Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

Hard Things

“It’s late,” Mom said, rubbing my back in that way only a mom can. “You’ve been at this for hours.”

“I know,” I sheepishly replied, trying to choke back the tears I’d been holding in for weeks. The “C” on my progress report in math alarmed everyone, especially me. I’d known that the grade existed and that kids got them, but I had never gotten one, and the fact that I had embarrassed me.

I couldn’t look at my mom because I knew the dam would break. I was a big girl now. I was 12, and I had gotten into a good school. My test scores were high enough, so I left behind all that was familiar about school. I was alone with no friends. I was switching classes every 45 minutes. I was eating lunch with kids as old as 18. And on top of all that, there was no recess. Life was different, and it was hard, and I was drowning.

I showed Mom my math book. She, too, was bewildered. Dad was at work, as usual, and my brother was younger than I was. Raising my hand to ask for help was not an option either. The kids in that class came into it expertly doing stuff my former school never even mentioned. I mean, there wasn’t even a poster that referenced that stuff hanging on the walls! So I was not going to thrust my hand in the air, in front of all those apparent geniuses, and admit that someone must have let me in that school by mistake.

“Listen,” Mom began. “You’re going to bed.” I tried to protest, but the firmness of her hand on my shoulder let me know that she meant business. “It’s time for bed.”

I got up from the table and headed toward the stairs.

“Hey,” she said. I turned and looked at her with arms outstretched for the hug under normal circumstances would not have been forgotten. I sunk my body into the warmth of hers and began to sob.

“It’s going to be ok,” she soothed. “I promise. It’s going to be fine. Just do your best.”

“I am doing my best,” I wailed. “It’s just not good enough.”

“Your best is always good enough,” she responded, tightening her arms around my exhausted frame.

The transition to high school for my youngest daughter has been tough. Her jovial, carefree spirit has been replaced by this blob of anxiety, heaviness, and irritability. We are all convinced that she will be fine, that she’ll adjust, but my heart still aches for her because I remember being there, too. I remember feeling utterly alone. I remember thinking that no one understood.

My mom’s steadiness during that transition helped me cope, so I’m trying with all I’ve got to be the rock my own daughter needs right now. I’m trying to listen more than I talk. I’m trying to temper all that angst with subtle reminders that there is calm and respite and familiarity at home. I’m trying to make sure my lap is free for her to lay her head and that my arms, like my mom’s were, are waiting and willing to take on all that she has to let out just to make it through the very next moment.

My mom has never been a push over. She’s always had a fierceness and pluck that I’ve come to admire and emulate in my own life, but at that time, when I was lost and afraid and ashamed and floundering, my mom came through with a tender resolve to ease my pain. She hung loosely on the periphery of my seventh grade life, allowing me to feel the toughness of the moment and build the resilience needed to make it in a harsh and difficult world, but she was also poised and ready to pounce on any thought I may have had that I was inferior or insignificant or somehow unworthy.

It’s an intricate balancing act that thing that moms do when their girls stand at the precipice of life. We know that we cannot do life for them–which, of course, we desperately want to do as an act of protection–but we also know that some things just need the knowing, steady hand of one who has already lived so much of what they are encountering for the first time.

I came through the door the next day and headed straight to my room. I closed the door, plopped on the bed, and opened my ever-weighty backpack to fish out my math book. I knew the answers weren’t going to be there, but I searched and worked anyway.

A couple hours later I heard Mom’s voice beckon me downstairs. I kissed her as she was unbuttoning her coat.

“I got something for you,” she said, handing me a bag. I pulled out a floppy, soft-covered book, Math Made Simple, and looked at her.

“I can’t do that math,” she said matter of factly. “But I taught you how to read. Go figure it out.”

“Thanks, Mommy!” I sang excitedly before dashing up the stairs to my room.

I’m not sure my mom knows how instrumental that book was in changing my math proficiency. I’m not sure if she knows that the next day I raised my hand to participate in that class for the first time. I’m not sure she knows the look on my math teacher’s face when I “all of a sudden showed up to the party.” But what I do know for sure is that there are moments when our babies are hurting and what they need most, even more than a book that makes school easier, is someone to see them and hear them and love on them with the gentleness of mutual understanding. And I pray that in this moment that my own baby is struggling that I give her exactly what I received: a mom.

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