When I first became a mother, I dreamed of all the things I would teach my daughter about life. As she has grown, it has become quite apparent that I have learned so much more from her than she may ever learn from me. Patience, sacrifice, love, joy, fun – these words have taken on completely different meanings as my husband and I have had the privilege to raise our eight year old daughter, Rhiannon.
Yesterday, the two of us went to the Children’s Museum in Boston as one of our “staycation” adventures. She was excited because it was just us – no Daddy, no Grandma, no Aunts, no friends. The Museum was stocked with the usual sights – physics-related activities such as Rube Goldberg machines and pulleys, exhibits related to Native American and Japanese history, hands-on fun with bubbles, and numerous other exciting experiences. However, one activity literally towered over everything else. At the center of the museum was a huge, netted playspace where kids could climb a challenging set of uneven, sloped steps – this monstrosity started at the first floor and ended at the very top of the museum – a full three stories. Although it looked slightly intimidating to me, kids as young as four years old climbed up rapidly, looking rather like monkeys climbing a multi-limbed tree. They climbed over and around each other excitedly, calling to their siblings and parents watching below.
I took one look at this thing, and assumed my daughter would have no part of it. You see, she is the most cautious, risk-averse child I have ever met. She avoids all activities that could result in any of the following: a scratched knee, a sprained ankle, a broken fingernail, a cut, a bruise, someone looking at her the wrong way, or her ponytail holder falling out. Although she will be nine years old in three months, she is completely terrified of riding a two-wheeled bike. No amount of cajoling, bribing, or pleading helped. We eventually just gave the bike away to avoid bouts of crying and pouting. She refuses to play any organized sport for fear of injury, although she has a lot of natural talent. She clutches to me when balancing on a six-inch curb. You get my point. So when I gazed upon this gigantic, three-story tower of terror, my assumption was that Rhiannon would look at it longingly then move on to the next, slightly safer activity.
So when she did not budge, I was surprised. She walked around the structure and looked up at it. For a while, she just stood there and contemplated the scene before her. I asked her if she wanted to try it out. She said “maybe.” Then she said “well, I’m wearing a skirt.” So I said “well, you can still climb it if you’re careful.” She poked her head in and hesitantly entered the structure. She started to climb, looked around, then climbed back out. She said the rug on the steps was too slippery. I told her that it was ok if she didn’t want to climb it. I thought that was the end of it. She climbed in again, then out again, looking for an alternate path that would be easier. She watched as child after child excitedly climbed the stairs. She took a deep breath, crouched down, and tried again.
Ever so slowly, she climbed. At times, she looked positively pained. Kids were passing her left and right because she moved so slowly. Every once in a while, she would look at me and smile – a smile that seemed to say “oh my God, I’m really doing this! I must be crazy!” I admit it – at any moment, I expected her to give up and come back down. I am ashamed that I even suggested it to her – more than once. I just could not imagine that she would actually climb three stories in this thing. She stopped often and moved aside so the faster children could keep moving. As she ascended, I climbed the stairs to keep an eye on her, hoping that she would not suddenly panic or start crying. I was mulling over possible emergency plans and rescue attempts. As I watched her, I shouted words of encouragement. But she was so SLOW. I was getting impatient, checking my phone repeatedly and eventually realizing I was incredibly thirsty. I joked to a nearby parent that I would surely die in this place. I forced myself to take deep breaths and remain calm for her sake. I told myself that I should be encouraging her to continue, but it was so difficult to watch her climbing this structure as if she was in physical pain. She was hesitant at every single turn, and was clearly tempted to climb back down.
But you know what? She just kept going. No matter how hesitant or uncomfortable the process, she kept going UP. She listened to my well-intentioned, yet negative comments confirming that she could go back down at any time – it was ok, really. She was still doing a great job. There was no shame in quitting – I was proud of her for trying. But before I knew it, I was standing on the third floor, watching her navigate the final steps. Suddenly, there she was. There was nowhere left to go. She had done it, she had really done it. Against all odds, my normally fearful child climbed all the way up! I could hardly contain my excitement. I almost expected confetti to rain down upon her head. We exchanged excited screams and I snapped some pictures. Then she started back down.
The descent was much faster and much easier, since gravity worked with her. As she made her way out of the structure, I gave her a huge hug and said I was proud of her. And I was – so incredibly proud. I didn’t care if other parents thought we were a bit strange. She shrugged her shoulders and said it wasn’t a big deal. But I knew better. I knew how proud she was of herself. She knew she had worked through her fears and accomplished something great. No one else in that museum other than the two of us understood the enormity of her accomplishment.
Looking back, I am ashamed that I doubted her. I had relied on past experiences and jumped to the conclusion that she would eventually succumb to fear and give up. She succeeded despite my doubts – an eight year old child, doing this all on her own, overcoming both her fears and mine. No matter how difficult, no matter how slow – she did it anyway. She did it!
How much could I learn from my own daughter, someone almost 30 years my junior? How could I be so negative, so discouraging to my own flesh and blood? Sure, I offered words of encouragement and told her I was there for her, supporting her. But did I really, truly believe in her? I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t.
If I have a hard time believing in my own daughter, how can I believe in myself? How often have I sold myself short, assuming that I could not do something just because I had failed before? What could I be capable of if I dared to dream? To take risks? To believe in myself? The possibilities are endless.
Thank you, Rhiannon, for helping me to see that anything is possible, and that fear is an obstacle only if you allow it to be so. You can succeed despite your closest friends’ and family’s judgements. Even the people who love you the most can be blinded by fear. Sometimes it takes a child to show you that fear can be overcome – no, not just overcome – punched in the throat. An eight year old girl can rule the world from the top of her three-story castle, and can teach her mother to do the same.