My daughter has always been pretty damn good at dealing with the trials and tribulations of life.
There’s a story, passed into family lore, about her at the age of two. Her younger brother was pitching an epic fit while I tried to wrestle him into his car seat.
“Why is Sammy crying? Is he okay?” my daughter, buckled in and waiting, asked worriedly.
“Oh, baby, he’s just upset that he has to wear his seat belt,” I told her over the cacophony of his wails.
My daughter, hands thrown protectively over her own ears, yelled, “Well, I have to wear a seat belt, too, Sammy, and I’m dealing with it! Do you hear me, Sammy?! I’M DEALING WITH IT!”
She walked through her early childhood years with the confidence born from not yet having tasted doubt. Knowing this self-assurance would serve her well in life, we made a concerted effort to celebrate her swagger, maximize her moxie, and honor her chutzpah.
We believed we could cement her self-confidence in an unshakable self-love and did everything we could to teach her to honor and take pride in herself. We celebrated her creativity and her leadership skills, her work ethic and her problem-solving, her beauty and her strength.
In the last year, though, her swagger has grown smaller and smaller, sputtering like an engine on fumes. Now nine, she is learning to navigate a world of shifting friendships, more challenging schoolwork, and the tiny, pulsing wavelets of pre-pubescent hormones and emotions.
Self-doubt, once a stranger, has become her frequent companion, the demon who sits on her shoulder and whispers in her ear that she is not enough.
As I watched, feeling helpless from the sidelines, my girl—my brilliant, beautiful, one-of-a-kind girl—was falling out of love with herself in front of my eyes. I could feel my own feet rising, losing touch with the ground as a wave of a new kind of parenting grief lifted me away from the confident connection I had felt for so long.
It felt like I hadn’t loved her hard enough to teach her how to love herself.
We spent winter break this year in Florida, reveling in the sunshine and warm ocean water we won’t see for months yet in snowy New Hampshire. My daughter is a competent swimmer, years spent in lakes and pools and on swim team. But every time a wave would come, she would panic, clinging to my arm, begging for help.
The waves would lift her feet from the ground, taking away her solidity, her assurance, and she would lose herself in that loss of control.
I felt desperate in that ocean, desperate for her to find that swagger, that moxie, that she’d worn like a skin for so many years.
“You can swim, Ali!” I hollered at her on our last night in the ocean. She kicked her feet frantically, holding onto my hand, eyes staring at mine, mind whirring. “Yes, waves come. They pick you up and lift you off the bottom and you can’t see over them. You don’t know what’s on the other side. So you know what you do? You deal with it. Maybe there is another wave just over this one that won’t give you enough time to touch the ground and jump again. Maybe you’ll get salt water in your eyes and mouth. Maybe you’ll go underwater when you aren’t ready. But whatever happens, you can deal with it. You can handle whatever you need to handle.”
She let go of my hand just enough to bob alongside me.
A wave appeared. “Mom!” she yelled, and I could feel her struggle between moxie and fear, between confidence and doubt.
“I’m right next to you,” I told her. “But you can deal with this.”
She jumped up and over the wave, and just on the backside, hidden behind the first, was another wave, a bigger wave, immediately, because of course nothing is easy when you’re trying to teach your kid a lesson.
“You’ve got this,” I yelled at her. “You can deal with it!”
She kicked furiously over the second wave, screaming into the sunset, “I’m dealing with it! I’m dealing with it!” The look of determination and pride on her face was a time machine for me, taking me back to the little girl who knew she could conquer the world.
She spent the rest of the evening jumping and splashing and swimming and dancing with the salt air and the orange light and the rise and fall of life.
And in those waves, that night, I felt my own feet finally return to earth.
I realized that I had tried to give my daughter a way to bypass my own struggles, as every parent does, without realizing that doubt and fear are just as integral a part of the human experience as confidence and love.
Life isn’t about being so completely confident that you sidestep doubt. We can’t avoid the waves of life—the scary, can’t-see-past-them moments that pick us up and take away our solid ground.
In fact, we need those inevitable moments of challenge and loss of control to teach us that no matter what comes, we can deal with it. Those moments are when we realize the power of our own legs to kick through, the ability of our own spirit to respond to whatever happens, and to eventually, always, take that next breath on the other side.
Those moments when we seem most unsure are, paradoxically, the moments that finally instill in us a sense of competence and confidence.
Swagger, it turns out, is earned—not learned.
That night, watching my daughter discover her own strength and ability to deal with what comes, I realized I was watching her discover her own self-love, greater than anything I could ever have given her myself.