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.
Wow. Thanks for sharing this.
Beautiful; compassionate, insightful, wistful at times. “Teen” comes from the old English cognate “teona” meaning grief, wrongs, suffering. She’s growing up, becoming an individual, an adult. That hurts sometimes . . .
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There are so many people out there insisting that we travel right smack in the middle of the road of happiness while paying little or no attention to the gutters on either side—giant ditches of despair and loneliness and fear.
Seems like every bright idea was born of darkness … feels like a new star is taking shape inside your brave lonely girl. Bravo.
Laurie, that’s pure awesomeness… 😉
Laurie Wagner, this is stunning. S.T.U.N.N.I.N.G. What an incredible lesson, for both of you. I am amazed by her courage and her intense need to understand what she is feeling. I never in a million years would have been so brave at 15. I don’t think I am so brave now.
wow, i am blown away; by zoe, by you, by reading this. i have tears, i have hope. thank you for sharing your light. xoxoxxoxox
XO you are a great mom, she’s a great daughter…
Your post hit me like a rock-a BIG heavy one-as it hit close to home with my own 15 year old boy struggling with loneliness at his new school. Your willingness to learn from your child’s suffering and to support her bravery as she starts to gain traction is beyond hopeful-it says the truth really WILL set you free. Thank you for writing so beautifully on a painful subject.
What a remarkable lesson for both of you! I’m sixty and still working on “staying in the room.” My instinct is to run out of the room, deny the room. But the answers are “In the room” and when we stay there, we get them. What a brave, old soul your daughter is! I hope when the film is done you will post a link. Smiles, Caren
I am so over sensitive, I had tears reading this post. Zoe, although I have never met her, is indeed a very deep soul.
This is a beautiful writing, but Is Zoe okay with you sharing about her publicly? I have a feeling you let her read it first?
I once taught the shy 16 year old son of a very famous author. I recall his mortification when his mom would write about him. One particular article about the family in Vanity Fair really jarred him. It made him feel alienated and lonely because it was too exposing. I recall him crying with his head down. and me giving him a copy of the Breakfast Club, a film I could relate to as a sensitive teen. Recently, while cleaning my attic, I found a video copy of an odd and unusual animation that he made in my class, and thought I should return it. I googled his name and former residence to try and get an address. Couldn’t find it, but did find out from his mom adoring blog that he is now an up and coming hunky TV star, and writer a new popular TV series. So much for the shy and awkward kid I once taught!
One of my favorite books about change and loneliness is “The Little House ” by Caldecott author Virginia Lee Burton. Ms. Burton actually wrote part of the book right here in Alameda. You can see where she illustrated the words, as a subtitle on the front cover, “Her Story”, code for it’s really about her.
I wonder if Zoe will like it?
Virginia’s grandson, a former colleague, gave me a copy when I was in a particularly precarious relationship and had just moved to Alameda. He told me that Virginia was very lonely, her family was dysfunctional and felt her life spiraling out of control. She had moved to the SF Bay from Massachusetts, where I am from, lived in several places I had. I recall him telling me that she completed the book when resolution was made within herself, I think, over a decade later!
Point is that I think Zoe would like the book.
Disney also made an animation of Burton’s story, although, I like the book much better!
I think Zoe’s film sounds very interesting, btw! I would love to see it! Sounds like a career path for her!
0h, and you are obviously an excellent Mama! I wish I had one like you!
Oh my heart!
Bravo to Zoe, brave and true. She found the key to solving her own problem. And you, great mama that you are, wanted to “fix it”. Don’t we always? She’s so lucky to have you both. Wow! Think of the creative, smart sassy genes in that girl!
I’ll bet her movie provides multiple benefits for everyone.
Please follow up and tell us how she’s doing.
Your daughter has a strength of character the likes of which not even she was aware of, I’ll bet. Can’t wait to see the film! *smile*
Oh-so-beautiful. Oh-so-true. Oh-so-hard-to-do. Thank you for the reminder that we can wrap ourselves in the whole range of human emotions and be perfectly okay. And also, that we just don’t know. We just don’t know. You are an amazing mother to an amazing couple o’gals. xo
we don’t know – we just don’t know. Nope. No easy path. Thank you my friend – you are my companion as we scope out the landscape – all of it; the hills and gorgeous valleys, the craggy rocks, cool rivers and tumultuous waves. Glad – no – essential to have you. xxx
Laurie, once again you amaze me with your truth, authenticity and the curiousity of life. Zoe is an amazing kid and I just hope to have the courage she has ….love you both so very much.
Aw…you have the courage little puppy love – you are surrounded with it – those girls of yours – you, in your very own beautiful heart. You’ve got it! Love + thanks baby. xxx
So beautiful and as a mom I understand this heartache so well. Zoe is an amazing individual, yes an old soul who at her tender age is already channeling her pain into a creative endeavor. I’m sure this is partly because of the fantastic example you have set for her to do just that. Out of longing much beauty can be made. Growing up us so hard sometimes, and are we ever really done with it? Probably not!
You are an excellent mama,
you write, “Out of longing much beauty can be made.” Beautiful. So true. And probably forever, for all of us. Much love + thanks for your reading and your note here.
“That’s my baby. That’s my girl.” I know you write Zoe’s story from a place of deep knowing and recognition. And thus, the compassion. The realization that this dark-ish place offers its own special light. Not necessarily in this moment, but in the larger scheme of moments. I love you for sharing this story, I love Zoe for sharing herself, I love the word “gift” because it is the great permission slip of the turn-around, and I love how you are wending your way through motherhood, finding the grooves and splits and working with them, imbuing your relationship with all of it. This is the clearest example of strength in vulnerability. Bless you, Lulu.
“I love the word “gift” because it is the great permission slip of the turn-around.” Beautiful Maya, thank you. I so appreciate being seen by you. You’re a deep well. If anyone has witnessed these girls growing up and come to appreciate all of their bumps and bruises, it’s you. So much love + appreciation. xxx
Such a beautiful piece, laurie. So much to learn from it, and from both of you. We are struggling with the other side of it, the 10th grader who gives away who he is (or refusing to look into anything else) to remain popular. And who won’t admit that. What an amazing gift this is, and I especially love hearing all you did to try and help. Because that’s what we do, we want to help, even when help doesn’t necessarily work. Gorgeous.
Bo – how intriguing that we both have this issue but from different sides. I don’t know that one is worse than the other. There is some pain in both. And maybe that’s high school for you – though I do know that people can live their entire lives lonely in some way, by either isolating because they don’t fit in, or faking it. Both seem hard. Love + thanks.
what a great post today! a great reminder to not escape the hurt, and be with it — because it often does lead to a learning or to creativity or certainly openness…
I think so, even though it’s so hard when we’re in it. Damn hard! Reminds me…can’t go around it, must go through it. xxxx
Stunning. As always. Thank you, Laurie. Thank you, Zoe.
Sus – xxxoo
So great, Laurie. Thanks. Reminds me how much happens that I’m not witness to, in the lives of people I think I know well.
my unhappiest boy is pretty unhappy right now which means that a pocket of sadness awaits me each morning as i wake. no matter how sunny the day. this morning your blog comforted me. thanks.
Ah Cynthia – so sorry to hear that. But maybe there’s something there for him – something that only his sadness can tell him or teach him. I hate to sound so glib because it’s hard to watch them go through this stuff – still – we know sadness, don’t we? And here we are, still standing.
Wow, Laurie! That’s really about all I can say! I just love the tension between trying to make it all better and not being able to. And then the realization that all you can do is just be there until they come out the other side. One of the ultimate challenges of parenting.
Thank you Chris. Right, the tension of doing what you can and then letting go a little – not entirely freaking out and making it all go away – as if you could. Even my daughter, as sad as she is, understands that there is medicine here for her. Never easy. It’s hard for any of us to stay with the struggle. Thanks for reading and writing.
Definitely a powerful piece — I felt happy for your daughter reading it, as it seems like you are willing to listen to her tell you how she feels and to respond to her actual needs, as opposed to railroading her through the activities she “should” be doing. I know I experienced sadness in high school, and I didn’t really get the sense that anyone was particularly concerned about it (I mean, I’m not feeling bitter about that as I write — I think it did give me a degree of self-reliance). I can definitely get a sense of where she gets her maturity.
Thanks Chris. I think we’re taking it one day at a time. Today she called me in tears and I came and got her from school. The line between staying in the pain because it’s where you are – and pulling back from it – like taking her out of school a couple of classes early on a Friday just because I can – may change from day to day. No roadmap here or one size fits all remedy. Thanks for reading and your note.
Thanks Laurie for sharing this. I wish you had been my Mom! Having one strong advocate (even if it is your Mom being “your only friend”) is critical in the outcomes of children who have to walk through this type of despair. I did not have any source of support growing up and somehow managed to survive my childhood. Zoe is lucky to have you as a model of how a woman can use her creative juices to work through “stuff”. What a blessing to take that youthful angst, turn it around and come out the other side with a film that could potentially be a message of hope for other young people. Bravo Laurie, and Bravo Zoe! You guys rock!
oh barbara, thank you!
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