through my mask? See past my giant black sunglasses, the perfect prop for keeping my distance? But what about the khaki shorts, the tee shirt, the make-up in place, the hair carefully straightened. I thought I’d pulled myself together, looked like any other mother and instead, she had called me out, named me for what I was. Weirdo. A version of the names I’d been called a long time ago by classmates: Crazy Kerry! Crazy Kerry! A version of what my abusive ex-boyfriend used to say to me: You’re fucking crazy. No one will ever love someone like you. You’re a cunt, a bitch, a whore. A version of what IT says to me: Unloveable, Unfixable. Fat, Ugly, Pig.
Weirdo. Weirdo. Weirdo.
And this girl is in my daughter’s class. If she has no shame, no fear in saying this to me, a grown-up thirty-one years her senior, than what might she be saying to my daughter? Is my daughter carrying around some secret, shameful name, too? And all of us? What names do we still carry inside that feel all-damning and all-powerful? Names that whisper to us, seductively, convincing us that they are our true names and the degraded, humiliated self is our true self?
Dr. B. would probably remind me to look at the graffiti on my arms: Beloved, Generous, Hopeful, Forgiven, Real, Blessed. True names for the true self.