If you’re a parent, you know how painful it is when your child is sad. What’s the saying? You’re only as happy as your most unhappy child. So when my daughter came home from the first few weeks of the 10th grade this year in tears because she didn’t connect with any of the kids – kids she’d known for her whole life – I felt terrible for her. Day after day I’d pick her up with an upbeat, “how’d it go today?” hoping her mood was like weather and would pass. She’d toss her heavy backpack into the car, slump into the front seat, eyes looking straight ahead and say, “I hate it.”
Last year she’d had lots of friends – she’d always had friends; she is a super friendly, easy going girl. But things were different now, plus there’d been so many changes in the last year; her father and I separated, her big sister – who was her best friend – went to college – her boyfriend had graduated and was off to school far away. She’d also had an amazing summer making a lot of new friends – mostly older than her – as a counselor at an outdoors camp.
But when she got back to school she was a different person. The school was fine, but she couldn’t connect to any of her old friends. When school started she said, “Mom, I ask myself this question all the time, ‘Who am I?’ I don’t have an answer for that, and that makes me really uncomfortable.”
The kid is an old soul; deep, thoughtful. Yes she’s into her long, blond hair and her skinny jeans like other 15-year-olds, but she’s also operating on an entirely different level. She reads books like The Psychopath Test + Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankel, about his time in the concentration camp. She’s incredibly empathic and curious.
I spoke to some teachers who knew her well. The English teacher thought Zoe might like this artsty girl who was staging a play. He apparently spoke to this girl because the next day she tried to befriend Zoe. “I’m not a charity case,” Zoe said when I picked her up, and then burst into tears.
I tried everything I knew to jazz things up for her; found her a therapist, a yoga class, a film making class, even teen meditation. I planned great dinners, I carted her off to the gym with me. We started watching Orange is the New Black together huddled under a blanket. We began reading Misery, the Stephen King book out loud to one another. I know it’s not cool to have your mom be your only friend, but I was better than nobody.
“You’re trying to distract me,” she said in the car one day. Still, she was game, letting me cart her around to these various after school activities.
We started scouting around for new schools, some in nearby towns, others in different states far, far away. I’m still looking because she refuses to start the new semester.
“She’s lonely,” her therapist told me. “School is nothing without friends.”
Then one night I was up in her room saying goodnight to her and she said, “Want to see some of my new film?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s it about?”
“Loneliness,” she said. “I’m interviewing the principal, and teachers, kids from school about how they feel when see kids eating alone at lunch.”
“Whoa,” I said.
“I’m going to talk to them about cliques and popularity and if they ever do things they don’t want to do just to stay friends with people.”
“That’s really cool,” I said. “Maybe you should try eating alone some day to see what it feels like.”
“Mom, I eat alone everyday.”
And in that moment two things became real clear. Number one, I have an awesome daughter. And two, sadness is rich medicine. There I was, trying to be a great mom, doing everything I could to make Zoe happy again. But if I had swept her away from her sadness like I wanted to, if I’d helped her get to a “better place,” she wouldn’t have landed in this rich, fertile soil of deep creativity. She wouldn’t be making a film about sadness. That’s my baby. That’s my girl.