Tessa shows up and all the other 5- and 6-year-olds pile around her, boys and girls alike, a scrum of kindergartners. "Tessa!" they shout, circling her in a giant hug. The moms stand around their kids, smiling. Tessa's mom pulls out her phone and starts taking pictures. I marvel at this, how early it starts, how natural the kids are, arms around each other's shoulders now, smiling for the camera. I can't even do that now; getting my picture taken is a supremely awkward experience. I think ahead: Tessa's mom will put this photo up on Facebook for her family and friends to see as proof: Look at my daughter, at how well-liked she is. Popular already. She won't say it, of course, because she won't have to. Her family and friends will like and comment in droves: Aww, how cute. How special. How blessed she is to have good friends already.
At the same time, Madeleine is tugging on my arm, kicking her leg out, burrowing her head into my side. "I want to go home," she mutters, looking at the group of her classmates and then looking back at me. "I changed my mind about this field trip. Let's go home."
I crouch so I can look her in the eye. "We're not going home," I say to her. "You're going to have fun!" I say this but I don't mean it, really, because I'm not sure. It's a kid concert, from a guy whose music they listen to in class regularly, but Mad's been shrinking into herself since we gathered on the lawn outside of the venue, waiting to be let in to find our seats. The trepidation took over the second she saw the masses of kids milling about, hundreds of other kindergartners. We went for a little walk to help ease her nerves, but it didn't work so well.
Inside the venue we sit next to a classmate's grandmother, who leans over Madeleine to tell me that her grandson is upset because the other boys don't want to play with the game system he brought to pass the time, that they like another boy's game system better. I lean over and see her grandson curled into his seat, pouting. Next to him, the three other boys are clustered around some Nintendo thing while one plays. The left-out boy has a leapfrog thing. I measure it: The grandson in question, pale, red hair, freckles, in generic clothes, with his leapfrog game. The other boys in their name-brand shirts and flashy shoes with their cooler game system.
The grandmother puts a hand over her heart. "It's just so hard for a grandmother," she says.
I can relate but I don't want to, not while Madeleine is sitting there soaking it all up. Instead I consider what it is about, really, this ache at seeing your kids on the fringes of the group. Do I want Madeleine to be in the middle of the kindergarten huddle, like Tessa? No. Do I want Madeleine to have the coolest stuff so the kids will want to play with her? No. But it doesn't stop that pang in my chest, that tiny little fracture in the heart, when you see your kid look so...adrift.
I think it comes down to wanting your kid to have a safe place when you can't be there. To wanting them to have someone or something that helps them feel grounded when they can't be with you. It's about comfort. And it just breaks your heart when you see them so clearly uncomfortable, taking their first steps into the big world without you, trying their hardest to figure things out. Wanting desperately to feel like they're doing okay at it.
During the concert most every kid in the auditorium, the ostracized grandson included, jumped out of their seats and danced, sang, and shouted with the performer. Madeleine slumped into her seat most of the time, watching the stage with passive interest. For a while I tried playing along, acting like the kids, to see if Mad would get engaged. It didn't work. I leaned over. "Mad, you're supposed to be having fun," I said, then immediately hated myself for saying those words, for making it seem like there was something wrong with her for not being as comfortable as the other kids, for not displaying fun the way I thought she should.
"I am having fun," she replied in a defiant tone. I gave her a doubtful look.
At one point she asked if she could sit in my lap. I said no. None of the other kids were in their parents' laps.
At another point she asked me, plaintively, if she was "being good." I sighed. Of course you are, I told her. But I wish it looked like you were having fun. I am having fun, she said again.
I had the sense throughout of being disjointed, that I was doing something wrong, handling her wrong, and I couldn't figure out what to do. Though there was no obvious display, I could tell she was feeling lost, out of sorts, out of her element. I think she was having a stirring of something being not okay with how she was behaving, and that in some ways it was my fault. I wished I could gobble up the words I'd already said, wished I could find a reset button on my attitude, figure out a way to not be frustrated with the way she was acting. Glasses that would show me clearly what she was feeling so I could respond appropriately.
But these lessons aren't so hard, really. What does anyone need? So during the last few songs I relented and pulled Madeleine into my lap and she settled there, looking for the first time like she was enjoying herself. I grabbed her arms and made her wave them. I shook them and twisted them, and bounced my legs and sang along with the terrible, awful music, and she was smiling, finally. And laughing, and singing, and following along.
She had been feeling lost. She just needed her place.
I tried to explain this later to a childless coworker who said that we should just let kids be who they are and stop worrying about what others think, to stop worrying about how they'll belong. They'll figure it out as they go, he said. But it's never that easy. Tiny heart fractures are hard to heal and everyday these kids keep chipping away at it. It's a terrible process, sometimes, this parenting thing. Handing these tiny humans your heart. "Here, break it," you say to them. Every moment of every day.
But sometimes they chip away pieces that were already broken. And sometimes they're menders, too. After the concert I told Madeleine that I would have been just like her at a concert like that at her age. This is true - I was a shy, quiet, very reserved kid. Madeleine doesn't respond to this directly, but she leans in and hugs me tightly. "Mama," she says, like it's some kind of revelation.