At the start of fourth grade, Claire came home with an assignment to write about her hero. “I picked you!” she announced to me. She then spent much of the afternoon finding a photo that she liked of me and writing about why I was her hero.
It was really sweet and touching. My kid – the one who’s just on the cusp of being a tween – still thinks her mama is awesome, at least some of the time.
As she was working on it, I sat down next to her to see what she’d written. “My mom is a brave courageous person,” it said. “My mother inspires me because she is encouraging. My mother is also a big help to my family. This is why my mom is my hero.”
It made me smile, but it also made my heart heavy because I read between the lines.
Claire is proud of me, yes, but she is also worried about me. I know this not just because she wrote that I am a “big help” to the family. I also know this because I’ve seen her reaction to me in moments of stress.
Here’s one example. Many nights, there’s a bit of a fight between whether the boys or Claire will get the majority of my time at bedtime. The boys are younger, I tell her, so they get me first. This often means they get me for longer, and sometimes it even means I fall asleep in there and she never gets me at all.
As you can imagine, she does not like this.
So, I’ve tried to leave my boys before they fall asleep and take some time to read to Claire or just sit on her bed. Often when I do this, Tommy will come into Claire’s room to protest and I end up in a difficult situation. I try to negotiate what will happen next and everyone starts whining. Claire will then really protest (“you always spend more time with the boys!”) and I’ll feel stressed and say something like, “I’m doing the best I can!”
Almost every time I say those words, I watch her face change. Her frown softens, and she looks directly at me with a look of concern, rather than anger. In that moment, she ages many years.
When I see her face change and her voice say, “it’s okay, mama, you can go with Tommy,” I feel my heart break a little. It doesn’t break because she has to compromise with her brother. It breaks because I know she’s accommodating her brother not for his sake but for mine. She’s trying to ease my stress. She’s trying to take away my hurt.
It’s not just at bedtime that she acts this way. Whenever she sees me getting overwhelmed, she’ll start helping me with whatever I’m doing and say, “you are doing too much work. I can help.” This summer she often said, “I wish Grandpa Tom was here to help you.” She doesn’t say these things because she wants something from me. She just wants me not to get that look on my face, the one that says, “I can’t do this anymore.”
It worries me that my stress has been so apparent to her. It worries me that she sees my stress and then attempts to make it go away. Maybe that’s something that’s a good thing, in a way, because she has to think about someone other than herself. But all I can think about is how my stress becomes hers in those moments, and it’s something that is not easily wiped clean.
So maybe she shouldn’t be writing that I’m her hero.
But she did. She wrote, “My mom is a brave courageous person” and she’s going to share it with her class. Somehow, she sees all that stress and still thinks I’m doing something right.
“I’m doing the best I can,” I said to her again last night.
“I know,” she said. And then she hugged me.