M is turning seven next week. For her birthday, she asked for some animatronic plastic junk she saw on the Disney channel, but I haven’t decided whether to get it for her yet. She’s not sleeping in her own room, so I’m using the toy as motivation. It’s not working.
She wakes up every morning with circles under her eyes. School starts at 7:45, which seems cruel for kids this young. In the winter, I see five year olds huddled at the bus stop in the dark when it’s twenty degrees outside.
M is curled up on a small mattress on the floor at the foot of our bed. I touch her cheek but she doesn’t move. I give her a little shake, still nothing. I pull her blanket off and she wakes, but only to say, “I want Mommy,” her eyes still closed. I go downstairs to make her lunch.
She’s my first child, and I miss her baby years already. I remember them being so placid and unhurried. In the dappled morning light of her nursery, I would cradle her in my arms and feed her a bottle. At night, I would rock her to sleep on my chest, tapping out rhythms on her back. When I look at her baby pictures, I feel a certain kind of grief hollowing out my chest. I wonder if this is normal. Time is passing too fast for me.
Everyone that meets M describes her as an old soul. Observant and thoughtful to a fault. Brooding and introverted also. When I introduce her to people, she refuses to make eye contact. She doesn’t say hello or goodbye. I’ve offered to pay her each time she talks to people, but she says “It’s only a dollar.” It seems too calculating, too grown up.
I get glimpses of the child in her when she chases her little sister around the house, yelling and laughing and snorting. In the goofy toothless grin she gets when she really likes something: riding bikes around town, frozen yogurt, magic tricks. Lately she smiles less and less.
First grade started last month, and she’s had a rough year so far. Most of her friends from Kindergarten are in a different class. One of her new teachers is a harsh disciplinarian. M is not responding well. She picks at her cuticles, turning them raw and bloody.
I’m having a rough year as well. I turned forty last year and started not being able to sleep through the night. I wake up at five and stare at the ceiling, reliving every decision I’ve made, deliberating every decision I have to make. How much time do I have left? What have I accomplished so far? Is this it? I try not to take it out on my wife and the kids, but I’m failing. They see me lost in thought, preoccupied, my mind anywhere but here.
In the kitchen, I spread cheese on her crackers and cut an apple. She comes downstairs slowly, school clothes on, hair disheveled. I ask her what she wants for breakfast, and she says she doesn’t know in a quiet, whiny voice that puts me on edge. Her stomach hurts. She doesn’t want to go to school.
I can’t stay at home with her. I have to go to work. I stare at her and feel my blood pressure rising. Brute force is my first instinct because that’s how I was raised. My parents wanted me to be strong and resilient; they raised me on a steady diet of tough love and grit. But I was a sensitive, emotional boy, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t turn my feelings off. I resented my upbringing in many ways, but it’s still ingrained so deeply in me as to be thoughtless. Standard operating procedure.
But brute force doesn’t work on M and never has. She sees the look on my face and stares at the floor. Her eyes fill with tears. It’s anguish to watch your child suffer emotionally. When she has so much of your personality, you blame yourself more. You see the pain you’ve endured, the mistakes you’ve made, and you wonder if she’s doomed to repeat it all. You want her to be happy, to take things less seriously, to be more secure. But you can’t teach what you don’t know.
My anger fades. It feels like abuse. I don’t have the stomach for it. The past torments me, but I can’t let it torment my children too. They’re innocent. I have to break the cycle.
M lies on the couch, covered with a blanket. I let her stay home. When I’m old, she’ll be gone, and I’ll look back on a day like today and wish she were home again. I’ll wish I could make her grilled cheese and soup. I’ll look at pictures from this year and feel hollowed out by grief again.
I wonder what she’ll be like as an adult. I wonder how she’ll remember me. As a loving father who tried his best? As a grumpy old man with dark circles under his eyes, mired in a midlife crisis? How do I fix myself and raise her at the same time? I imagine a grown M, looking back at this time in her life, this day. I want to tell her: I miss you. I have always loved you so much. I’m sorry I wasn’t a better dad. I was trying to figure it all out.