I am watching for my daughter in the pack of ice skaters looping around the rink when a woman taps me on the shoulder. When I turn toward her, she nods and smiles at me, as if she is expecting an answer to a question she asked the last time we saw one another. Her face is familiar, but forget why.
“You!” she says, pointing her finger at my chin. “You are married to the Russian!” Her excitement confuses me, but I nod, curious about where this is going. She keeps talking. “His name is Mikhail, your husband?” I squint at her, as though doing this will give me a clearer view of her brain, but it doesn’t.
“Michael,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, frowning slightly. “He doesn’t use the Russian form of his name then?” Her enthusiasm wanes so quickly, it makes me feel off center. She does not remember what my name is, so I introduce myself. She tells me we met at a playground near our house a few years ago, when our daughters, then toddlers, liked to play together. She asks my daughter’s name, and when I tell her, she says, “Right, I remember now–it’s not a Russian name, is it?” Her eyebrows arch high, like they are giving me space to redeem myself. I tell her it is a Scottish name from my side of the family–a fact that I make up on the spot. She does not ask if I have taught my daughter Scots, or Scottish Gaelic.
“I never did meet Mikhail, did I?” she says.
“Michael,” I say, looking at the ground to hide the uncomfortable smile that has taken over my face. I learn without asking that her daughter–a second grader like mine– is in a French immersion program, and that she takes German classes twice a week after school. At home, they speak German and English..
“Right,” I say. “You’re married to the German.”
In my head, I tell myself not to be a jerk, and blame my sarcastic streak on a Scottish cousin named Angus I’ve only just made up to myself, though the immediate shame I feel for my snark comes directly from my very real Irish, Scottish and Italian relatives, all of whom were Catholic.
Shame is my actual first language, if we’re being honest, and I’m pretty sure my kid is becoming fluent in it, despite my best efforts to extinguish my family’s particular dialect. The woman is shaking her head now, looking at me with big, sad eyes.
“It’s such a missed opportunity that he doesn’t speak Russian to her, isn’t it?” she says. But then her eyes spark–she grabs my wrist and I jump. “There has to be a Russian immersion program in the Bay Area. I’ve heard of one in Berkeley–is that a possibility?” Her face is inches from mine and she is hurting my wrist, trying so hard to solve a problem that belongs to a stranger who does not consider it a problem. But this miscarriage of justice–that my daughter does not speak her father’s native language–is a burden that is too hard for her to bear.
The truth is, she is not wrong. Of course it’s a missed opportunity that my daughter doesn’t speak Russian. It is a parenting decision that all grandparents lament and bring up for discussion every time we visit. I understand the advantages of being raised bilingual–it is one of the few things in life for which there are only benefits and no costs. I agree with all of it, but am certain that Michael and I could not have done it any other way, so we have moved on.
I extract myself from her grasp and shake out my hand. “You know,” I say, “Not everyone has an unfettered relationship to their native language.” She blinks. I half smile at her, to show my empathy for her despair, however misplaced I find it. In my head, I run through a list of all the other things Michael and I haven’t done that are also great for a child’s development. Our daughter doesn’t play a musical instrument. She hasn’t chosen one sport or narrowed down her field of study. She likes graphic novels about unicorns, and has, as of right now anyway, escaped the temptation to get hooked on phonics or reading for pleasure. We have never lived abroad. Not yet, anyway. So, the clock is ticking.
I admire families who do the things on the important “building-a-better-child” list. I see the benefits and understand they will pay off for the rest of these kids’ lives. I haven’t checked a lot off on this particular list, but neither am I that parent who shrugs and thinks all my kid needs is sunshine, dirt and unstructured playtime. I live somewhere between the two, in the place where lists get made on the back of envelopes and thrown away before everything is checked off.
I am not actually offended by what this woman is saying to me, just how she is saying it. That she remembers me because my husband is a walking, valuable commodity that might enhance my child’s brain, and we squandered it. That because he has value in this way, he has a name and I don’t. That “Mikhail” is made up of the important materials required to build a better child, and that I had one job–to facilitate the building project–and I blew it.
Of course, my daughter chooses this moment to skate by me with her finger up her nose, wiggling her butt, trying to make me laugh. I laugh and wave. The woman turns and walks away from this lost cause. I know deep in my cells, I am doing my best for my daughter. I also understand that my best is simply not enough. That nobody’s is. That that’s the first rule of parenting–getting used to failure. Getting knocked down seven times and getting up eight, because homework has to get done and love given.
* * *
It’s Friday night, and my daughter and I are sitting at the dining room table, finishing dinner. We are talking about how every human on the planet is struggling with something; in fact, usually more than one thing. She asks me what I struggle with and I say, “Well, I struggle with patience. I’m really working on that.” She looks at me, chews, swallows, dabs the corners of her mouth, her eyes on me the whole time.
“Mommy, can I ask you a hard question?” she says.
“Always,” I say.
“Well, you’re a Somatic Coach, right? So you help people learn how to be more relaxed and less stressed out, so they can be calmer and more patient.” she looks at me to see if I’m in agreement and I nod again. “Okay, so, if that’s what you help people with in your job, why are you so bad at it?” Her eyes are huge, taking me in. I blink and exhale.
“Well, first, I want to say that was a really wise question to ask me, and a really brave one.” She smiles and looks down at her plate, proud but trying to contain it. “I guess I would say this: I am good at teaching those things, and at being patient with my clients. I’m also pretty good at it with daddy and with a lot of other adults. But my training in somatics didn’t include working with kids, and I’ve never been a mom before. As it turns out, being a mom is something that’s different than anything I’ve ever done. Getting to be a mom is the best thing I’ve done, but it’s also the hardest.” She looks at me and smiles, and I feel proud of her, and grateful that these are the conversations where I am not struggling–where I am steady.
“It’s okay, Mommy, I struggle with things, too,” she says. “Well, just one thing, really.”
“Oh yeah? Do you want to say what it is?”
“Yes. I struggle with eating enough vegetables!” she says, raising her fists in the air like this is a victory. I smile.
“True. I definitely see you struggle with that.” We eat in silence for a minute, then she clears her throat to get my attention.
“Actually, Mommy, there’s something else I struggle with, too.”
“Yeah. I struggle with not controlling what my friends are doing. Sometimes, I just want something to be my way, and I try to make my friends do things my way, but then they feel bad, and I feel bad, and I just wish I hadn’t tried to make it all my way,” she says. She looks at me with a vulnerability in her eyes, and I smile at her.
“Wow,” I say. “That is some powerful wisdom to have about yourself. And I definitely understand what it feels like to really want to do things your way. I feel that way sometimes, too.”
She grins. “Well,” she says, pushing back from the table. “I’m done.”
“With the conversation or your dinner?” I ask.
“Both,” she says, and lets out a burp so loud I swear my hair flutters in its wake. “‘Scuse me,” she says, laughing. “Wish I hadn’t done that. May I please be excused?”
“Yes,” I say, feeling all the things I wanted to say to her rising up in me, and breathing them back down as gently as I can, reminding myself just to let this be, that there will be other opportunities for us both to learn how to navigate in the world and with each other. She puts her plate on the counter, then spins around and looks at me.
“I just reminded myself of an idea, though,” she says, pointing at me. I nod as I get up to take my dishes to the counter. “You know how, sometimes, when we are having a conflict, and you say something you didn’t mean to say, you’ll make the ‘time-out’ sign and say ‘I regret how I said that. Can I have a do-over?’”
“Yes. You know I like a do-over, because sometimes I say things badly when I’m upset,” I say, turning around and leaning on the counter. She comes and stands next to me, so close that our arms are touching, and leans against the counter next to me.
“Well, I was thinking that if I say something I regret to a friend, like a controlly thing, maybe I could do that, do a time-out and ask for a do-over,” she says, nodding decisively.
“I think that’s a great plan, and such good practice. We all need do-overs sometimes.”
“Alright, Meredith Broome, my teeth aren’t gonna brush themselves!” she says, and pirouettes out of the room. I am glad she doesn’t see me start to cry, because I can’t even explain to myself how these tears are a mix of feeling proud, tender, loving and sad all at once. I’m amazed by my daughter every day. I am amazed by the things she remembers and puts into action as much as by the things I’ve told her 1,000 times that will never stick. No, she doesn’t speak Russian, but because she is being raised by a dad who grew up in the Soviet Union, she is learning how to tell propaganda from truth–one of the most important skills humans in her generation should learn. And because I am her mom, she is learning to look at her struggles with a compassionate honesty and a matter-of-factness that seems to lend itself to problem-solving rather than collapsing into shame.
Those are the things that are on my “building-a-better-human” list that I made for myself, Michael and our daughter. I wrote it on the back of envelope. I know it’s here somewhere.