She’s been having a rough time lately. There’s a behavior chart at school, with colors that correspond to her behavior. She has a “fish”, and there are six different “lakes” her fish can land in. The sparkly blue lake means the fish had an exceptionally good day. The blue lake means a good day. The yellow lake means a not-so-good day. The pink lake means a crummy day. The red lake means we won’t even get through the day before Mommy Fish is hearing about the day, and the green lake…well, let’s just say you’d be better off floating belly-up by the time you get there.
I pick her up from school every day and can tell as soon as I see her – and she sees me – what kind of day she’s had.
One Fish, Two Fish, Bad Fish, Blue Fish.
Her head hangs and her eyes avert and instead of running to greet me, she takes small, slow steps, and my heart sags, and I think, will this week/month/semester/year ever be over?
I arrange to meet my dear friends Bill and Nancy for lunch, friends I have been longing to see, and just as I drive up, her teacher sends me a text:
Olivia bit someone at recess. Hard. It did not break the skin.
I’m shocked and sad and beyond bewildered. She’s done so well all week, worked so hard at behaving and keeping that pesky fish in the right lake, and here, right here in the home stretch of the week, the month, the semester, the year – she bites someone?
I don’t understand.
I see my friends long enough to say a quick hello and they send me off with a sandwich and some fresh wisdom, questions to ask, and I call my boss, drive to the school. She’s sitting in the office, waiting for me. Her eyes search mine. I tell her she’s in BIG trouble. She has to know how wrong this is. She has to know she cannot do this again.
Mommy, are you mad at me?
I’m very upset.
Mommy, do you love me?
I do love you. I love you just as much now as I ever have.
We drive home and I ask her if she understands what it means for Mommy to have to leave work, that there are things I was counted on to do today that now cannot get done because I had to come and pick her up because she bit someone. She cowers. We sit on the couch, right where we sat two weeks ago and had a long talk about lying. I ask her the questions Bill suggested, and she tries to answer. She tells me it was H’s idea, that H said they should play a game, and the rules of the game are: you have to fight the people you don’t like. T hugged her and was squeezing her, and she doesn’t like T, so she bit him. This is not the first time she’s done something out of line to impress H. I’m liking this friendship less and less every day.
I tell her about Carrie in Mrs. Watkins’ 1st grade class. Carrie was the preacher’s daughter, and she was pretty, and she was popular, and I wanted to be her friend. She had lots of friends, though, and nothing really set me apart, nothing made me special enough for her to want to be my friend. Nothing except for the fact that I was smart. I was smart, and I was really good at finishing my worksheets before all the other kids finished theirs. She told me she’d be my friend if I’d do her worksheets for her. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was cheating. And I knew if we got caught, I’d get in BIG trouble.
But Carrie was pretty and popular, and I wanted to be her friend.
So when she slipped that first worksheet across to my desk, I started writing.
I got two worksheets in, and my conscience was eating me alive. I told Carrie I couldn’t do her worksheets anymore – it was cheating, it was wrong. She needed to do her own worksheets. She put her head in her hands and pretended to cry. I got scared. I was afraid she would stop being my friend. I asked her if she was okay. I asked her if she was mad, if she was still my friend. She didn’t answer. So I told her I’d do her worksheet, but only this one last time, and after that, I wouldn’t do them anymore.
Later that day, Mrs. Watkins brought me a worksheet. She asked me if it was my work. It was my handwriting, and we both knew it was my work, but it had Carrie’s name written at the top, scrawled over the place where mine had been written and (very poorly) erased. I don’t remember if I lied or owned up to it, but either way, the truth was out. We both got in huge trouble – at school and at home.
And that was the end of my friendship with Carrie.
I tell Olivia this story, and her eyes look at me wide. I suggest that she spend less time with H, and that she certainly not go along with any more of H’s games or ideas, especially if they involve breaking the rules and hurting others. She nods.
We discuss the consequences of her actions, one of which is naptime this afternoon. She asks if I’ll tuck her in. As I pull the sheets to her chin, she asks again.
I tell her, again, I’m upset. I’m concerned, and I want to figure out what it is that’s causing my daughter to have such a difficult time behaving at school. She suggests that perhaps I have the wrong daughter. I tell her that she is precisely the daughter I want and am meant to have, and that I love her and we’re going to be okay.
She’s sleeping within minutes, and I cannot abide the sight of her closed bedroom door. I already feel so far from her. I can’t get to what’s going on in her little head and heart, and I’m terrified that this isn’t just a phase, that there’s something really wrong that I can’t diagnose and she can’t explain, and with all those walls, we don’t need another barrier.
So I open her door and kiss her forehead, nuzzle her cheek and whisper that I love her, and I’m not going anywhere, that we’re going to figure this out together, and everything is going to be okay.
While she sleeps, I rack my brain, think of all the things I could be doing to cause this – I’m on my phone too much, I’m tired too often, she’s not getting enough attention, I’m feeding her the wrong foods, I’m neglecting her soul – until finally, I realize.
There are no perfect mothers, and at the end of the day, as lovely and wonderful as they are, our children are still – just like us – flawed little humans, living in broken skin.
But we don’t have to get stuck there. Because all of us together – mothers and daughters and fathers and sons – have a high priest who can empathize with our weaknesses. One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – but did not sin.
And now He’s sitting at the right hand of the Father, and He’s the way to that deep, deep well of mercy and endless storehouse of grace.
So I’m running break-neck for that throne, and I’m carrying her with me all the way.