The Heartbreaking Day My Daughter Didn’t Need Me

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I’ve never been more stressed than I was watching my daughter’s 4th grade spelling bee.

It seems like a strange thing to be stressed about, admittedly, but with my daughter it’s never “just” a test, or “just” a speech, or “just” a spelling bee. As a gifted child for whom nearly everything in life has come easily, her bar for success is high, with her self-assessment typically being not “what did I accomplish” but “what did I fall short on?”

If there’s a chance to advance in a competition, she does not imagine any outcome that does not include her doing so. Hers is a life lived in the constant tension between soaring self-confidence and a devastating fear of failure.

My daughter was an early and avid reader, and as a child who lives cloaked in endless words, she is a naturally excellent speller. She can spell any word I give her, knowing as she writes it down if it looks correct or not, knowing intuitively how to fix it if it doesn’t. But spelling bees don’t afford the benefit of writing words down to see. You have to be able to spell the words aloud. No revisions allowed.

No mistakes forgiven.

I sat perched on the small, blue plastic chairs in her elementary school library, surrounded by bright primary colors and hand-cut paper snowflakes hanging from the windows. The contestants filed in, and my daughter ran to me immediately, wrapping her arms around my shoulders and touching her forehead lightly to mine. What a gift, these years when they’re still young enough to love their parents wholly and unabashedly in front of their peers.

She pulled back to look at me, her hazel eyes belying her nerves, and she waited. Waited for me to say the right thing, to be the voice of courage in her head, the show her the way forward, to lead her through this moment.

“Hey,” I told her with a twinkle in my eye that completely masked my own churning nerves. “Just spell one word right. Just one! Anything after that is bonus.”

She smiled back, relieved. I had given her the plan, showed her the steps to success, calmed her nerves, and boosted her courage. I had fulfilled my parental job.

The contestants filled their seats, some prim and still, some slouched and picking at their jeans, some nervously looking around, some relaxed and grinning.

I leaned over to my friend who was sitting next to me, who also had a daughter competing. “I just hope that they all go out on a really hard word that they legitimately misspell,” I whispered.

And then the bee began.

The first few rounds were easy to build the contestants’ confidence. Some kids spouted their words off quickly, skipping through the letters with breezy confidence. My daughter took her time, each time asking for the word to be used in a sentence like we’d practiced.

In the third round, the first child misspelled a word, and the rest of the group stilled, looking nervously and furtively around. The contestant who had missed his word left the group and seemed confused about where to go. His father called him over, and the boy went and sat at his dad’s feet, quiet and a little dazed. His dad patted his shoulder and told him he’d done a good job.

The contestants’ smiles faded a few shades and they began to spell the words more slowly. The words got harder.

despair

Borneo

garbanzo

Xanadu

couriers

swiveled

solely

One by one, contestants missed a letter, swapped the vowel order, mixed up sounds. One by one, they were eliminated and asked to sit down. One by one, my daughter took her words, and slowly, painstakingly spelled them aloud, finger writing them into her palm as she went.

With each “that is correct” at the end of her turn, she would break into a relieved sigh and smile and sit back down into her chair, looking at me and mirroring my “good job, kiddo!” wink. I smiled for her so big and hard my cheeks cramped, as if I could will my confidence, my support, my love into her from afar like wrapping her in a big blanket of security.

We began round ten and her word was “pad Thai.” She laughed. She loves to eat pad Thai. This one would be easy. She asked if she had to specify that it was two words when she spelled it, and if she had to say which letter is a capital. She didn’t have to do either. She just had to spell it.

“P-A-D” she began, finger writing the words on the table in front of her, confident, sure, comfortable. “T-H-ah—–A-I.”

The “ah” was whatever sound the first quarter of the letter “i” sounds like. She didn’t say the entire letter “i,” but she had started to, stopped herself, and corrected.

I didn’t even have time to catch my breath.

“I’m sorry, that is incorrect,” the judge responded.

My daughter stood there, thunderstruck. My heart began falling, falling, falling.

“It’s T-H-A-I,” the judge explained.

“That’s what I said,” my daughter shot back.

“You said the ‘I’ first,” said the judge, and at that point I stopped listening. I was watching my daughter closely, willing her to feel me, to feel my arms and my love and my comfort.

She sat down and glowered. Her face turned bright red and she brought her fists up around her ears as the last contestant spelled his word correctly and the round ended and she was asked to rejoin the audience.

She raced furiously through the room, skipping over kids who were sitting on the floor, and launched herself into my arms.

“They’re wrong they’re wrong they’re wrong they’re wrong” she whispered into my chest, curled up on my lap like she’d done so many hundreds of times throughout her childhood when she was hurting or lost or falling, curled into me as far as she could to hide from the hurt. “Tell them they’re wrong,” she begged.

I whispered “Shhhhhhh, shhhhhhhh” while I stroked her hair and tried to get my heart to push out of my chest and into hers, so that she would be saved from this moment, from this hurt. “I can’t,” I whispered.

I can’t. A statement of what was possible (nothing) and a description of my own parental impotence. This moment, this pain, this hurt, I could do nothing about.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair” she chanted to herself as her small body shook with fury and tears.

“Shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhh,” I whispered into her hair, her ear, her heart.

“They’re wrong, I didn’t say ‘i,’ I said ‘a-i,’ they’re wrong, it isn’t fair, they’re wrong,” over and over and over and over.

I murmured into her ear what I could as the spelling bee continued on in front of us, my lips pressed tightly against her ear so that she could hear that I was so sorry, that I loved her so much, that there was nothing we could do, nothing we could do, nothing we could do.

She had friends who had come to watch her compete who came by to check on her between rounds as the spelling bee went on, and she hid her face from them, trying to crawl back into my body, and if I could have cracked my rib cage open to give her a place to hide, I would have.

She wept and raged as silently as she could while I whispered into her ear about small sounds that can sound like letters, about mistakes that are made, that I knew, I knew she knows how to spell “pad Thai,” but that she had just let that one sound slip out, that quarter of an “i,” and of course had corrected it immediately, but that one little sound was what the judges heard first, and that was it.

I held her tiny body as she learned the painful lesson that sometimes one tiny mistake is all it takes, that sometimes you don’t get a chance to fix things, that sometimes mistakes mean the end. I held her and I took on her pain and I told her “I know, I know, I know,” because I didn’t know what else to say.

There was nothing else to say.

I couldn’t do or say anything to fix it, so I held her and we fell down, down, down together. We sat and we curled into each other and we felt all the pain of that moment.

I don’t know how much time passed. None at all and forever. The spelling bee ended, and we applauded the winner. Somehow she found the strength to get up and smile for a group picture, the boy to her right sporting a shining gold medal around his neck.

She asked if I would come into the girls’ bathroom with her so that she could cry in private, and I told her I could do even better.

We walked straight out the front of the school together, and I took her to lunch.

We were quiet as we drove. There was nothing I could think of to say that would make this better for her, that would take away the pain of this moment. No reassurances, no life lessons, no positive spin or silver lining. False platitudes would do nothing. We drove in silence for a minute or two, the time punctuated only by small gulping breaths and sniffles from the back seat.

And then, “What am I going to do when Daddy asks how it went?”

What I heard was so much bigger than that. “What do I do with this hurt, Momma? What do I do with this failure? How can I face this shame?”

I blinked my own tears back and had no easy words, no solution, no path forward for her. The only thing I could do was to take the shame of mistakes and failure away, to show her that sometimes we just sit there with our bruised and bleeding hearts and we show them to the world without sugar coating or silver linings or spin. That sometimes the world just fucking sucks.

“We tell him that you did great, and then you made a tiny misstep, a stumble, and that you were knocked out in the absolutely most brutal way possible. Because that’s the truth. This? This is brutal.”

“It is,” she agreed from behind me.

We drove on in silence for a few more minutes, and I relived the moment over and over, the stumble, the quarter of a letter that slipped out accidentally, the split second I wish I could have thrown my body over like it was a grenade, absorbing the impact, the sound, so that no one else would have heard it and my girl could have moved on in the bee, to be knocked out eventually, I’m sure, by something truly difficult, by a word that bested her rather than a moment that tripped her.

And as I drove through town, reliving that moment, feeling the hurt again and again and again, wondering how she could possibly survive this experience unscathed, I heard “I can’t believe I have to wait a whole year before I get a shot at redemption.”

A shot at . . . redemption?

Imagine you are a parent, and that you’ve fallen down a deep, dark pit with your child, and that you are both broken at the bottom and unable to stand. You have no fix. You have no solution. So you curl yourself around them and succumb to the darkness of the rocky floor. And then you hear something, and you look down and you realize you aren’t curled around your child anymore. Your child has somehow extricated themselves, has somehow stood up on their own.

Your child, who has always needed you to help them stand when they’re broken, stood up on their own.

That look that would be on your face, as you gazed not down but up at your child, who helped themselves up, from broken to standing, without you, that was the look on my face as I looked at my daughter in the rear view mirror that day.

She was gazing out the window, eyes calm, mind fixed on some future point when she’d throw herself into that dreadful, anxious fray again, determined to achieve a different outcome.

What I realized in that moment is that there will come a time in your child’s life when you can’t pick them up. You can’t fix a hurt, you can’t find a solution, you can’t save them. And maybe, just maybe, it’s when you can’t pick them up that they learn how to pick themselves up.

Maybe it wasn’t a failure on my part that I couldn’t take away her pain that day. Maybe all I had to do was curl up with her in her pain and sit in it with her, without prodding or pulling or cajoling her to leave it behind.

Maybe what she needed was a companion for her injured heart and the space and time to pick herself up and dust herself off when she was ready.

Maybe my job as a parent isn’t to protect my children from pain and failure, but to walk beside them as they learn that hurt is inevitable and justified, and that they have the strength within themselves to stand up when they’re ready and move on.

Maybe that heartbreaking day turned out to be pretty damn incredible. How can anyone learn strength without getting knocked down first? How can anyone discover their own fortitude without being left to stand alone?

My daughter and I had a quiet, happy lunch together that day. I noticed the next day that her spelling bee study list had been moved from the counter to her desk shelf rather than the trash can. Maybe next year she will have forgotten the spelling bee and we won’t walk into this particular arena again. I think it’s more likely that she will remember, and she will suit up and try again. Because this girl of mine has a warrior’s heart.

And my role as her mom is to feed her fire, and hold her when it hurts, and give her space as she learns to get back up on her own and try again.

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